The litany of tragedies is by now a familiar one, but the calamities both natural and man-made which marred the year 2013 demand yet another, closer look; they bear critical lessons that may shape, or disfigure, the next several years.
The politics of 2016 is emphatically not what we mean. There has been, and continues to be, an over-reading of the electoral implications of the devastation of Tacloban and other areas impacted by Supertyphoon “Yolanda.” We say over-reading, because the May 2016 national vote is still about 30 months away. Much can still happen; there is more than ample time for unpopular or obscure candidates to make a disciplined and strategic run for national office and thus upend current scenarios; not least, the axiom that a week is a long time in politics does not seem to need revising.
But Yolanda does have long-term lessons for the Philippines. If we view it as the worst in a series of unusual weather disturbances in the last four years—the deluge of “Ondoy” in 2009, the shock of “Sendong” in 2011, the rampage of the “habagat” and the second shock of “Pablo” in 2012, finally the catastrophe that was the worst storm to make landfall in recorded history in 2013—the lesson is essentially scientific in character. We understand that a single weather event cannot be blamed on climate change; but can the pattern of extraordinary changes we have experienced in the last few years be a mere coincidence? At the very least, there is a real and urgent need for all of us to assume the truth of the global scientific community’s consensus—and to prepare accordingly.
If we understand Yolanda as a massive failure in emergency response (because many if not most of the first responders were victims, and because in the first week or so the national government’s response was anemic), then the lesson is essentially political. The debate has started over the proper role of the disastrously named National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council. But there is also a real and urgent need for all local governments of communities at risk, especially coastal regions and low-lying or flood-prone areas, to invest heavily in disaster preparedness. The Bangladeshi example should motivate us; a generation ago, hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis died during a tropical cyclone season. Today, the number of victims has dropped dramatically, because Bangladesh has invested in permanent evacuation centers (not makeshift ones, like our public schools) and in a simple, comprehensive and strictly enforced warning system.
The unfortunate siege of Zamboanga hermosa by armed men under the control of former rebel leader Nur Misuari also carries long-term lessons for the country. His party of disgruntled, blindly obedient ex-insurgents made trouble just as a comprehensive peace agreement with the largest Moro insurgency reached the final stages of negotiation. The most important lesson is not, as some argued, that the Misuari faction should have been consulted (it was, in fact), but that the legal system should not treat those who have made trouble before (as Misuari did in 2001) lightly.
The calamity that was the systematic abuse of the pork barrel system seems to be different in that the long-term lessons were immediately applied: The Supreme Court finally reversed itself and ruled that the Priority Development Assistance Fund was unconstitutional, and the 2014 national budget was passed apparently without the congressional pork barrel. But in fact, these advances are hardly permanent. The 2014 budget should be closely monitored, particularly in the use of its many lump-sum appropriations; there is also no guarantee that future budgets will be pork-free. The Supreme Court decision itself is not unproblematic; it resolves issues that had not been argued by the petitioners themselves.
If there is a single word or concept that can summarize the most important lessons we can learn from the natural and manmade calamities of 2013, it might be vigilance. We need to keep careful watch for possible danger or difficulty, whether that danger or difficulty comes from a changing climate or unchanging human nature.
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