Mon. Nov 30th, 2020
Duterte takes to the skies to survey ‘Ulysses’ floods with Bong Go. (ABS-CBN photo)

(Second of a Series | November 14, 2020) Listening to the press briefing at Malacanang yesterday, I noticed that the ABS-CBN reporter was still in his traditional accusatory style of questioning, as he asked, “Where is the President?”

Harry Roque, the presidential spokesman, was visibly irked, even as he illustrated to the media members the proactive steps that the government was doing to meet the challenges left by Typhoon Ulysses.

I however had an insight.

This is not just pro-opposition mainstream media hounding the spox, this is simply a net impression of the trauma a nation suffered when on November 2013, Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), one of the most powerful tropical storms on record running at speed of more than 300 kilometers per hour killed more than 6,000 people, destroyed  tens of thousands of homes, and affecting 14 million Filipinos, including nearly 6 million children, and adversely damaging 44 out of 81 provinces, to the tune exceeding 3 billion US dollars.

Four months after Yolanda in a forum at the Hope Christian High School in Manila, President Benigno Aquino III was asked by Zar Agustin Yu, a transfer student from Sacred Heart High School in Tacloban, why the national government took three days to reach them. 

All Aquino could say was, “I apologize if we couldn’t act even faster.”

So this time, nasaan ang Pangulo?

Well Senator Bong Go, the president’s aide extra-ordinaire, had the simple answers: “The president is on top of the situation!”

Before Ulysses struck Metro Manila overnight, he said that President Rodrigo Duterte has already ordered the mobilization of all assets of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) to aid in the rescue operations as typhoon Ulysses inundated parts of Luzon, including Metro Manila.

In the morning, even as Duterte was taking part in the high-level meetings of the 37th Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit and Related Summits via video conference, he continued to monitor the situation in the country and took off momentarily to address the nation.

As the situation in the field became more and more urgent, he eventually instructed other members of the Cabinet who also joined the conference, to leave and prioritize the rescue of those in Marikina, San Mateo, who were trapped on the roof, even while accelerating the food distribution and relief operations on dry ground.

Senator Go said only Department of Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Locsin was left at the conference and despite the demands of the ongoing virtual plenary session of the Asean Summit, President Rodrigo Duterte last Thursday conducted an aerial inspection of the areas hit by Typhoon Ulysses.

The senator shared to the media footage and photos of him and Duterte as they inspected the flooded areas of Marikina City, San mateo and Rodriguez (formerly Montalban) in Rizal at mid-afternoon.

The president’s instructions to all local government units and concerned agencies was to ensure that the well-being and the safety of our people remain the top priority, said Go.

Quoting Duterte, Senator Go shared, “As President, I guarantee you that your government will do its best to provide assistance in the form of shelters, relief goods, financial aid, and post-disaster counseling. Rest assured the government will not leave anybody behind. We will get through this crisis, I assure you,” the President added.

“Ang sabi nga ng Pangulo, kapit lang tayo. Mag-bayanihan tayo, magtulungan tayo at ang gobyerno po nandito po para tumulong agad. Alam ko po, nahihirapan ang ating Pangulo sa sitwasyon, kaliwa’t kanang krisis ang kanyang kinakaharap pero kailangan po naming magtrabaho, kailangan n’yang magtrabaho,” he said, adding “hindi namin kayo pababayaan.”

(As the President said, let’s hold on. Let’s do bayanihan, help each other and the government is always here to give you assistance. I know that the President is having a hard time because of the situation, crisis is here and there and the President is facing them all because we need to work, he needs to work.)

Remembering Gina Lopez

Watersheds are the first line of defense against floods.

Blogger Mario Alvaro Limos, writing for Esquire magazine, remembers former Environment Sceretary Gina Lopez warning against denuded watershed, and says we’re now paying the price.

Many people saw the late Gina Lopez’s environmental crusade as nothing more than a fanatic obsession. When she waged a battle in the name of protecting watersheds, she was met with fierce opposition not only from mining companies but also from lawmakers and government experts from the Mines and Geosciences Bureau. 

Her argument was simple: Protect and rehabilitate watersheds. 

Critics turned her words against her, saying the “watersheds” she referred to were not legally considered such. According to the experts, an area must first be proclaimed a watershed before mining operations are barred from the site. 

In response, Lopez proclaimed: “A watershed is a watershed,” regardless if it is legally construed as such. “The law does not make a watershed a watershed,” she said.

In the end, bureaucracy won. Barely a year after her appointment, Lopez was ousted.

In August 2019, Lopez died of cancer. But her crusade continues to haunt us. 

In September 2017, Lopez warned about how the Marikina Watershed needed immediate reforestation to protect Metro Manila from severe flooding. 

Quarrying along the Marikina River Watershed. Photo by Ms. Gina Lopez

“It is important that we rehabilitate this watershed because it is the first line of defense of Marikina, Quezon City, Antipolo, Pasig, Cainta, San Mateo, etc., against rainwater surging from the uplands of Luzon,” said Lopez. 

“As long as there is quarrying there and the Marikina Watershed is denuded, the Pasig River water will be brown and it will become more and more shallow, and it will cause flooding in Metro Manila. It is imperative that the Marikina Watershed is reforested,” added Lopez. 

History reveals utter human neglect

The Marikina Watershed is part of the Sierra Madre mountain range. The watershed was declared a protected area in 1904 by virtue of Executive Order 33 issued by American civil governor of the Philippines Luke Edward Wright. He named the area Mariquina Reserve, which covered 27,980 hectares or about half the size of Metro Manila. 

Wright banned the settlement, entry, sale, or development of the land in order to “protect the watershed of the Marikina River, the source of water supply of the city of Manila.”

Through the years, this protected area shrunk in size because of land conversion. According to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, presidential fiats from 1904 to 1996 turned the Marikina Watershed lands into residential, commercial, and industrial areas, contrary to the intent of the EO 33 to protect and preserve the area. The watershed has lost nearly a thousand hectares to land conversion, and parts of it are still vulnerable to illegal logging and quarrying

According to GMA News resident meteorologist Nathaniel Cruz, the Sierra Madre was not able to absorb the rainwaters of Typhoon Ulysses, which is why Metro Manila was submerged in flood brought by the storm. Although Typhoon Ulysses was significantly weaker than Super Typhoon Rolly, Cruz said the Sierra Madre was already saturated by rainwater before Ulysses came. 

Bamboo reforestation

Father Benigno Beltran SVD also submits a picture of denuded mountain peak.

“See the connection?” he asks.

Mt. Ayaas 

“The rainwaters from denuded Mt. Ayaas in Montalban and other peaks in the Sierra Madre empty into Puray River and other tributaries of the Marikina River, ends up in the streets and homes of people who still refuse to see the connection and continue to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to our pleadings to help us plant bamboo and trees in the Marikina Watershed.”

Father Beltran, executive director of the Children of Mother Earth which manages young performing artists from Smokey Mountain in Tondo, Manila, wants to plant at least one million bamboo seedlings nationwide starting with 10,000 at the Marikina Watershed.

The watershed protects and sustains Metro Manila with water, ecological diversity, and a “carbon sink” for the air pollution of the city. 

Since the early 1900s, this protected area of more than 26,000 hectares in Rizal has also provided for thousands of families who live directly within the watershed, such as the indigenous Dumagat people. 

Sadly, the mountains have been stripped over recent decades; up to 80% of the watershed has been denuded, according to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. 

The deforestation of the Marikina river basin has caused hosts of problems, including increased soil erosion, flooding, landslides, reduced carrying capacity in the water channels (which has increased flooding even more), and disruption and loss of biodiversity. 

The watershed is in dire need of restoration. 

In the Congressional hearing last September 8, it appears that Environment Secretary Cimatu has bought the idea.

“The direction of DENR is on planting bamboo. We target to cover around 16,000 hectares of land nationwide with bamboo trees in 2020 alone.

“We will increase our production by 40% to help improve forest cover and save watersheds,” he said.

(To be continued.)

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