One of the strongest storms to ever make landfall, Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan, has had a lacerating impact that outstrips the destruction of disasters in recent Philippine history. It is depressing to witness, and at times it seems that the only uplifting images and affirmations to arise from such scenes, which continually accrue in our historical memory, are those of the unconquerable Filipino spirit—images of full basketball games carried on in waist-deep water and of a man joyfully tearing through a street intersection on a jet ski, and the now ubiquitous slogan “The Filipino spirit is waterproof.” These are moving, and are a testament to the fact of our geography. But, they also turn what is gross government irresponsibility into a virtue, and pointedly underscore the ways in which suffering in the Philippines falls disproportionately, if not exclusively, on the impoverished.
The Filipino spirit is waterproof due to geographical necessity and government failure. Rigoberto Tiglao’s recent article in this paper, “Nations must confront the curse of typhoons,” published on November 9, 2013, quoted a Jesuit missionary writing in 1668 on the impact of the Philippine storms. F. I. Alzina wrote: “This type of hurricane is a very strong tempest, so many and so strong hitting these islands that neither Virgil nor Ovid nor any other poet I have read can describe its destructive power. These occur very often and we suffer so much, that even after experiencing them, it is difficult to believe these can happen.”
The frequency and extent of the destruction that the Philippines experiences yearly must seem unimaginable to many non-Filipinos. As Japan does, the Philippines sits atop one of the most volatile tectonic areas on the planet, but, unlike Japan, it is under geological assault from all sides, squeezed between the Eurasian and Pacific Plates, with several micro-plates constituting the Philippine Plate. The Philippines ranked the highest in the U.S. government’s 2006 ‘storm index’ (calculated based on damage wrought, number of people affected, and number of years in which storms occurred). Importantly, in 2011, the United Nations University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security ranked the Philippines third on the list of countries most vulnerable to climate change. The institute calculated this latter ranking, however, based not only on unavoidable exposure to natural disaster, but also on each country’s susceptibility to damage due to the state of its infrastructure, economy, early warning systems, preparedness measures, disaster response, and ability to adapt to future disasters. (See Kristine L. Alave’s October 7, 2011 article in the Philippine Daily Inquirer for further information.)
The Climate Reality Project told us what we already know from experience: that a lack of solid waste management, long-term deforestation, and massive land conversion multiply the effects of natural disaster in the Philippines. Moreover, the dearth of ready infrastructure to mitigate the impact of our expected storms subjects the poorest people in our country to the worst of our geography and the worst of our government’s irresponsibility. As Tiglao wrote on November 9, we need to: install water-pumping stations; dredge the garbage-filled rivers that unnecessarily exacerbate the effects of flooding, especially in the slums; establish a full, national chain of permanent, bunker-style, fortified, fully-provisioned evacuation centers; further support the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council; and fund the design of low-cost housing built to withstand the effects of storms and earthquakes.
The National Capital Region weathers its share of disaster, but as a resident of Dasmarinas Village, I wish to take the license to pose a polemic counterfactual. What would our national policy look like if Dasmarinas Village or Forbes Park were the areas destroyed on a yearly basis? Would we cheerfully send each other images of us playing full basketball games in the Forbes Park court in waist-deep water? Would we tell one another that the “Filipino spirit is waterproof” and fail to invigorate national disaster prevention policies? The Filipino spirit is indeed waterproof, but without the certainty of yearly destruction, disproportionate suffering, entrenched inequality, and government irresponsibility, it could also be far more.
Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Student in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University