Almost a month into 2023 and the rain still won’t stop in certain parts of the country, as though portending a bad time ahead despite the lunar new year’s promise of “a year of recovery.”
The “shear line,” or the point where the cold northeast monsoon meets the warm easterlies from the Pacific—a relatively new term to be learned by Filipinos in the way that Supertyphoon “Yolanda” provided a shock lesson on “storm surge”—initially plagued the Visayas and Mindanao, but has since covered parts of Luzon, devastating farmlands and homes and disrupting and claiming lives.
Earlier, it hit doubly hard because of its holiday timing.
Last December, the scientist Mario Aurelio issued an explanation in the course of sending a wry holiday greeting to friends and colleagues in the form of a song he had composed in Filipino, titled “Pas(a)kuna Na”—a play on “Pasko” (Christmas) and “sakuna” (disaster): “The northeast monsoon, which starts around July, naturally pushes weather disturbances to the south [approaching] the yearend,” he said. “That’s why the Visayas and Mindanao often experience wet Christmases, which are sometimes deadly.” He cited the unforgettable Yolanda In November 2013 and “Odette” in December 2021.
The song, available on YouTube, was released late in 2021 by the Unconformity Band, the in-house band of the University of the Philippines’ National Institute of Geological Sciences or NIGS, which is composed of geology students and Aurelio himself. Part of the lyrics is a wistful wish for a halt, even if temporary, to the stormy weather to allow suffering families to have themselves a happy Christmas: “Sana ay tumigil na/ Pansamantala/ Upang sila ay makaranas naman/ Ng isang masayang Pasko.”
But no dice, the wish didn’t work. “A week later,” Aurelio said, “Odette wreaked havoc in Mindanao.”
Depths of desperation
And no, the people in the way of the shear line didn’t have a prayer. For days on end, the print and broadcast media reported stories of high water and depths of desperation in various provinces. TV clips featured rural residents lamenting the merrymaking gone south, how the rapidly rising waters so irreverently made mush of their Christmas Eve repast, which, though simple (by dint of hard times) was special (to mark the birth of Mary’s Child).
Certain footage was heartbreaking (granting the heart was yet whole), showing farms almost ripe for harvest flooded as far as the eye could see, or a man fording strong currents with a baby in one arm and the other clinging to a life rope. Not good for one whose profession is to record events unblinkingly, but so piercing was the moment that one was moved to look away—and thereby not see him ultimately scrambling to safety, or not.
Of course, the weary observer might say, it’s nothing new in this country that maintains an excellent record in bagging the most disaster-prone distinction. (According to the 2022 World Risk Index, a part of the World Risk Report that calculates the disaster risk of 193 countries, the Philippines has an index score of 46.82—the highest disaster risk.) Yet, incredibly, rescue and relief ops remain largely ad hoc, and schools and barangay halls are still largely used as evacuation shelters. And reports of government subsidy for farmers who lose entire crops to disaster are barely heard.
North and south
Eventually it was bad news all around: unrelenting heavy rain and resulting flooding and landslides in the north and south, with troughs of low-pressure areas compounding the might of the monsoon.
Eastern Samar received a huge share of the weather walloping; Gov. Ben Evardone sounded an urgent call for help to the national government from what seemed an unsteady banca (cute ploy, if the situation there weren’t so tragic). Swaths of the Davao provinces were inundated, as were Leyte and Lanao del Norte. Cagayan was badly hit, too, along with parts of the Bicol region. Brooke’s Point in Palawan has found it necessary to extend its state of calamity to six months. The people of Naujan in Oriental Mindoro were struck by a level of flooding worse than they can remember. Etc.
On top of everything else, the release of water from overflowing Angat Dam made raging rivers of parts of certain towns in Bulacan.
This recitation, done pell-mell and quite incomplete, is a mere reminder that, whether natural or manmade, disaster is occurring in too many places in this unhappy archipelago, claiming lives approaching 40 the last time one looked, and resulting in damage to agriculture and infrastructure much more than it can afford. Not to be too much of a Gloomy Gus, but with things the way they are, with inflation hitting 8.1% in December and truly showing in the sheer paucity of purchases for the same amount of money spent in the recent past, it doesn’t look like good days ahead for most Filipinos.
7.6% growth rate
Handsomely subsidized troll farms may lambast the “nega” and tout the 7.6% growth of the economy in 2022, the fastest posted since 1976, or 46 years ago, and described as surpassing local and foreign expectations and forecasts. On its face, it’s an amazing growth rate that tops those of other emergent Asian economies and that, according to Economic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan, can be attributed to strong domestic demand, increase in jobs, and “revenge” spending.
The necessary context is that, per the think tank Fitch Solutions, as quoted by Inquirer Business’ Ronnel Domingo, “the 7.6% full-year expansion in 2022 that brought GDP above prepandemic levels was partly due to base effects—relatively low previous numbers that were easy to surpass.”
At any rate, the perennial question arises: Will the effects of the economic growth—which President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., fresh from his attendance at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, was heard describing as a demonstration that the Philippines was headed in the right direction—trickle down to the poor, doubtless increased now by disaster and fierce inflation, and challenged by looming shortages in rice and other staples?
Apparently not likely, with Fitch Solutions seeing economic growth as waning in 2023, and citing high inflation and sluggishness in Philippine exports. Even Balisacan sees a slowdown in GDP growth to 6-7%. One may understand why Migrant Workers Secretary Susan Ople is loath to agree to a ban on deployment to Kuwait, despite unspeakable acts of savagery on yet another Filipino domestic in a Kuwaiti household.