Alamon: Remaining vulnerable

IT IS a day before a low pressure area turned into Tropical Depression Vinta is set to hit Northern Mindanao. It is predicted to eerily follow the path of destructive storm Sendong six years ago with forecasts of significant winds and heavy rain.

The amount of expected rainfall is particularly worrying. Sendong dropped 181 millimeters of rain on that fateful night last December 16, 2011, a month’s worth in just a matter of hours. The forecast for TD Vinta indicates that more than 200 millimeters of rainfall is expected to drop for almost the entire Mindanao region matching and even slightly surpassing the destructive meteorological event of six years ago.

It has been said that destructive floods occur in Cagayan de Oro City and Iligan City in cycles of several years. Then, it may be the case that Vinta is the dreaded progeny of destructive Sendong.

There is very little we can do about the effects of a couple of centuries of capitalist production that has altered the world’s ecological balance in extremely serious ways. Climate change now produce powerful storms such as Sendong and Vista in areas that used to be typhoon-free. We have seen the awful consequences of such storms when Sendong’s rampaging flood waters ravaged the cities of Iligan and Cagayan de Oro.

The question now is how well have we prepared ourselves and our communities from what we have since known to be forthcoming. There was no doubt if an event like Sendong would happen again. It was only a matter of time many say. Well, here we are hunkering down for Vinta wondering how well prepared we are as a community to face torrential rains that potentially will bring in the destructive floods once again.

The fact that I am writing about the potential dangers of a coming extreme weather event a day before its arrival speaks about the advancement in predicting the strength and path of storms. We are now seeing national government agencies, local disaster risk reduction units of cities and provinces issuing warnings about the path and potential dangers of the storm.

The local provincial disaster risk reduction office of Misamis Oriental has already placed their operations in heightened alert prepositioning heavy equipment and relief goods in strategic areas. The city government of Cagayan de Oro has likewise activated its resources for possible flooding and landslides. Many local government units in Mindanao have issued suspension of work and classes to allow residents to prepare for the storm.

All these indicate the gains in mainstreaming disaster risk reduction in the operations of local and national government agencies. The monitoring of the strength and path of weather systems and how these are passed on to the populace by various government sources manifest the in-roads of disaster awareness and go a long way in mitigating the effects of extreme weather events. The receptiveness of people to this vital information is reflected in how information about the storm is being shared and circulated in social media.

There are also infrastructure that protect vulnerable areas that are in place now. The megadikes protecting heavily-populated banks of the Cagayan de Oro river were built precisely for extreme weather events like this. How these costly infrastructure projects will protect lives and property in case rampaging flood waters descend from the river’s headwaters upstream will be tested for the first time. Will they hold or will they follow other infra projects of similar nature in other areas that end up being washed away because of substandard construction?

Nevertheless, we are hopeful that there will be zero or no casualties and government resources will be at hand this time at the soonest possible time these are needed either for rescue or relief effort. But these positive developments centering mainly on disaster mitigation also reveal a glaring omission in terms of our efforts in dealing with the root of disasters and their consequences.

We call to mind the important intervention of geographer Neil Smith. There is no such thing as a natural disaster, he says. What natural disasters actually do, to paraphrase and adapt his point, is to expose the man-made social disaster that make certain sectors, usually the poor and powerless, vulnerable to these occurrences. In other words, not everyone is affected the same way by, for example, extreme weather events, with some sectors are more vulnerable than others.

Are the poor who live in makeshift structures of light materials now out of harm’s way in areas that have been declared as danger zones? Reports indicate that no build zones after Sendong are now heavily populated once again. Far from their sources of livelihood, residents of the few relocation sites initially awarded to displaced inhabitants of these danger zones have flocked once again to their former vulnerable community sites. Or if that is not the case, it could be that a new batch of rural migrants has settled into these danger zones.

Have we also resolved the problem of monocropping in our hinterlands that cause massive soil erosion that in turn result in heavily-silted rivers and high flood waters? It has been my conviction that our vulnerability to disasters is related to the development of the agricultural economy that characterize the geography upstream and other contiguous areas.

Unfortunately, the answer to these questions is still a resounding no. We maybe in a better position compared to before in terms of disaster mitigation, but there is still a long way to go in terms of responding to the root causes of our vulnerabilities to disaster.

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