Thursday, May 3, 2007

Keep Digging!

It’s the first week of May 2007. The typhoon season is less than a couple of months away, and I’m very sure that within the next six months the Philippines will be asking Japan, Australia, and the US for disaster aid. Apparently, just like last year and all the years before that, the Filipinos still have not learned anything from the hard lessons brought by disasters. Last year several provinces in the Philippines suffered greatly from mudslides and flooding after getting hit with typhoons. Many towns and entire villages were buried in mud or completely submerged under water, resulting in hundreds of deaths and displaced people with no houses or towns to go back to. To a civilized country or just for people with a little common sense, these catastrophic events that are direct results of powerful storms should not be allowed to occur again. Typhoons come every year. Measures should be taken to decrease its devastating effects. But that seems to be not the case in the Philippines. Even after hundreds died, it appears that those lost lives are not enough to address the current existing problems, those problems that worsen the effects of a storm.

The first and foremost, an age-long on-going problem, is the drainage system. There is no such thing in the Philippines. Any kind of drainage system for both rain water and raw sewage is limited in a few areas in Manila, and in the planned, gated communities constructed in recent years. Raw sewage either drains in septic tank constructed underground beneath the house (for those that can afford it) or in the shallow canals dug around the neighborhoods. It is common for many neighborhoods to be reeking from the stench of sewage water once it becomes stagnant. Incidentally these putrid canals become the breeding ground for dengue and malaria-carrying mosquitoes and the source of other communicable diseases. The problem of not having a drainage system creates other problems with serious and even fatal, far-reaching consequences. Hundreds of children die from dengue and malaria every year.

Some areas are fortunate to have a natural drainage system, the rivers and streams. Bamboos used as drain pipes can be seen jutting from underneath of houses built alongside rivers and streams. Human excrement from those houses along with animal waste from pig pens and chicken coupes is dump directly in those bodies of water. It is also a common practice to dump or float garbage out in the canals or in the streets when the canals overflow during a storm. For most Filipinos, this is the proper way of getting rid of trash. Many do not care where the garbage ends up as long as it is not in their area. Naturally the canals drain in rivers and streams, and they are clogged with garbage. But if the garbage does not clog the rivers and streams, they eventually get deposited in ponds and lakes where the rivers and streams empty or out in the ocean. It is not uncommon to see most bodies of water in the Philippines to be polluted with all kinds of rubbish, floating and decaying. And over the years as they fill up, they eventually become cesspools and more breeding ground for disease-carrying mosquitoes.

Just like the polluted rivers and streams, garbage that get dump in the ocean eventually comes back ashore and litter the beaches. All kinds of garbage from plastic containers, old tsinelas (flip-flops), old tires, and carcass of dead animals can be seen floating or washing up ashore. This is part of the seascape from the famous Baywalk in Manila Bay. (When dining at any waterside restaurant in Manila, never dine al fresco or get seated on a table right over the water).

In many areas away from bodies of water, low-lying areas develop into black, filthy swamps from the water run-off including raw sewage. Because the canals do not empty to any kind of reservoir, the run-off naturally flows and pools in the low-lying areas. These low-lying areas now become cesspools. It would appear that these cesspools, these wet wastelands, would become inhabitable. The opposite happens.

As survivalists and making-do of what is available (because they really have no choice), poor Filipinos build houses right on top of those cesspools. Piece by piece, houses made from all kinds of scrap materials are built on bamboo stilts right over the putrid water. A network of catwalk-like bridges also raised on stilts connects all the houses and leads to the higher dry land. Water supply is carried in pails and plastic cans. And electricity is eventually supplied and rigged throughout the whole neighborhood through a self-installed connection from the main power line. Ingenious! Both housing and utility problems are solved. Unlike with the houses on dry land, they do not have any problem with drainage and garbage disposal. Everything from human waste to solid garbage is just thrown out the window. The whole surrounding is the garbage dump. What a way to live a life but it’s the life for many Filipinos today. Incidentally, hundreds of children are born in those slums, and 2-3 generations will grow up in those areas only knowing that kind of life.

So from a single problem of lacking a drainage system stems additional problems ranging from the propagation of communicable diseases to the creation of slums (that create more poor people and cement their life of poverty). It is the beginning and continuation of a vicious cycle.

Typhoons come every year, can the floods be prevented? The answer is “yes!” There are a few simple steps that can be taken to prevent flooding. But the Filipinos are not taking any action. As always, it appears that they are waiting for the WHO, the Peace Corps, or even missionaries to lead them, to tell and show them what to do. It is no wonder that the world views the Filipinos as lazy and ignorant people!

Flooding is a foreseeable problem that is a direct result of having too much water concentrated in one place at some time. A logical solution would be is to create a place for the expected or anticipated huge amount of water that a certain area cannot hold. The answer to flooding can be solved by three little words – dig, dig, and dig.

The Philippines will never be short of man-power. Anywhere and at anytime of the day, there are so many people just hanging out, loitering, or doing nothing. Maraming mga istambay (standbys). (There are also many hard-working and productive people but the lazy ones greatly out-number them, and that is why it appears that most Filipinos are indolent. Those that are diligent, masipag, and making a living are getting lumped together with all the tamad.) Those able bodies that are not employed or not doing anything productive should be armed with a shovel and made to dig ditches and dump sites for garbage.

First of all, Filipinos should learn how to dispose of garbage properly. This means designating and digging a dump site (at every town and municipality) so garbage can be buried and rot underground. The current way of disposing garbage is just dumping above ground (if not in the lakes and rivers) that create hills and eventually mountains of garbage; hence the many burning Smoky Mountains all over the Philippines.

By disposing and burying garbage underground, natural bodies of water such as lakes and rivers are prevented from getting clogged and polluted. Water run-off from storms can flow freely and reduce or prevent flooding altogether. Mountains of garbage that contribute to unsanitary conditions and diseases are also eliminated.

Being near the Equator, the Philippines receives at least one meter of rainfall annually. It is a significant amount of water. Flooding is almost always guaranteed because there is no drainage system. Again, there is a simple solution that only requires man-power. Digging canals and ditches with a volume of at least one cubic meter, and can drain to larger bodies of water should decrease or prevent flooding. And if the nearby bodies of water are not enough to hold the water brought by storms then make and dig reservoirs that will hold the excess water. This is not something new or innovative. Throughout human history, people have been managing water for different reasons. Canals and dykes were built in Holland and Venice to protect the city. The canals also serve as waterways for people to travel. In many desert countries where fresh water is extremely valuable, reservoirs are built to capture whatever very little amount of rainfall they receive yearly and for storing desalinated water from the ocean. In the United States, many land-locked states made - dug - lakes to capture and save water from rain and melting snow. Those man-made lakes are then used for all kinds of water recreation and the main source of water for irrigation. As a result, the farms in the US are able to maximize their production despite of a shorter planting season due to the cold winter months. This is the opposite in the Philippines where farming should be year-round.

In some areas that are a little mountainous and do not have large inland bodies of water like in Batangas and the Negros, planting season is only 3-4 months long. Once the rice or sugar canes are harvested, the land stays untouched and dries up until the next rainy season. For over half a year, the land is not being used because there is no water. But if there are reservoirs, the rain during the rainy season can be trapped and used for irrigation throughout the year. The farm, hacienda, workers will not have to suffer starvation too. They can plant and provide food for themselves rather than depending only on their meager income as a hired hand for planting and harvesting cash crops.

In addition to flooding, mudslides also result from large amount of water brought by storms. But the mudslides are in catastrophic proportions due to the conditions created by illegal logging and kaingin, slash-and-burn farming, just like what happened in Isabela and Leyte. Instead of just muddy water and mud that wash down from the hills and mountains, whole side of mountains collapses and buries everything in its path including towns and villages.

Because many farmers are driven out or bought out from their farms by greedy land-grabbers, they are forced to farm the unconventional way, kaingin, slash-and-burn farming on sides of hills and mountains. They are left to farm the sides of mountains because that’s most likely the only piece of land available to them. They also don’t have to worry about the land-grabbers because those strips of land is undesirable mainly because its location is difficult to farm. First the farmers have to clear all the natural vegetation and the quickest way to do this is to cut down everything then burn the whole area. By burning the vegetation, the area is then fertilized. Then right after the rainy season, the area is farmed, usually planted with cash crops. The planting season last only a few months since there is no irrigation. Every thing dries up during the dry season. Then right before the rainy season begins, the whole area is burnt again. This is the condition for the catastrophic mudslides. After the ground has been cultivated for a couple of cycles, it becomes very loose and porous. And when torrential rains come during the rainy months, it saturates the ground. And since there is no longer any vegetation to hold the ground together, the whole area crumbles down.

The same condition results from illegal logging. In addition to mud, all debris from the top of the mountain including the cut down logs comes down ramming and destroying everything along its path.

Incidentally, it’s not hard to believe that the government or elected leaders in the government are not involved with illegal logging. It is very difficult to hide and transport large objects like the cut down trees. It also requires buyers, and the government or someone connected in the government are the only ones that can make this arrangement.

It’s 2007 and typhoon season is right around the corner. Granted, the government did allocate some supplies and equipments, and prepared the military to deal with the aftermaths. But this is not addressing the root of the problems. Planning for the aftermath is like making coffins and digging graves for healthy people. Forget the disease that they might contract or an injury that they might suffer while they are living. Just plan for the end to bury them. But the government should not have to worry about burying people if whole sides of mountains come down. Nature would do the job for them. And those buried cannot really complain so there is no problem after all.

Dig now to prevent flooding. Or dig for buried bodies later. The choice is yours.

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