Two weeks after supertyphoon “Pablo” battered and forever changed the landscape of southern Mindanao and the lives of millions of its inhabitants, the full magnitude and extent of the devastation it left behind and the crisis it triggered are yet to be fully grasped, as its effects are only being discovered, agonizingly, “piece by piece” and “part by part” with every passing day.
That the death toll already breached 1,000 and is still bleakly rising, that tens of billions worth of properties and livelihoods were damaged and that hundreds of thousands of victims are still cramped in decrepit evacuation centers or temporary shelters, these show that the self-congratulatory statements of disaster officials in the immediate aftermath of Pablo were clearly premature, even callous.
“There was an improvement in the preparation of local government, national government and our own people,” Benito Ramos, the government’s chief disaster manager, told media a day after Pablo made landfall and pummeled Mindanao. The low casualty and minimal damage, Ramos said, were due to lessons learned from the devastation wrought by tropical storm “Sendong,” which ravaged also northern Mindanao in December 2011.
It was too early a boast that proved disastrously wrong. The days that followed bared how poor the preparations and responses were, despite the fact that days before it made landfall, Pablo was already reported to be packing much stronger winds and rain than Sendong, threatening to wreak worse havoc. The horrible sight of mud-covered survivors and hundreds of cadavers in the banana-growing town of New Bataan in Compostela Valley province due to flashfloods or the totally washed out and flattened towns of Cateel, Baganga and Boston in Davao Oriental clearly belied any “improvement” that Ramos claimed. True, many people, particularly in devastated areas, might have been complacent because their communities had never been visited by a strong typhoon in recent memory. However, there is no denying the appalling fact that after Pablo struck, government—national or local—was nowhere to immediately respond.
While most relief operations were already undertaken in the centers of the affected towns, aid organizations, like Balsa Mindanao, reported that hundreds, if not thousands, of residents in several far-flung affected areas were yet to receive any help.
Two weeks after Pablo’s wrath, hunger and even anger had become more widespread among the affected residents. Their shattered houses can be repaired; but to most of them, particularly the poor farmers, plantation workers and the lumad, the main worry is how to survive in the coming months as most sources of their livelihood—rice and corn farms, coconut and banana plantations, and small-scale mining—may take a long time to rehabilitate, if ever they could still be rehabilitated.
It doesn’t help that even in times of crisis, some people take advantage of the desperate situation. For example, in Compostela town, a foreign owner has threatened not to rehabilitate its devastated banana plantation if the workers will keep their membership in a local union. The “fly-in-fly-out” attitude of President Aquino and his Cabinet officials in dealing with the ongoing crisis in the region is of little help, if any at all, in reversing the growing sense of desperation among the victims.
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As the likes of Sendong and Pablo now appear to be an unwelcome reality in Mindanao, it’s high time that the government reviewed its policies, particularly on the environment. The devastating and harrowing effects of these two weather disturbances can no longer be ignored.
But is the government listening? For example, despite its so-called total log ban policy, logging persists in Davao Oriental, Compostela Valley and Surigao del Sur provinces. Environment advocates have long warned that the country, particularly Mindanao, the so-called last frontier, is becoming more vulnerable to devastating storms and flashfloods due to its decreasing forest cover, a problem made worse by commercial logging. The country has the smallest forest cover in Southeast Asia. Only 3 percent of its original forest cover remains. Yearly, some 157,400 hectares more of this, or 1.98 percent, are lost, one of the highest deforestation rates in the world.
Large-scale mining, which is being aggressively pushed by the Aquino administration, is another culprit behind our dwindling forest cover. There are reports that as of March 2011, more than 1 million hectares of land have become the subject of mining permits and applications. The cutting of trees inside these concessions is expected since mining companies have timber rights under the Mining Act of 1995.
Pablo and Sendong are mere warnings.