To see the photos of death, damage and destruction wrought in the Visayas by Super Typhoon Yolanda makes for a sobering realization of the condition and exposure of the Philippines to natural disasters. Such flimsy houses, such jerry-built construction, such lack of robust infrastructure; such “living on the edge” that it can be no surprise that a powerful typhoon has such awful consequences, and it doesn’t have to be a super typhoon to wreak havoc death and destruction. Living conditions really are so fragile for the vast majority of people.
But typhoons and extreme weather will assuredly become more extreme over the coming years. Climate change effects are already obvious to people all over the world (an unprecedented 32-degree centigrade in the English summer this year). The biggest contributor to climate change is burning coal, throwing carbon dioxide and lots of other unsavoury emissions to the atmosphere, but it is the carbon dioxide which cannot be removed from fossil fuel emissions, which causes the real problems being captured in the atmosphere for thousands of years. Fortunately, there is now a growing awareness of the catastrophic weather effects of coal utilization, and its use is being reduced fast worldwide—the United States has reduced its coal for power use by about 20 percent over the last give years; even China is reducing as fast as it can; and Europe is regulating coal out of the picture. The share price of coal mining companies is falling in some cases by 50 percent to 70 percent.
The Philippines, however, counters to international awareness is busy pursuing a pro-coal for power policy. Coal imports to the Philippines have risen by 50 percent over the five-year period during which coal utilization in the US was reduced by 20 percent! Admittedly, the percentage of carbon dioxide emissions to atmosphere from the Philippines is miniscule compared to the US, China and Europe, but the Philippines manages to avoid the use of its renewable energy resources by obfuscation and delay in favor of putting up more coal-fired power plants. Indeed, there is some indigenous coal (about 14 percent of the current requirement), but it is brown coal with a low heating value and high noxious emissions, so much so that in the US it would be illegal to burn it for power generation; it mostly comes from an opencast mine on Semirara Island which is now collapsing (having already claimed several open cast being below the surrounding sea level, but still there are plans to maximize the use of it. Almost all other coal that is used or to be used here comes from Indonesia, which will give the Indonesian mining companies, in some of which there may be Filipino “links,” a welcome market given the worldwide reduction of coal utilization. Once again, greed is allowed and even encouraged to take precedence over the fundamental responsibility of government to protect its people.
Infrastructure as has been said many times is lacking, and it is infrastructural improvement that can to some degree mitigate the horrific effects of super typhoons and other natural disasters; flood control, proper drainage, adequate roads, hospitals and robust communication facilities constructed to a level of quality that is not reduced to below the minimum requirement, in order that bribes can be paid to approving officials. If the money which has reportedly gone missing from government had been available and had been used intelligently and to satisfy obvious priorities in a practical, efficient and timely way, then we may not see so much death and destruction in the wake of Super Typhoon Yolanda and the other many natural disasters that plague the Philippines.
People’s houses are destroyed because in many cases, they are so poorly built. They are so poorly built because it is all that people can afford, and the struggle to gain the necessary permissions to build or even own land is the first place is such a trial that people just give up or take short cuts. No way can ordinary people construct their houses to withstand the assaults upon them by extreme weather or geological events.
To criticize local authorities for being insufficiently prepared is not very helpful. The state of preparedness for Yolanda given the fairly accurate and timely weather warnings that were issued appeared to be much better than on many previous occasions. But there are severe limits on how much useful preparing can actually be done, given the lack of robust infrastructure and the poor quality of buildings in the face of a direct hit by a super typhoon. The issue here is not just about giving relief to victims, and indeed there is a lot of attention being rightly given to relief efforts, nor is it about preparedness. The issue is about prioritization by government in a country which is known to be subject to natural disasters. People should not be forced to live in flimsy makeshift houses; it is for government to ensure that its people have housing which will keep them as safe as possible; it is for government to ensure that sufficient hospitals exist and that their services are available to people who need them at levels at which they can afford; it is for government to develop protective infrastructure to mitigate the effects of natural disasters. Above all, it is for government to ensure that it has the money and uses it well to protect the people and act in their interests, rather than kow-towing to the interests of a much too powerful minority. Disaster mitigation measures can only be a job for government, and its effectiveness is a good test of government’s competence.
Mike can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org