A visit to evacuation centers in Iligan City and Cagayan de Oro left me with the overwhelming impression that most people are still stunned, that they still have to internalize the loss of their loved ones or are still holding out hope for their reappearance. They still have to really mourn, but that moment will come crashing on them very soon.
Clash of emotions
Perhaps not untypical of the clash of emotions is the case of Lennie Kundiman and her son. Residents of Bayug Island in Iligan City, they were swept far out to sea, almost to Camiguin Island, over 200 kilometers away, where they were rescued by a Philippine Navy boat after drifting for two days and two nights. Joy at being rescued was, however, crushed when Lennie learned that her husband, radio announcer Michael, had perished. But this news was somewhat mitigated when she learned that her other son, Michael Jr., had survived.
With the number of dead and missing climbing inexorably to above 3000, the Sendong Catastrophe is now up there in notoriety, among the earthquakes and tsunamis that are usually the worst natural disasters in terms of casualties. The way that disaster struck—with no warning at all—in fact reminded people who lived through Sendong of an earthquake. Even the animals, known for sensing disaster way ahead of time, were late this time. One survivor says that his only sense something was amiss was when 15 dogs barking frantically ran past him, ahead of the rampaging flood waters by just a few feet.
Civil society fills the vacuum
Local government makes a difference. The contrast is made between Dumaguete and Cagayan de Oro. In Dumaguete, one DILG official observed, community leaders and organizations were mobilized to meet the oncoming storm after Pagasa issued its warnings, while only few local officials were alerted for action in Cagayan de Oro City. Indeed, in the aftermath of the catastrophe, so hapless is the Cagayan de Oro city government that civil society organizations have filled the vacuum in the rescue and relief efforts. At the center of this effort is Xavier University, where we saw goods pouring in from other parts of the country as well as from international organizations being received and distributed by an impressive, well-organized effort involving hundreds of volunteers.
Sendong was an ecological disaster. The Cagayan de Oro River watershed had been stripped of trees and vegetation that could have dammed the floodwaters. Indiscriminate logging, in turn, stemmed partly from population pressure as thousands of rural families could no longer sustain themselves via traditional livelihoods. Population pressure had also driven thousands of families to settle on ecologically fragile areas like Isla de Oro in Cagayan and Bayug Island in Iligan. Populated by around 10,000 people each, both spits of land jutting into the river were totally wiped out by the combination of rampaging waters and careening logs bulldozing everything in front of them.
But apparently the main culprit was the man-made phenomenon of global warming, which was responsible for the unusual path that Sendong took across an area of the country that is very seldom, if at all, visited by typhoons or tropical storms originating in the Pacific. Sendong reminded us that, in the era of accelerated climate change, our ability to control environmental events is extremely limited since their origins are outside our borders.
Sendong, indeed, was a tragic footnote to an event occurring thousands of miles away, in Durban, South Africa. There the United Nations Climate Conference (COP 17) ended with no commitments on the part of the worst carbon dioxide polluters to curb their emissions and no offers by any of the rich countries to provide money for the Global Green Climate Fund that is supposed to assist the poor countries to protect themselves from the consequences of global warming.
When I attended the Bali Climate Conference in 2007, there was still hope that a new climate treaty could be negotiated soon to replace the Kyoto Protocol that expires in 2012. In Durban, the parties decided to put off coming to an agreement on a new treaty to 2020. Hopes that the rise in global mean temperature might be kept at 2 centigrades Celsius or below have now given way to fears that it might go up to 4 centigrades. That virtually guarantees many more Iligans and Cagayans throughout the world.
As I watched the apocalyptic emptiness of Bayug Island in Iligan, I was reminded of someone’s warning to the effect that if we do not take the necessary steps to curb our numbers, consumption, and carbon emissions, nature will find less palatable ways to restore equilibrium between her and us.
*Inq.net columnist Walden Bello, who represents Akbayan in the House of Representatives, recently visited Iligan City and Cagayan de Oro City.