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Typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng Wreak Economic, Political Havoc in Philippines

Pepeng Causes More Destruction Than Ondoy

The images were beamed to a worldwide audience: a big typhoon had hit the Philippines, several hundred people drowned, and floods covered much of the nation's capital, Manila. "Ketsama" (or "Ondoy" as it was known locally) had dumped a month's worth of rain in about 12 hours. In a country that is hit by about 20 typhoons each year, this one caused the most destruction seen in decades.

In addition to tremendous loss of life and property, the storm and its aftermath have caused, and continue to cause, a very serious loss of credibility to the presidential administration of Gloria Magapacal-Arroyo. GMA, as she is known, had already been facing relentless, severe criticism for years, fueled by allegations of massive corruption, a travel budget that includes serial travel to all corners of the world for purposes that often seem opaque, and a fecklessness that makes her seem aloof, even oblivious, to many observers.

In the immediate aftermath of Ondoy, the government's inability to provide more than a few rubber boats, and GMA's stagey appearance in her home province of Pampanga (where damage was not on the scale of that in many other areas), cemented her reputation to critics as a non-leader, out of touch with the plight of so many millions of impoverished Filipinos, and focused only on immediate gain for herself, family, and friends.

Slow Relief, Then a Second Storm
In any case, international relief aid in the wake of Onday was measured, even parsimonious, at first. The US government shelled out $100,000, and other drop-in-the-bucket donations trickled in. As the full wrath of the storm and its aftermath sunk in, the aid grew exponentially. Major campaigns were launched by the Red Cross, by local media, by churches. The US committed more money, and soon enough, the Marines had landed to lend their hands. Governments from throughout Asia--all familiar with their own respective histories of natural disasters--committed increasing amounts of aid.

Then other natural disasters decided to strike in the vast expanse of the Southern Pacific: earthquakes and a deadly tsunami in Samoa, earthquakes and landslides in Indonesia. News of the Philippines' plight had to make room for tragedy elsewhere.

Meanwhile, a second typhoon struck. Known as Parma internationally and Pepeng locally, this one did not strike Manila, but meandered to the northeast corner of the country's main island, Luzon, a couple of hundred miles from the capital city.

Pepeng did not pack Ondoy's intense wallop. But, as experienced hurricane observers in Florida and elsewhere in the southern US know, a less windy storm that's full of rain and lingers can be more damaging than a stronger storm that rages quickly, then leaves.

Pepeng was this sort of lingering beliggerent. A very small number of deaths were reported initially, and soon enough, Pepeng seemed to be heading back out to sea. When it returned, local weather officials were perplexed, noting they'd "never seen anything like this before."

As Pepeng continued to make itself unwelcome, a local dam began to reach critical water levels. Eventually, dam managers released a floodtide of water that was five times the recommended maximum flow, and which overwhelmed downstream rivers, causing death and destruction equal to that of Ondoy, but less duly noted worldwide. In another part of Luzon, landslides crushed hundreds of villagers.

Several places, including the nation's temperate "summer capital" of Baguio, became inaccessible by road. In a sidenote, the nation's great sporting hero, Manny Pacquiao (known as Pambansang Kamao or "National Fist") saw his training camp in Baguio for an upcoming fight disrupted.

A third typhoon that followed Pepeng by a few days veered to the northeast (as typhoons often do in this region) and headed for Japan. As I write this article, the latest tropical depression, internationally known as Lupit, lurks a thousand miles or so to the east of the Philippines. Its current track will take it just north of the country. The Philippines, and the world, will know this storm's destiny in about a week's time.

Let the Fingerpointing Begin
The break in inclement weather has allowed fingerpointing in full force in the Philippines. GMA's administration was criticized as being in "total collapse" on the scale of the Philippine government in 1941, just before the traumatic Japanese invasion during World War II.  On a related note, a prominent American businessman in Manila told me months ago that GMA's administration was "greedier than the Marcos administration," a charge I've subsequently seen published more than once in local newspapers.

One columnist recently went so far as to call GMA "an SOB," comparing her to SOC (Son of Cory) Noynoy Aquino, whose dramatic entrance into next year's presidential race has stirred the pot in a serious way here.

The Philippines government is characterized by an overwhelming bureaucratic structure that is simultaneously centralized and federated in a way that enables agency directors to build nice little fiefdoms for themselves while dodging ultimate responsibility.

To the American mindset, the government can seem full of people possessing a combination of the Asian propensity toward indirect, communication that is not directly confrontational, and the legacy of 300 years of Spanish rule that imbued a flowery, formal method of speaking and writing that emphasizes rhetoric but falls short on direct communication and action. Or, as another American I know who's lived here for 25 years says about Pagasa, the nation's weather forecaster, "just another useless government agency."

Problems for Pagasa
Ah, Pagasa, the Philippines Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration. The tagalog word "Pagasa" ironically means "hope," but this is a culture without irony; the acronym is coincidental. And it is Pagasa that has been severely tongue-lashed in the wake of Ondoy. How could an agency staffed by the best and brightest meteorological minds have whiffed on the most serious weather event in 40 years?

Well, according to one spokesperson, there was no working radar for Manila. According to another report, plans to upgrade equipment are continuously shelved and delayed by Congress. Another excuse is that inevitable reasoning of weatherpeople worldwide, ie, weather is fiendishly hard to predict, and this storm just ballooned up too quickly for adequate warnings to be issued.

GMA compared Ondoy to Hurricane Katrina, and the world is well aware of the catastrophic damage to New Orleans in that storm, despite days of detailed, precise warnings of the impending doom. The world is also aware of the catastrophic failure of government at all levels--local, state, and national--in the wake of Katrina. Only the U.S. Coast Guard, and later, the Louisiana National Guard, seemed to have an idea of what to do and how to do it.

So it seems wise not to treat Pagasa so roughly, given that it works in a country with about 3% of the US per capita GDP; yes, in rough, unvarnished terms, the Philippines is 30 times poorer than the United States. If the combined forces of the US are revealed to be helpless in the face of a gigantic storm, how can we expect a better response from the Philippines?

Yet it is just such reasoning that seems to impede progress in the Philippines, in my view. Pagasa is fixated on reporting on storms only when they are in its "area of responsibility," a bureaucratic thought that ignores the reality that typhoons originate far from here. It also normally releases extremely dry reports, so to speak.

A couple of weeks before Ondoy, for example, a typhoon that passed close to the Philippines dragged in monsoonal rains that lasted more than week and caused a lot of havoc throughout the Metro Manila area. Yet Pagasa maintained its understated stance about "monsoonal enhancement," and did not really tell people, "hey, we're going to have very heavy rain for a week, so be prepared!"

This casual approach brought no ramifications when those rains failed to kill masses of people or cause serious flooding. But the same approach utterly failed in the face of Ondoy.

The National Calamity
As the damage caused by Ondoy became apparent, GMA first declared a "national calamity," a term that is specified to be used in the Philippine constitution. Then she practically begged for help from abroad. Later, she blamed the storms on global climate change and pronounced her country and its people "victims" of climatic warming that has been brought on by the great powers such as the US.

Other government officials passed the buck, each pointing a finger to another for its lack of adequate response. The managers of the dam that was affected so dramatically by Pepeng are also under fire. To everyone's credit, the statistics on how much water was released, and when, are available for everyone to see. These numbers seem to show that the managers sat on their hands for too long, letting water levels build to a level that required massive water releases once Pepeng returned with more rain.

Clearly, hindsight is 20/20 here, as always. I was surprised to see the statistics in their full detail; in the US, a similar tragedy would be followed by stonewalling and obsfucation by local authorities who would probably invoke national security as a reason not to release operations statistics; the truth would only emerge years later under a Freedom of Information Act acquiescence.

Blame the Victims
Then, ultimately, a blame-the-victims rationale emerged from many commentators. Although the Manila floods affected rich and poor, most of the deaths occurred among the vast squatter communities that live alongside the rivers in standard-issue Third World shanties. As the waters subsided, the squatters moved back in. It is the squatters whose garbage plugged up natural spillways for the rivers. It is the squatters whose presence turned a serious incident into a calamatous one.

As I write this article, GMA is heeding calls "to do something" about the squatters, and pushing for long-delayed legislation to remake Manila into a place that provides less opportunity for shanty communities and the inevitable tragedies that strike them. Yet the "squatters" are not the illegal communities that the term affixed to them implies. They pay for the rights to live in their dangerous locations. They vote, in large numbers, and are patronized just enough by local politicians to keep the lid on their discontent.

And they continue to migrate to the capital city region, a place with an official population of about 12 million and a true population of who-knows-how-many, driven by an abject lack of education, opportunity, and government services in many parts of the country.

Wait, Let's Blame the Church
Another excuse recently thrown out is the large, growing population of the Philippines. Estimated at between 92 and 96 million and growing at 2 percent or so a year, the population is second in Southeast Asia only to Indonesia. Too many people here, it's being said, and with that plea comes the inevitable criticism of the Catholic Church and its strictures against birth control.

But wait just a minute. Although when you're stuck in Manila's sclerotic traffic, or crammed onto one of the innumerable jeeps 50 miles north of the city out in Pampanga, it does seem like there are simply too many people in the Philippines. The relentless tropical heat adds to this perception. But the fact is that the Philippines, even now, has a smaller population density than South Korea, Japan, Belgium, and The Netherlands (not to mention India and Bangladesh). It has only 18 percent more people per square mile than the United Kingdom. The real problem is a lack of productivity--the phenomenon seen here and in many parts of Latin America of simultaneous unemployment and overemployment--rather than the number of people per se.

North American and European readers of a certain age will remember when large families were the rule in their countries. My maternal grandmother, a Methodist, was one of 12 children; my other grandparents (all non-Catholics as well) each had five siblings. When I was in high school in the 70s in the small-town Midwest, about one-third of my classmates came from families of six siblings or more.

As the US began to enjoy its post-WWII economic boom, family size decreased dramatically. The same demographic reality came to Western Europe as well. It's well-known that Italy, the launching point and center of Catholicism, would be facing a declining population without the current waves of immigration.

It's the middle-class lifestyle--in other words, widespread prosperity--that drives down birthrates, not religious debates. Bring more prosperity to the Philippines, and watch the birth rate decline. Meanwhile, kids are needed to help with the work and support their families in this most family-centric nation.

Speaking of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI made waves of another sort here with his shockingly candid pronouncement that the Philippines should seek "upright" leaders. Given that the impending presidential election in May 2010 dominates much of the news coverage here, his remarks are easily interpreted as a slam against the GMA administration. Yet, as one commentator noted, the Church's own bishops have been among GMA's strongest supporters.

Thus Emerges Noynoy
So, as nature released her wrath upon the Philippines, the commentators in several local newspapers now release theirs on GMA and her administration. Reading a local newspaper here, with several multi-thousand-word commentaries each day, is a refreshing change from the attenuated, glib bleating that passes for most political commentary in the US these days.

Noynoy Aquino's dramatic entrance into the race, following shortly after his mother Cory Aquino's passing re-ignited the idea of "people power" here, has notched up the intensity. There are many well-known figures in the race in the multi-party political system here--including former President Joseph "Erap" Estrada, who left office in corruptive disgrace and thereby elevated his vice-president, GMA, to the top office.

But the race will boil down to whether Noynoy can win the day or not. He's a nice man, and one who would seem to be utterly incorruptible. But how many nice people have become effective leaders anywhere at anytime in history? Noynoy seems highly influenced, if not bullied, by his charismatic sister Kris. How would he wisthstand the incredible pressures of running this country? Commentators have already declared that Noynoy is not involved in a political race so much a third "EDSA" revolution, along the lines of the upheavals that put Marcos out of power in favor of Cory Aquino, and later, Estrada out of power in favor of GMA.

Things can get rocky here, folks. Just the other day a very high government official had his house and car strafed by more than 200 bullets from M16 rifles being wielded by men in military uniforms. The incident is being considered as a mere scare tactic; had the gunmen wanted to kill this man, who was in his bathroom when the attack occurred, they surely could have. But given the tradition of assassination in the US, of presidents and major political figures, and given the current polarized, hate-filled political climate there, it should not surprise anyone that emotions run extremely high here in the Philippines as well.

My Front Porch
So here I sit on the small front porch of a small, neat house in Pampanga that is rented for about 70 USD per month. We have a very fast DSL connection here from Globe Communications, at a reasonable price. The Cisco/Linksys wireless router works as well here as the one I have "back home" in the US. I'm surrounded by the most hospitable people on earth, everyone chattering away all day, all night in a combination of Tagalog, several regional languages, and English.

We eat well, even if we have to visit the palenke (local outdoor market) each week at 4am to ensure we get the freshest food. Neither Ondoy nor Pepeng brought much havoc to our neighborhood, and everyone here is very thankful for that. We get into routine arguments with local trike drivers when they try to cheat us out of a few pesos on a fare. We patiently wait in molasses-like lines when we visit the bank or pay a bill.

I can fly out of here anytime I want, return to Silicon Valley, and start complaining to my friends again about serious issues involving the 49ers and Giants.

But my friends and colleagues in the Philippines aren't going anywhere. They know how hard life is here, even if most visitors don't. They are not brought up with the idea of "anyone can be President" or "pursuit of happiness." They've all had friends and relatives drown in the ocean during typhoons, and they know that typhoons are a way of life here the way that tornadoes and blizzards are to much of the US. They don't complain, though, and they don't make excuses.

"Bahala na" is the Filipino equivalent of "God willing" or "inshalla." Used as a way to accept hard circumstance or unfulfilled hope, it can seem irritating when its use crosses the line from resignation to an excuse for passivity. It is truly annoying when it seems to be hardwired into the government's response to Ondoy and Pepeng.

It is this response, or non-response, that is unleashing floods of criticism and political activity.

Bad for Business, and Bad for Filipinos
Many business leaders, academics, and government "executives" (the term in use here) are unstinting in their efforts to bring new business to this country. The country speaks English  well, unlike other Asian countries, a legacy of the brief period of 20th century American colonialism. It has a close relationship with the US, Canada, Australia, and several other countries given the extensive migration of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), who provide about 10% of the country's GDP. It is a short to moderate flight to most other Asian capitals from here.

Yet the Philippines trails neighbors such as Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia in its ability to attract foreign investment, and often trails badly. Vietnam, which exports a large percentage of the rice that Filipinos eat, is now emerging as a serious competitor for business investment as well. This land, so blessed with beautiful landscapes, spectacular oceanfront, and wonderfully warm people who resolutely keep smiling in the face of hardship that would make most Americans weep, is so often cursed by a government that enriches a very few and impedes the progress that people here have craved since the country won its independence from Spain in 1898.

I can't vote in the May 2010 election, of course. And I won't comment on who I would support if I could vote. But it is my fondest hope that someone, somehow can finally change things for the better here, and help guide the Philippines, even incrementally, to a better future.

The typhoons will keep coming, and they will cause damage no matter how prepared the country makes itself. Would that they don't cause future calamity, that instead the people that run this place are as up to the challenge of dealing with difficulty as are the masses of Filipinos who bond together in their communal "bahaniyan" spirit, help each other, and get on with their lives, bahala na.

More Stories By Roger Strukhoff

Roger Strukhoff (@IoT2040) is Executive Director of the Tau Institute for Global ICT Research, with offices in Illinois and Manila. He is Conference Chair of @CloudExpo & @ThingsExpo, and Editor of SYS-CON Media's CloudComputing BigData & IoT Journals. He holds a BA from Knox College & conducted MBA studies at CSU-East Bay.