Disasters in 2009: Poor Filipinos Victimized Many Times Over


MANILA — While climate change is not a recent phenomenon and is a result of years of destructive practices, most Filipinos do not know much about it until recently. And it has been a hard lesson learned for many Filipinos as it took the destructive effects of typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng to drive home the point.

For more than a month, the massive devastation in many provinces and towns, the loss of livelihood and of lives were regular fare in news reports. Several of these reports in the mainstream media blamed small human acts and lifestyles as the culprit behind global warming and its destructive effects. They failed to recognize that the effects of these practices are insignificant compared to the destructive practices of extractive industries, the heavy pollution caused by heavy industries, and the over-consumption of corporate giants and industrialized countries. Worse, it glossed over the fact that it is the poor who bear the brunt of nature’s ferocity as it is they who are most affected by disasters such as floods, tsunamis, and landslides. News reports describe disasters as the great equalizers, without pointing to the fact that while the poor suffered enormously, only a handful of people from the middle class were affected; even much less affected are those from the upper classes.

The top 20 that made it to the list of countries with high green gas emissions, as revealed by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, are also the top industrialized countries, with the United States of America as number one. And yet, even if climate change brings catastrophes globally, its devastating effects are more intense in poor countries where majority of the people live in poverty, according to Frances Quimpo executive director of the Center for Environmental Concerns-Philippines.

It is the poor who are most affected by typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng. The homes of many informal settlers living along riverbanks and under bridges were washed away, carrying with it their meager belongings and, for some, even their loved ones. The most affected province in the country during Ondoy was Rizal because it sits at the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountain range, which has been terribly denuded and, in some areas, flattened.

High-end subdivisions were built along mountains with slopes of more than what Presidential Decree 705 or the Revised Forestry Code allows. The top of mountains in the towns of San Mateo, Rodriguez, Angono, Cainta and Marikina had been flattened and denuded to give way to these developments. Thus, when Ondoy hit the country, low-lying areas near the province of Rizal were inundated. Worse, mining and quarrying, which is common in Rizal, caused heavy siltation of the Marikina River so when the rains came, it overflowed thereby flooding the neighboring city of Pasig.

The denudation of the Sierra Madre mountain range extends up to Central Luzon, caused mainly by logging and mining activities. .Thus, when typhoon Pepeng hit the country, the floodwaters in towns in the region rose steadily and fast. Add to this the big dams such as the San Roque Dam, which is located also in the region, that had to release part of its reserves, worsening the flood.

The San Roque Dam was built to produce electricity. As the water level rises, it exerts more pressure on the turbines thereby making the production of electricity more efficient. When the water level at the San Roque dam rose, its administrators delayed releasing the water until it reached the maximum threshold level. By then they had to release water fast, instead of gradually, causing the destruction to low-lying areas.

Victims Many Times Over

The urban poor who are living along riverbanks and under bridges were victimized many times over. They are victims of poverty; they are the worst hit by disasters; they are being blamed for the devastation caused by the disaster; and they are being used by the government and politicians to gain media mileage.

They were promised relocation sites by Vice President Noli de Castro, who also chairs the Housing Urban Development Coordinating Council. De Castro proudly announced that there are 1,400 houses available for the relocation of displaced victims of Typhoon Ondoy, adding that there are also 5,721 lots that could be developed to accommodate more. This is the supposed solution of the government to the problem of families living along riverbanks and waterways, which are considered as “danger zones.”

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