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Mabuhay: Opinion

Summertime in the Philippines and the Livin' Ain't Easy

The Reservoirs are Drying, The Fish are Dying, Yet Life Goes On

El Nino in the Philippines means no rain and hot weather. Hotter weather, I should say.

We're now into March, the first month of the Philippine summer. Schools will be letting out soon, and it's the height of the dry season in the western, monsoonal parts of the country.

Each day feels a little warmer, a little more humid. The trend will continue until mid-April, when most days will be truly intolerable without air-conditioning, something that most people do without, intolerable or not.

Yet even so, the Philippines needs about 6,700 megawatts of power, equal to that of, say, the State of Wisconsin and on a par with Chile and Portugal.

Fish Are Dying, Not Jumping
It is missing much of this power now, due to a fairly serious El Nino drought that has dried up the reservoirs that feed hydroelectric plants; reports of 80- to 90-percent cuts in power generation have circulated. There have been brownouts in the southern provinces of Mindanao and throughout Metro Manila as well.

The dietary staple tilapia is dying by the millions in dry reservoir beds. Farmers throughout the country are losing their crops. The government has ominously spoken of the "special powers" it may need to address the situation. Many provinces have been formally designated as being in "a state of calamity," the phrase used here that's roughly equivalent to the "disaster area" designation in the US.

There's never much rain during the traditional dry season in the monsoonal western provinces. But on the eastern side of the country, which directly faces the Southern Pacific Ocean and its year-round humidity, rain is normally uniform throughout the year.

Not this year. The dry areas are drier then ever, and the wet areas have seen very little rain. All we can do is wait until May and hope the monsoonal shift brings in blessed precipitation.

This picture of the Philippines may seem ironic, given the inundation and tragedy brought upon Manila and surrounding areas during last year's twin typhoons, Ondoy and Pepeng.

But I've found nothing ironic in the Philippine character; resignation and resilience, yes. Irony no. Life is simply too hard to spark the optimism that is needed as ironic commentary's fall guy.

The Election Approaches
The drought and government rumblings are occurring in the context of the upcoming presidential election, to be held in May.

The two leading candidates, Noynoy Aquino (son of icons Nino and Cory) and Manny Villar (a self-made millionaire who was born in a shantytown), seem to have a commanding lead. Two other candidates, ex-defense minister Gibo Teodoro (running on the incumbent party ticket), and Erap Estrada (an actor and former overthrown president) maintain their presence on the radar screen.

Politics is a game of fluid movements in the Philippines. Recent innuendo has cast Villar as the "secret" candidate of current president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (known as "GMA"), who remains unpopular with media pundits and in political polls. An association with her is widely believed to be toxic.

Yet Noynoy does not seem unassailable. He is frequently derided as having "famous parents" as his primary positive quality. He presents a difficult personality, seemingly very shy but also a bit rigid and stubbornly proud about engaging in the messy business of reaching out directly to voters.

Villar, on the other hand, portrays himself as a man of the people, so much so that he was seen giving out 20-peso bills to children the other day, a move that was not popular with commentators. (The bills are worth about 50 cents US). Vote buying was alleged, something Villar quickly rebutted by saying that children don't vote and he was just trying to help them buy a local treat that he used to enjoy when he was a poor kid.

Erap, the TV and movie star, has always been a people's candidate as well; his recent gaffe was to give a 200-peso note to a woman pleading with him a few days ago to help her disfigured son. (He apparently didn't realize the gravity of the woman's plea, and his handlers later brought her son to a hospital for diagnosis and possible treatment.)

But hey, Erap has already been overthrown once, in what is known as the EDSA 2 revolution. It seems unlikely that he will be given the keys to the presidential home, Malacanang Palace, again.

People Power, EDSA, and More
Noynoy Aquino was an undistinguished senator until the recent death of his widely beloved mother, who was elected after the original EDSA revolution and the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos. Her funeral, attended by hundreds of thousands and watched by tens of millions here, put EDSA, People Power, and Noynoy into a very bright spotlight.

Noynoy has said that he doesn't even want to live in the Palace if elected, as it gives its inhabitants delusions of power. He'd rather retire at the end of his day to his home. His security detail may overrule him on this should he win.

A notoriously frumpy dresser, Noynoy is at least savvy enough to be seen often enough clad in the yellow associated with his mother's revolution. To me, there is nothing phony about this; he and his sisters (one of whom is a very popular TV star) are justifiably proud of their parents' legacy.

EDSA, for those of you keeping score, is a major thoroughfare in Manila; its unabbreviated name is Epifanio de los Santos Avenue. I've had an epiphany or two on EDSA, sitting on "ordinary" (un-air-conditioned) buses for hours in the implacable traffic jams that plague it.

But in 1986, EDSA was jammed with millions of Filipinos, fed up by Marcos, his seemingly tacit approval of Ninoy Aquino's assassination on the international airport's tarmac upon his return from exile, and the dictator's "win" in a consequent, snap election. (The airport was later named after Ninoy, and his face appears on the 1,000-peso note, the largest note in circulation).

The EDSA revolution swept Ronald Reagan's good friend out of office, its climax occurring the moment that top military leaders, including future president Fidel Ramos, abandoned the dictator and threw their support to the unassuming housewife Cory Aquino.

Cory's administration was rocked by conspiracies, coup attempts, and her failure to enact the sort of meaningful reform widely seen as needed here to reduce the political and financial stranglehold that a small number of families continue to hold.

To push and enact such reform, however, she would have been opposed to her own class, provided by her birthright as a member of the powerful Cojuangco and Sumulong families.

Cory was followed at Malacanang by Fidel Ramos, and then Erap Estrada. Imagine electing a movie star into a powerful political office! Erap's EDSA 2 deposal in 2001 was bloodless and much less dramatic than the original revolution. It had nothing to do with People Power and everything to do with alleged corruption.

GMA, who was serving as Erap's vice-president, was installed in the palace. She then won a six-year term in 2004, as a compromise candidate from an unwieldy new political party cobbled from disparate elements. That election has remained controversial, although really, no more controversial than George Bush's election to the White House in 2000.

WWGMAD?
Now, as we wait the remaining two months until election time, we sweat. This will be the first election to use automated voting machines, and the potential for benign malfunction and malignant vote-stealing is a daily topic in Manila's lively English-language press.

Questions about the loyalty of the 80 provincial governors are raised; who will support what GMA wants? And who does she really want? And does this matter?

The answer to the last question is probably "yes." as GMA is running as a candidate for the legislature from her native province of Pampanga, located an hour's drive from the outskirts of the capital city. Wikipedia describes the party loyalties of most Philippine federal legislators as "weak."

This is because the parties themselves are weak, having been effectively born only 24 years ago with the overthrow of Marcos. I don't see the day-to-day machinations and bloviations of legislators here as any worse than that encountered in Washington, DC.

Then again, I don't see them as any better, and maybe that's the problem. My hope is that the Philippines can have as clean an election as possible in a messy democracy, and move upward in its efforts to be taken seriously. To do this does not require emulating the politics of the United States, but if I can be idealistic, to create something better.

Aspirations, To Be Sure
The Philippines aspires to be an influential nation economically, politically, and morally. If there is no American-style optimism among the masses of people on a daily basis, there is certainly no shortage of idealism and the thundering speeches and editorials that accompany it.

This country's 12 million or so overseas workers, and millions more hyphenated Filipinos throughout the world--"ordinary Filipinos" as they call themselves--have earned a global reputation for hard work, honesty, and affability.

Meanwhile, a domestic business process outsourcing industry is generating $7 billion annually, revenue that stays here because it's being generated by local services. GMA's administration has been a transformational backer of this industry, and one would expect government support to continue, regardless of who wins in May.

But the day-to-day reality is simply impossible here for many, and quite difficult for most. Official unemployment figures hardly reflect the reality of "walang trabaho" (no work) for millions. So many places out in the provinces still lack electricity and running water.

Factory workers here in Pampanga make about 70 cents an hour. If you have the 50 cents or so to take a noisy "trike" or sweltering Jeep to work, great. If not, you simply walk, however long it takes. Ice cream is a very rare treat. Cable television is a luxury, and owning a small motorcycle is a big dream. Car ownership is out of the question unless someone in your family works in the US or some other rich country.

To be sure, conditions for a middle class of about 25 million people (almost 30 percent of the population) are not dire. To me, they are comparable to how most middle-class people lived in the US as the Great Depression was ending.

The lives of another 30 or 40 million people out in the provinces and in the urban shantytowns of greater Manila are not so good, though. There was a recent story about a six-year-old girl from the Visayan region who rescued her baby brother from a fire that destroyed their tiny shanty, incurring serious burns in the process.

She and her two siblings were living there with their mother, a laundrywoman whose husband had left her. A carelessly tossed cigarette from a passerby apparently started the conflagration.

A picture of the girl, hands bandaged, IV in her arm, and an absolutely stoic impression on her badly burned face, brought tears to my eyes. Sure, I'm soft, but this girl's unflinching heroism and humble, impassive reaction to it typifies the character of the "ordinary Filipino" to me.

We Need Real Power
I attempted to finish this piece on a Sunday afternoon, a brownout came rolling through my apartment here in Pampanga--this was not predicted, but could have been expected. Most days, I sit on my little porch and write in the cool hours of the early morning.

Those hours end promptly at 9am, at which time I'm driven inside to the small, air-conditioned room I use as my refuge from the heat. On this day, the brownout drove me back outside, to join the small kids playing in the street and the roosters watching us.

Which brings me back to my current obsession with the power supply here. Gibo recently said the country needs to revive its long-dormant nuclear power program if it has a chance of meeting current needs, let alone advancing economically.

He did not, however, endorse the revival of a never-completed plant north of Manila that Marcos tried to have built in the wake of the oil crisis of 1973. The country blew $2.2 billion on it, was paying contractors for years after it was clear that its location was too shaky, so to speak, to be practical.

The Philippines sits in the Ring of Fire, and Marcos decided to place the plant on an earthquake fault that was also near Mt. Pinatubo, a volcano that famously erupted in the 90s and forced the United States Air Force out of a sprawling base in the area.

Gibo points out that two other nations on the Ring of Fire, Japan and South Korea, have been able to install significant nuclear power capacity, so why not the Philippines?

Everyone here knows why not.

But the spirit of EDSA has been revived here, when Cory Aquino's death from cancer late last year reminded the country that its People Power revolution in 1986 was credited, in part, as a model for similar, mostly peaceful revolutions that tore down Europe's Iron Curtain in 1991.

Whomever wins in May, may he tap into the fierce energy of the masses here to create a so-called EDSA 3, and help give this country a push forward.

It will always be hot here. Most years will bring too much rain sometimes, too little other times. But it's high time to make the living a little less difficult.

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.