“We are praying with our eyes to the sky”
13th August 2012 - by Ellen Teague
The director of the Columbans in the Philippines, Fr Pat O’Donoghue, reports here on the flooding in Manila which has created a humanitarian emergency in the city.
“We are waiting and praying with our eyes to the sky” says Fr Pat O’Donoghue, an Irish Columban who is Director of the Columbans in the Philippines. He was speaking on 7 August, from the Columban house in Manila, after 10 days of the storms and incessant rain left 60 percent of the city under water. “The authorities have declared a state of natural disaster”, he reported.
Storms and flooding have paralysed the Philippine capital Manila and the surrounding area known as Metro Manila, which comprises 17 cities, displacing an increasing number of residents: “Some 80,000 have been displaced, with serious situations mainly in the towns of Marikina and Cainta, where like many areas near the rivers the people are facing dire difficulties”, he said. The rainfall stopped for a little under an hour this morning, he added, “but it was a short break with residents rushing from their homes to buy some rice and other essentials to survive a few more days”. He reported that the Columban house suffered some damage caused by the rain and mud. “It is not extensive, but is a cause of concern” he said, “and when we are affected by flooding up here in the old part of Manila, it means that the situation downhill is severe”. Many slum areas were flooded out, with families losing all their belongings as well as their homes, and the worst situations were in towns situated between the coast and lagoon.
On 10 August the social action arm of the Catholic bishops’ conference appealed for aid to help flood victims in Manila and neighbouring provinces. About 2.4 million people have been affected in all and around 100 people are known to have been killed. In places the water has been more than six feet deep. Many churches in Metro Manila have been hurriedly converted into evacuation centres, giving cover to tens of thousands of people. Despite sleeping on concrete floors and relying on food rations, many people in evacuation centers remain optimistic and grateful. “We are lucky and happy; we lost all our belongings, but we are still alive; the family is intact,” said one man. Church worker Bobby Lagula was one of the people who volunteered to help. “These people need all the help they can get,” he said. “It’s my little way of saying thanks to God for keeping my own family safe”. Caritas Manila has distributed thousands of hygiene kits with toothbrushes, soap and other necessities, as well as bags of food to displaced communities.
Damaged watersheds, massive squatter colonies living in danger zones and the neglect of drainage systems are some of the factors that have made the chaotic city of 15 million people much more vulnerable to enormous floods. Urban planner Nathaniel Einseidel said the Philippines had enough technical know-how and could find the necessary financing to solve the problem, but there was no vision or political will. “It’s a lack of appreciation for the benefits of long-term plans. It’s a vicious cycle when the planning, the policies and enforcement are not very well synchronised,” said Einseidel, who was Manila’s planning chief from 1979-89. “I haven’t heard of a local government, a town or city that has a comprehensive drainage masterplan”. The deluge was similar to one in 2009, a disaster which claimed more than 460 lives and prompted pledges from government leaders to make the city more resistant to floods. A government report released then called for 2.7 million people in shantytowns to be moved from “danger zones” alongside riverbanks, lakes and sewers. Squatters, attracted by economic opportunities in the city, often build shanties on river banks, storm drains and canals, dumping garbage and impeding the flow of waterways.
But squatter communities in danger-zones have in fact grown since 2009.
Meanwhile, on the outskirts of Manila, vital forested areas have been destroyed to make way for housing developments catering to growing middle and upper classes, according to architect Paulo Alcazaren. Alcazeren, who is also an urban planner, said the patchwork political structure of Manila had made things even harder. The capital is actually made up of 16 cities and towns, each with its own government, and they often carry out infrastructure programmes – such as man-made and natural drainage protection – without coordination.
In addition, the Environment Secretary Ramon Paje has been warning that intense rains like those seen in recent weeks will become the “new normal” due to climate change. More frequent and severe typhoons are all predicted as the ocean warms, which has particularly dire consequences for the island archipelago of the Philippines.
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