Illustration by F.M.C. Amar

THE EFFECTS of tropical storm “Ondoy” in Luzon one month ago were what Manila and its neighbor cities could consider traumatic. Yet despite the deaths and damaged lives, the incident should serve more as a wake-up call than a reason to lose hope.

The worst flooding in 40 years brought back to our time a study by Felino Palafox in July 1977. The study, which was funded by the World Bank and was finalized by Hong Kong-based consulting firm Freeman Fox and Associates, laid out measures and suggestions on how the government should strictly enforce zoning to avoid tragic incidents like that which happened last September 26.

The study zeroed in on low-lying areas such as Marikina, one of the hardest hit during the recent storm, saying that the place was “unsuitable for urban development.”

“Development should be restricted by the application of controls in three major areas—in the Marikina Valley, the western shores of Laguna de Bay, and the Manila Bay coastal area to the north of Manila,” said the study, titled Metro Manila Transport, Land Use and Development Planning Project. Specifically, one of the areas that were named flood-prone was Provident Village, which felt the full brunt of the storm. News reports said more than 50 bodies were found there from the floods last month.

The Marikina Riverbank should also be free of settlements or construction from its banks, the study said. It also warned about the overflowing of the Laguna de Bay in its Western section, something that is happening now and is affecting more than 10 towns and cities.

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The study also acknowledged the imminent danger that urban development would cause to areas prone to high flooding. This observation alone showed how some Filipinos can be so bullheaded that they continue to risk their and their families’ lives, taking up shelter on a place that teeters on disaster.

Likewise, the government has turned a blind eye to a very clear warning. With the Philippines situated along the “Pacific Ring of Fire,” the government should have prepared for the worst every year.

Some sectors believe that more should be allotted for disaster preparedness like in the national budget. We don’t really know if the present numbers are impressive or dispiriting, but in the 2008 General Appropriations Act, the budget for flood control is P6.1 billion (P2.7 billion locally sourced and P3.4 billion foreign funded), and the budget of the Office of Civil Defense is P89.5 million. If these figures are to increase, it has to follow valid planning.

But even before money for disaster preparedness is increased (which makes the whole matter more graft-prone), something could already be done: enforce zoning rules firmly; remove constructions and settlements from catchments and easements; and boost disaster planning in the local level.

It is galling for one that many settlements have been built crowd the Marikina river valley, which is flood-prone. Moreover, the local governments around the river valley – Marikina, Cainta, Pasig, and Rizal province – have no logistics to cope with flood crises.

It is a pity for a country that hosted the first Asean Regional Forum on voluntary response to disasters last May to be caught extremely unprepared for disasters. The Philippine appears to be good in hosting international conferences that merely masks its inadequacies. We have the flair for rituals but without the capacity for doing the careful planning and hard work that put substance to rituals. Our planning and implementation are a disaster.

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