Ulysses: Beyond relief and tweaking the bureaucracy

Published November 18, 2020, 11:27 PM

by Diwa C. Guinigundo


National Ocean Service (NOS) of the US Department of Commerce has one interesting distinction between weather and climate and it can never be clearer than “climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.”

In the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda), on-line news service Deutsche Wellecited the experts’ explanation why the Philippines “has suffered from an inexhaustible number of deadly typhoons, earthquakes, volcano eruptions and other natural disasters” in terms of its location. Our more than 7,100 islands are scattered along the Ring of Fire, or typhoon belt—a large Pacific Ocean region where many of this planet’s volcanic eruptions and earthquakes have their origin.

In the UN’s 2017 World Risk Index, the Philippines was the third most at risk of natural disasters after Vanuatu and Tonga. The Joint Typhoon Warning Center reported that around 80 typhoons are said to develop above the tropical waters and some 20 of them actually enter the country’s jurisdiction and around 10 make landfall.

Globally, the frequency of natural disasters, regardless of location, has increased. In the 1980s, 500 calamities in a year qualified as terrible. Since then, until today, worldwide disasters average 900 annually. This is climate change and this is attributed to very small variations in the earth’s orbit. These variations impact the amount of solar energy received by the earth.

Greenhouse gases have increased with significant contributions from the melting ice cores from the Antarctic and tropical mountain glaciers. Billions of tons of ice have been lost.

NASA explained that climate change causes rise in temperature, longer frost-free and growing season, and changes in precipitation patterns. We can also expect to see and hear more droughts and more heat waves in many areas of the planet. Hurricanes becomestronger and more intense. This is the first half of the problem caused by the likes ofYolanda, Rolly, and most recently, Ulysses.

For indeed the variation in the earth’s orbit and natural global warming educate us on only half of the issue. The puzzle becomes clearer when we consider the damage from excessive logging, quarrying, and repurposing of both the uplands and the lowlands. With typhoons becoming more potent with winds of over 150 mph with 1,000 miles diameter coverage, the damage they can cause to nations and people are incalculable. Human abuse of nature amplifies the havoc to life and property. Disasters turn even deadlier when people are caught flatfooted, unprepared and oblivious to the risks.

This half of the puzzle is hardly possible if there is no deficit in public governance.

From a public policy standpoint, disasters are game changers. They can destroy infrastructure and redial government construction to square one at more than double the cost of a single piece of infrastructure. They can devastate and submerge whole towns in water or in mud. The financial cost adds burden to Government, death and loss of property a nightmare to the community.

There is therefore no excuse to a public policy that simply reacts to calamities. It is beyond us to prescribe resilience in the face of a killer typhoon like Ulysses to a highly vulnerable nation.

Resilience is expected to be established by the provision of universal health insurance and enhancing social protection for the non-formal sector. It is easier pursued with the use of appropriate indicators to measure the implementation and effectiveness of climate change and disaster risk reduction and management initiatives.

Yes, building resilience in the attitude of our people is a good medium-term public policy. But it’s asking too much from the citizenry to aim for resilience when the odds are against them. In the first place, these disasters are nothing new. They come and go in the cycle of seasons in this country in the Ring of Fire. We have been grappling with natural disasters and calamities for more than 100 years. The least civil society would like to hear is another call for accelerating relief operations and evacuation of people living by the waterways and esteros and the catch basins of river systems and quarrying sites.  It’s not good to see public servants coming around like Santa bringing them relief goods, courtesy of the public treasury, but with their names and pictures all over the distribution trucks.

For instance, the DENR was ordered a couple of days ago by the Palace to “look into the mining and logging activities in Cagayan Valley after various parts of the region were inundated by floods spawned by Typhoon Ulysses.” Protection efforts were ordered intensified against illegal mining and logging to prevent Ulysses part 2. DENR issued cease-and-desist orders. Similar directives were issued in Camarines Sur with government expressing support for the Bicol River Basin development proposal.

Pero patay na ang kabayo…

Ulysses is a tragic story but what is more tragic is that before it blew its way in, there was plenty of time for both past and present administrations to be more strategic with natural calamities. We are in the typhoon belt so there is no excuse for us to be ill-prepared. Allowing the abuse of the environment could only lead to more floods and widespread soil erosion. That is where the odyssey began, that is where solutions should also spring forth.

Ulysses is just one of the many hundreds of killer typhoons that checked in. This is not the first time we saw an overflow of the Pasig River and the Marikina River. Ulysses is not the first baptism by immersion for many Marikina villages and yet settlements remain entrenched in the low-lying areas by the river. We have yet to see efforts to de-institutionalize them.  Perhaps, we can re-allocate more of the 2021 budget to strengthen our weather forecasting abilities. Second order of business is to muster incorruptible political will to stop once and for all illegal mining and quarrying as well as logging that worsen our idiosyncratic conditions being in the Ring of Fire. Big construction projects in the cities should be strictly monitored because esteros are filled up in their wake and water flows are blocked. It’s about time illegal settlers along the waterways and mountain slopes were relocated from these dangerous locations for their own good. Master planning is absolutely needed, zoning should be strictly enforced. Doing rescue and then relief has very limited multiplier value; it simply dissipates public resources year after year. Ulysses now supports the corona virus in lengthening our journey to economic recovery.

There must be something more substantive than tweaking the bureaucracy for disaster mitigation.Spreading relief goods is an act of charity, but our people are in need of something else beyond charity. It is adult response to a real problem.