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It’s about time we retire that hoary notion that hurricanes and monsoons are acts of God and that the floods they create cannot be foreseen, or if that they can be foreseen, that they cannot be avoided.
Floods do not happen because the Almighty has just about had it with mankind yet holds back because of a promise made a long, long time ago; monsoons and cyclones are meteorological phenomena whose potential for mischief can be predicted even before they make landfall and floods just happen to be their natural consequence.
No mystery there, but three years after “Ondoy,” we seem to have learned little -- no, wait -- we have learned a lot but seem incapable of doing much of anything. And at the outset, we’ll have to admit that the blame does not fall squarely on the administration during whose six-year term a perfect storm hits, just as we cannot blame Nature for the weather.
Floods, in other words, have cultural causes as well.
Exhibit 1: garbage. It is universally acknowledged that the flashfloods that bedevil Metro Manila can be attributed to the tons of garbage that have clogged city and municipal sewers. Floodwaters cannot recede because they have nowhere to go and where they stagnate, in the metropolis’ lowest areas, they become breeding grounds for diseases such as leptospirosis, dengue fever and gastroenteritis. All the dredging and de-clogging in the world will not solve the problem unless people learn to dispose of their garbage the proper way.
Proper waste disposal, however, represents more than just a good habit: when I argue that floods have cultural causes as well, we have to recognize that garbage is only the end result of the culture of conspicuous consumption. There would not be as much trash, I think, if everyone practices the slogan “reduce, re-use, recycle,” but for that to happen, everyone must step back and re-assess their consumption habits.
Likewise, it has been noticed that a significant amount of garbage consists of plastic waste. No, it doesn’t mean that we are indiscriminate users of plastic; it means that we are indiscriminate users of products that are encased, contained or wrapped in non-biodegradable plastic. Not only is there a lot of left-over plastic, most of it is indiscriminately disposed of. One of the results: as you guessed, clogged drainage.
Environmental consciousness has made it a crusade to reduce the use of plastic wrappings, but it will take a major shift in a cultural outlook until a green fad becomes an unquestioned custom.
Exhibit 2: myopic urban planning. The architect Jun Palafox has been a voice in the wilderness urging a review of Metro Manila’s flood control plan. Miraculously, no one has been listening even though Palafox’s conclusions were reached 35 years ago, in 1977, from a World Bank-funded study entitled “Metro Manila Transport, Land Use and Development Planning Project.”
The study identified Marikina, Laguna de Bay and the Manila Bay coastal area as particularly prone to flooding.
The World Bank study fell on deaf ears, apparently. The reasons are varied: politics, funding, misplaced priorities, lack of foresight and coordination among the constituent cities of the metropolis and -- worst of all -- plain laziness. We are just now reaping the results of inaction; it began with “Ondoy” and, God willing, will not stop with this last fortnight’s continuous rains.
Exhibit 3: mule-headedness. It was heart-breaking to hear from the news that some of our countrymen refused to abandon their homes even though they were in danger of being swept away by floodwaters. It seems such a no-brainer to us that when danger looms, it’s only common sense that we prioritize life and limb over property.
I used to think that way, too. I used to be “sensible” until I realized that for some people, their meager possessions attain an outsize significance in relation to the objects’ actual worth -- call it “sentimental value,” if you will -- and when confronted with a disaster, they are loath to part with their belongings, their homes, the things and places they hold dear.
It’s as if with the little they have, should they leave these behind, then they will be truly left with nothing. How can you argue against that? But the refusal to heed official orders, even when it is for one’s own good, is symptomatic of what ails us so much.
Exhibit 4: opportunism. This is less a cause of flooding than it is a by-product of it, but opportunism is a part of our culture that betrays much of what is wrong with us. The shame of it is that misfortune emboldens a few, notably politicians, to exploit calamity, displacement, hunger and thirst, disease and vulnerability to gloss their images with displays of faux philanthropy. No names need be mentioned -- that’s what Facebook is for -- but what sort of culture allows this opportunism to happen?
The answer is simple: it’s the sort of culture that, in Biblical times, met its end in a deluge.