Oct 09
WHAT IMAGES OF ONDOY’S DAMAGE TEACH US by Vincent M. Ragay  |  Posted in Articles  |  on Fri, Oct 9, 2009

The images made the heart succumb with unbelief and horror: cars floating in the flood current or piled on top of one another after the flood; people huddled on rooftops, unable to reach safe ground or unreachable by rescue teams; and, the most terrifying of all, people standing on what seems like floating debris on a rampaging river rushing at such speed that all one can do is weep and wave goodbye.

The final scene reminded me of that time when I lived in Marikina (yes, the same town in the news today) in a subdivision which turned into a lake after an hour or two of continuous rain. After one particularly heavy downpour which submerged all the streets and left our driveway and the rest of the house dry, I stood behind the post of the gate surveying the Venice-in-Marikina panorama.

As the water flowed past our house, I saw this fiery-red clump of trash floating lazily by. When it became clear that it was a colony of giant red ants, I suddenly had this childish urge to drown them. This was long before I became an environmentalist (read: before I had gained enough common sense in dealing with nature and life). So, I threw a stone at the ants hoping to displace them from whatever they were floating on. Only to find out that there was nothing between them and the water! The ants had floated by sheer self and common buoyancy. Or for some other reason. The colony had formed a pyramid to float to safety. (Whoever taught them to do that, I raise my admiring hands and fold my humble knees to.) Scattered on the water, the ants scampered to find a foothold on solid ground. They swam (walked on water actually!) toward the nearest object they knew would give them refuge – the post I was leaning upon. An army of vicious ants was now attacking me!

Well, I was bigger and smarter, I thought, and got some matches and old newspaper. If water spared them, fire will not! Many ants died that day, fried and frittered on the floodwaters. War brings out the worst in humans oftentimes, even against the most innocent and helpless creatures of God. In my viciousness, I felt triumphant.

Several days later, I came home and noticed a trail of red ants crawling up from the garden where I had my previous battle, upon the house façade and all the way beneath the roof. The ants had survived water and fire, not to mention my mean ways! How did I react? I gained so much respect for the ants and their Creator, I let them live with me and my family for as long as they wanted to.

I don’t know what happened to those people who rode the river on nothing but flotsam and a flickering hope that someone would come to their aid. God, Who gave ants such instincts and survival skills must have a reason why He would allow humans – gifted with greater wisdom and abilities than ants, supposedly – to perish in no less cruel a manner, so it seems.

Almost 300 people died from the devastation that Typhoon Ondoy caused in September 2009, a month to be remembered for its many dire stories and its heroic scenes. As a nation tries to recover from the grief and damage, one can only stop to think what precious and practical lessons that can be learned.

First and foremost, of course, is culled from this nursery song: All things bright and beautiful, creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all. Like the ants and the cockroaches which we as children (and even as adults) somehow learn to despise, everything has a purpose in the circle of Life. That includes the trees, the rivers and the mountains. Kill or destroy any one of these and we also kill and destroy ourselves and our homes.

Floods, like taxes and cancer, have been with humans for as long as we can remember. Perhaps, we cannot give humans all the honor of causing floods. The dishonor belongs to those, among others, who continue to court disaster by building structures and living beside rivers and thereby eventually constricting the flow of water. The shame goes to those planners or officials who have not given enough space for water to flow down from the hills and mountains and let it reach the ocean with as much volume and violence as it wants. We can certainly control its flow with modern technology but only if we first learn and respect its ways. In the meantime, is it at all possible to enforce the law (I know there is one) or enact one that provides a 50-meter (make it 100 meters) open zone along beaches and the banks of rivers and lakes? No houses or buildings, only parks, bike-lanes or promenades. No malls or factories, only trees, flowers and grasses. No human structures except, perhaps, dikes or walls to keep away the flood.

Yes, we have flood control systems properly designed and constructed within the limits provided by existing urban realities. Mangahan Floodway is located near one of the most populated areas in Metro Manila – Pasig City, near Marikina and Cainta (another town badly hit by Ondoy). It was designed to allow some water from Marikina River to be diverted to Laguna Lake and thereby alleviating flooding in Metro Manila. But what happens when Laguna de Bay, which finally drains into Manila Bay via Pasig River, overflows? The catastrophic answer was provided by Ondoy: Water from the mountains and from a large lake beside the Metro flooded the towns located right beside the rivers and the lake, such as the towns of Tanay, Pateros and Taguig City. Perhaps, the better plan was to build another outlet for Laguna de Bay that is deeper and wider than the constricted Pasig River.

We “destroyed” the rivers and lakes by building around them such structures that prevent them from breathing and moving with freedom and clarity: subdivisions (Provident Village in Marikina was one of those worst hit), malls (whoever thought of building a shopping mall beside a river?), hotels and amusements parks (riverbanks in Marikina was submerged), factories (again, those along Marikina and Pasig Rivers) and commercial buildings (Robinson’s in Guadalupe) along the bodies of water.

The amount of rainfall as a major cause of flooding was not — or is not – totally unavoidable, contrary to common belief. The past heavy floodings in the Metro should have been enough to convince us that the worst was yet to come. With relatively fewer people and structures in the late ‘60’s, we should have done a massive and unforgiving flood control design that will prevent constricting the bloodlines of the megacity; but we did not. This is the primary goal before we can make any sensible design. Moreover, this objective will not be attainable without addressing other related issues such as: population control, enforcement of urban zoning laws, relocation of informal settlers and, most importantly, restoration of estuarial areas to their rightful owners – the creeks, rivers and lakes and not to private individuals or companies.

When I first arrived in Mandaluyong in 1965, my cousins and I played with the ducks on a shallow, sandstone-bed creek behind the houses. There were trees along the banks and the water was clear and clean enough to wade in. But signs of urban blight slowly crawled upon our town and the surrounding districts back then. I remember a flood there in 1967, I think, which was inevitable for the government-owned residential area (it was called a squatters’ area then) was located beside the creek. With the burgeoning population in the Metro, officials allowed more and more people to occupy what should have been estuarial areas off-limits to human habitation. (By the early ‘70’s, the creek – murky and stinking — had disappeared from view when shanties sprouted along and on top of it.)

The main point is that the greatest amount of water or an extremely high rate of rainfall within a short period of time – worst-case scenario, they call it – can always be assumed before making any design for a flood-control system. Provide enough open and wide channels (like the ones in Makati) to convey the water and everyone can sleep easy through the night. The closed canal they built underneath España Extension is obviously insufficient. So with many channels we have built. Time to redesign and to rebuild! Ondoy has shown us the way.

This is not blaming but assessing what we have and projecting ourselves into the future. This is not crying over spilt milk or, more to the point, merely seeing the mess as water under the bridge. It is precisely the best lesson we can learn from Ondoy, one we must accept with humility, if not remorse. And there are so many more lessons which we will come to know soon enough. Unless and until we face this problem squarely, we will continue to float in a wet limbo.

Open, wide and unobstructed channels that can take in as much water as it can from an angry Nature. Oh, yes, did we forget to say that Nature is on a rampage to repay all that we have done to her or neglected to do for her for so many years? Yes, it is an expensive proposition; but any monetary value is nowhere near the real value of Life and of Nature which sustains that Life.

All things wise. . ., wait, doesn’t that include us humans? Are we not wise enough to figure out what is right and necessary to make our lives so much better than what we have now? God made us indeed; but as it is, we make Him not so proud of us. In fact, as in the days of Noah, He could be angry – really angry — at us. If Noah could spend more than a hundred years building the expensive Ark to save the world, how much are we willing to spend today to save our own lives and our cities? (In one of life’s fateful twists, I missed watching the musical N.O.A.H.* at the Meralco Theater last Sunday because it was flooded out. I had just released a new book on the same theme of Noah and the Flood and eagerly wanted to compare notes on the story’s relevance in our times. Talk about timing and relevance!)

A nation remains poor, languishing and subject to destruction because it fails to spend for things that are truly of value. Like ants, humans will survive, but only by God’s grace. Are we not much more valuable than ants? Then, why do we allow ourselves to die like helpless infants? Ants know how to work with Nature and survive; but humans continue to work against it and reap the consequences.

Yes, it is the time to go out and help the afflicted survivors and assuage their suffering; but it is also the time to remind those who have the ability to prevent more suffering to do their job. Our Christian duties of healing and of convicting go hand in hand. We have two arms: the right to hold the sword that makes us do righteous deeds and the left to hold the shield against evil attacks. To leave ourselves defenseless while rebuilding our homes will make us easy victims to the predators around us. Time no longer allows us the luxury of being nice to those who wantonly destroy for selfish reasons.

Rebuilding requires destroying such things that prevent us from progressing. No, not by destroying wicked people but by removing the mess they have done in our midst. A flood teaches us to clean up – really clean up — our lives.

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