Text and photos by Madeleine Marie Slavick
(Editor’s note: A week after Typhoon Bopha made a landfall on the Philippine island of Mindanao, Madeleine Marie Slavick recalls her visit to Pangasinan after two typhoons hit the Philippines back to back in September and October 2009.)
I arrive in Manila. Instant traffic, dust, homeless people by the roadside, Jollibee, KFC, McDonalds, Chow King, and a leaflet through the car window to maybe buy a condo. Inside, my nine rights as a passenger are laminated and a rosary hangs from the rear view mirror. Love songs in Tagalog and English on the radio.
Then, out in the provinces, wind in corn, the green of rice seedlings. Sugarcane workers with skin as dark as night. Dry riverbeds. Thin cows. I wake to roosters sounding. Maybe half the world wakes this way.
SHOTGUN, TWO SHOTS
Farmers call it a shotgun. Long and narrow and metal, with a crescent-shaped tip. Put one seed at the top, release the catch, and the seed falls straight down into the soil. A farmer I meet works barefoot, his skin the colour of earth. In fifteen days, he will apply the first shot of fertiliser, and on day 45, the second. Corn takes four months to harvest, and he seems confident, hopeful. Click, click, click, the shotgun goes, down the neat row of farmland, beside a mango tree that was halved by two back-to-back typhoons in 2009. Ondoy, the Filipino name for Ketsana, hit in the last days of September; Pepeng, or Parma, hit in the first week of October.
It should have been the time for the rice harvest, but the whole crop for thousands of families was drowned and farm animals washed away. The storms killed hundreds of people. People measure the depth of water with the body: foot-high, knee-high, hip-high or neck-high. In some areas, it was almost three bodies high, at fourteen feet, and the water stayed for five days. Months later, tree trunks still have watermarks.
‘Tapos’ means ‘next’ as in, please tell me about each of your children, from youngest to oldest Since the average number of children is eight, ‘tapos’ is used a lot. I meet a farmer too poor to be able to care for her children, so she gave two away, to cousins, one right in the village, and one five villages away. Sometimes, her family has had only one meal a day, or just sugary water, maybe coffee.
At the time of Pepeng, this woman was seven months pregnant. ‘I felt very afraid, very afraid of the floods.’ Her baby was born, small but healthy, on 4 December, and food aid funded by the HKSAR Government Disaster Relief Fund arrived on 5 December. Her family received twelve kilos of rice, twelve cans of sardines, dried fish, mongo beans, iodized salt, and brown sugar. ‘We really needed it then. We didn’t have anything.’
The family lives about ten minutes from the Agno River, and their corn about ten seconds away. At 221 kilometres long, the Agno is one of the country’s longest rivers, and the San Roque one of Asia’s largest dams.
In the Philippines, every river is monitored for floods, but forecasting and early warning systems are in place only for the four major rivers, including the Agno. In a typhoon, usually one floodgate at San Roque is opened to release excess water, but with the heavy rainfall of Pepeng, at 927.8 millimetres, all six gates were opened, releasing about 5,000 cubic metres of water per second.
There was inadequate warning, and in less than ten hours, about 90 per cent of Pangasinan’s towns were submerged. Three other dams in nearby provinces also released water.
The ex-prisoner’s family had to plough their cornfield four times to deal with all the sand. A blessing hangs in their home, ‘God, bless our home, Bless this house, Oh Lord, We pray, Make it safe by night and day.’
The Philippines is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. Typhoons. Floods. Earthquakes. Volcanoes. Climate change. There are several national systems in place to monitor potential crises and to alert people, yet it is the local Barangay Disaster Coordinating Council (the ‘barangay’ is the level of government below a municipality or city) that is mandated to prepare residents, to respond when a disaster strikes, and to reduce future risks.
The reality is that in a developing country, resources are limited. Many barangay also lack expertise. With Pepeng, for instance, barangay coordinated evacuation efforts, but often at the height of the floods, not beforehand, as advised.
Yet, the Philippines has a strong civil society, with many people’s movements and experienced NGOs, such as the Philippines Disaster Response Network. Since 1991, starting with the 15 June eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, they have been active both locally and nationally, training barangay officials, and advocating for better disaster management standards nationwide through legislation.
In the first days after Pepeng, people helped each other survive. Families sheltered in neighbours’ homes. People contributed a ‘chupa’ of rice, about one small tin can, to community emergencies. A sturdy 30-passenger truck donated by a parishioner helped with evacuations. Two community leaders worked on a proposal to assist 1,000 families in Pangasinan.
Oxfam helped with corn seeds and fertiliser, loans with only five per cent interest to restart jobs, assistance to start a revolving fund and training on how to manage finances.
A project coordinator says, ‘Most people just want to have money as fast as possible. We need to make sure that they manage the project carefully so that when the project is over, it continues to work and people benefit.’ A community organiser with 14 years of experience at Philippines Disaster Response Network leads trainings in how to prepare for floods, disasters and climate change. He also trains two young aides, age 18 and 22, and when they work together, in the office or in the village, sometimes they sing. They like Liwanag Sa Dilim, a song which means Light in the Dark, for its courage, challenge and justice.
The farmers, NGO workers and pastors mentioned in this article are all associated with People’s Disaster Risk Reduction Network (PDRN), an organisation Oxfam Hong Kong began supporting in 2003. In February 2010, Madeleine Marie Slavick, then Communications Officer – Editor of Oxfam Hong Kong, documented Oxfam’s programmes in Pangasinan.