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Floods and repeating history

Last Monday, the first day of the rains, I posted a prewar photo from El Renacimiento on Facebook showing women in  baro’t  saya  choosing to wade in floodwaters somewhere in Manila rather than paying to stay dry in a banca or the  tranvia  parked behind them in the background. I commented that the water must have been clear and brimming with fish then, compared to the murky water that hides open manholes and leptospirosis today.

The past became relevant again on Monday night, when continuous rain poured into Metro Manila and nearby towns and provinces, causing floods that caused death and destruction once again. Some people I talked to claimed that the water levels were higher than during Tropical Storm “Ondoy” of recent memory; the difference this time around was that people were prepared.

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The century-old photograph of the Filipino women wading in floodwaters made me wonder why some people blame history for repeating itself in our time when we should blame ourselves and ask why we have to endure rain, flood, and destruction every year during the wet season. We are told that floodwaters in Metro Manila recede faster these days, thanks to better drainage and the clearing of the canals and esteros that were clogged with people, houses, and debris that kept the ancient waterways from draining floodwaters into the Pasig and Manila Bay as these have done naturally for centuries.

Years ago I took note of historical accounts of fires, storms, flooding, earthquakes, famine, pestilence, hoarding, massacres of Chinese, massacres by Chinese, massacres of Europeans, and other calamities big and small to feed columns when history decided to repeat itself or we repeated history. I needed flood material, but all I had on hand were earthquakes and massacres. Fortunately, I had just read “Relacion de las Islas Filipinas” by the Jesuit Pedro Chirino, originally published in Rome in 1604, in an accessible bilingual edition of 1969 with a translation from the original Spanish by Ramon Echevarria. Chapter 9 of the book narrates the transfer of Taytay in the early 17th century from a flood-prone site to higher ground, thanks to Chirino (1557-1635) who served in the Philippines for 12 years (May 1590-July 1602).

What is fascinating about Chirino’s account is not so much the flooding as the description of life that went on in the months when Taytay was flooded. The people even harvested rice in boats:

“In those days the town of Taytay stood at the water’s edge, on the bank of an estero or stream that descends from the mountains of Antipolo and joins the river near the mouth where the latter flows out of the lake, in a large, magnificent valley bordered by the lake and the mountains. So low-lying is this valley that every year, like the land of Egypt by the Nile, it is submerged and flooded by the lake that overflows its bed with the torrent of so many rivers pouring into it, and remains submerged from about August to October or November. During this time therefore the whole valley is a lake as deep as a man’s head or more, so that one cannot travel about except by boat. This very effectively fertilizes the rice and all the fields that cover the valley and produces large, rich harvests, for as the waters come seasonably just as the stalks of rice are beginning to harden and to ear, that inundation helps it very much to grain without in any way impeding the hardening of the grain or the harvesting. It is in fact, a most convenient thing, as I have seen there many times, to go about reaping by boat and loading the crops in those same boats all the way to their houses, where the grain is put out to dry in the sun and after drying is winnowed and cleaned and finally kept in their granaries.

“This flood not only used to submerge the town, to the extent that no one could use the streets except by boat, as I did myself countless times, but although we had raised the floor of the church and made repairs as a precaution against the water, also submerged it, rising up all the steps to the main altar itself. It was for this reason that a little knoll nearby, where at this time the dead were buried, had from way back been reserved for a church site. For Mass, meanwhile, people went to Antipolo, which is three miles inland in the hills. The first time I saw that my church was flooded and that I could not say Mass there, I believed at last what until then I could not bring myself to believe although I had been told about it many times.”

To cut a long story short, Chirino told his parishioners that he would not celebrate Mass in the old flooded church anymore. He would leave and not say Mass until a new church with a room for him to rest was built on the knoll. Thus, the people took down the church, or at least anything that was useful like timber posts, etc. and transferred these to the new site. Then people moved their houses around the new town, believing that the devil roamed there at night as it was without church or cross. In time the settlers started to plant trees and beautify the place; a trench was built providing water from their old source into the new town. And here we see Pinoys of another time adapting rather than just being a victim of nature.

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Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Floods, History, Looking Back, opinion, weather
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