Worse than nuclear war


Because it is the rainy season, the weather is among the many concerns that worry many Filipinos, and the damage and casualties from “Maring,” the most recent weather disturbance to affect the country, are still in the news.

The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration’s (PAGASA) forecast is that from three to four more extreme weather events — tropical depressions, storms, severe tropical storms, or typhoons — are likely to enter the Philippine Area of Responsibility (PAR) between now until the end of the year.

About 20 such disturbances enter the PAR annually. Not all of them make landfall. But even those that do not can influence the weather enough to bring rains and flooding as well as landslides. Depending on the power of their winds, the amount of rain they bring, and the number of places they batter, those that do make landfall can be even more devastating. Severe tropical storm “Maring” cost the provinces of Northern Luzon billions in agricultural and fisheries resources, lost farmer and fisherfolk incomes, impassable roads and bridges, and, as of this writing, over 39 lives.

But in addition to those calamities, the COVID-19 pandemic is multiplying the cost to the populace of every typhoon that smashes into the Philippines. Crammed cheek-by-jowl in the country’s makeshift and jam-packed evacuation centers, some of the families that have had to leave their homes because of the threat of flooding or storm surges are likely to be, and do end up, among the rising numbers of the sick and the dead from the contagion.

Already condemned by Philippine class society to such consequences of poverty as limited access to education, medical care, and other social services, the underclasses are also the most vulnerable to the infection, burdened as they are by limited incomes that is better spent on food rather than on antiseptics and face masks, by unstable water supplies, and by the overcrowded homes and communities in which most have been forced to live.

The pandemic is adding to the many other perils in the lives of the poor. But the threats to life, limb, and fortune from stronger typhoons, storm surges, and floods are bad enough in themselves. And despite their currently more intense impact on the less fortunate, these phenomena are likely to intensify and “democratize” the harm they inflict by affecting entire countries and the lives of everyone in them.

Similarly, symptoms of global warming as super typhoons, sea levels are also rising enough to force the residents of some Pacific Island countries — the first of the millions of possible climate change refugees — to emigrate to countries not similarly troubled. Here at home, some experts are warning that with climate change, sea levels will rise enough to submerge parts or even the whole of Manila and surrounding provinces.

Because of its global extent, the climate crisis, which has been described as an even worse threat to the future of organized human life than nuclear war, could sooner or later still catch up with the refugees from low-lying countries as the polar ice melts enough to so raise sea levels as to threaten even countries that are currently above them.

Among the countries most susceptible to this unprecedented threat against all of humanity is disaster-prone Philippines.

But hardly anything is being done by either local governments or their national counterpart to protect the most vulnerable communities from flooding and rising sea levels. Rather than risk-reduction, the government response to disasters has been limited to transporting those affected to improvised evacuation centers, and distributing food packs.

They are constantly urged to relocate, but the residents of coastal communities in perennial danger from storm surges and who live in places below average flood levels have not been provided the incentive, the means, and the opportunity to do so.

The Duterte administration has added to their woes by shutting down the free radio services of the ABS-CBN broadcast network. For most of those living along coastal areas and in other poor communities, free radio and television were the most accessible sources of information on such adverse events as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons, and the floods and storm surges that are among the latter’s consequences.

Typhoons have struck those so deprived of those services without their being forewarned and at the cost of their household goods and even the lives of family members. Some do manage to evacuate, but return to the same sites to repair or rebuild damaged or destroyed homes, and hence to remain at risk.

Relocating is the most obvious way of preventing the repetition of the same misfortunes. But without any assurance of access to sources of livelihood and such utilities as water and electric power in places they are unfamiliar with, few families decide to do so.

Rather than assist those communities’ access to the alternative sites to which they can relocate, millions of pesos in public funds are instead spent on such absurdities as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ (DENR) Dolomite Folly, which was supposed to beautify Manila Bay. Repeatedly replenished, the crushed dolomite is under constant threat of being washed away by storm and tide. That project includes such added costs as the damage to the environment where the dolomite is sourced and processed. And yet, as marine scientists have proposed, the millions wasted could have been better spent on the planting of mangroves to protect the hundreds of families that live by the seawalls and shorelines of the Bay, where they are in constant danger from storm surges and flooding.

Global warming has been attributed to the carbon dioxide, methane, and other “greenhouse gasses” released into the atmosphere by, among other sources, the burning of fossil fuels and the industrial emissions of countries such as the United States, the European countries, Japan, and, increasingly, China. The solution to it — reducing such emissions to stop the rise in global temperatures enough to mitigate or put a stop to it — is mostly in those countries’ hands in terms of forging and implementing a working agreement to regulate their environmentally destructive industries and reduce the amount of pollutants from other sources. There are existing international conventions such as the Paris Climate Agreement and the Kyoto Protocol to do so. But their full implementation is plagued by such obstacles as some countries’ hesitancy in regulating the industries responsible for greenhouse emissions.

The Philippines is not among those countries. But it can do its share for the long term by using alternative sources of power generation rather than coal, and through the rigorous implementation of the clean air act. In the short term, it can contribute to the global imperative of halting a threat that is likely to put an end to all human life by adopting a national plan to reduce the impact of disasters on the most vulnerable sectors of the population.

Such a plan could include the construction of a nationwide network of permanent, livable evacuation centers instead of improvising them from school rooms and basketball courts. As one of the countries under imminent threat, the Philippines can also bring to the world forum its commitment to mitigating or ending climate change by demanding concrete action on the part of the countries most responsible for it.

The latter are the very same countries whose possession of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons of mass destruction and unremitting exploitation of the world’s resources have made the planet a dangerous place, and the future of humanity uncertain.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).