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Climate change and government inaction conspired against Philippines

Filipinos are no strangers to big storms. Their country sits next to the world’s most intense typhoon generator, a huge expanse of deep, warm ocean in the North West Pacific. More than 20 tropical storms…

Too little, too late: the Philippines President hands out water to survivors in Tacloban City. EPA/RYAN LIM/ MALACANANG PHOTO BUREAU HANDOUT

Filipinos are no strangers to big storms. Their country sits next to the world’s most intense typhoon generator, a huge expanse of deep, warm ocean in the North West Pacific.

More than 20 tropical storms and typhoons buffet the islands each year. But even by Philippine standards, super-typhoon Haiyan (or “Yolanda” as it is locally named) is a catastrophe of epic proportions. And the effect it has had on the country’s people may have been significantly worsened by the Philippine government’s siphoning of funds meant for infrastructure.

“Yolanda’s” winds were greater than either the 2005 Hurricane Katrina or Tropical Cyclone Yasi that hit North Queensland in 2011. They may have been the strongest winds ever recorded to make landfall.

Her fury is chillingly summed up by former US National Hurricane Center director, who described watching radar images in the moments before it reached land, saying “it has got to weaken, it has got to weaken”. Tragically it didn’t.

In the worst hit areas, the super-typhoon destroyed 70 to 80% of the houses and structures in its path. One can only imagine how it treated the people sheltering inside.

One stranded resident told a journalist the hurricane aftermath resembled an apocalyptic horror film. It’s estimated the human toll in one city alone will reach 10,000. “Yolanda” is now considered the most destructive natural disaster ever in the country’s history.

Few people realise the Philippine islands are home to almost 100 million people, making it the 12th most populated country in the world. The vast majority live in the regional provinces outside the highly urbanised capital of Metro Manila.

Still little news is coming from the countryside of the central Philippines, the region which bore the brunt of the typhoon. Entire provinces have been cut off from the country’s main power grid. It’s an eerie silence.

In the hours before the typhoon hit land, the Philippines President appeared on television assuring the public his administration was making “war-like” preparations … cargo planes, helicopters, even 20 navy ships on standby. He had ordered officials, he said, to aim for zero casualties.

EPA/DENNIS M. SABANGAN

It’s unlikely any preparation could have been sufficient to meet that goal. Nonetheless what is estimated as an enormous loss of life, the full extent of which is still unknown, will demand answers in due course.

And when the time for such questions arrives, two political questions will no doubt loom large over this humanitarian crisis. Is this a natural disaster with an unnecessary human toll? And what is the role of climate change?

On the first: in a country where geography makes it one of the most dangerous places in the world to live, what is the role of government inaction in the tragedy? The World Bank has previously pointed to the Philippines' government failure to address the link between poverty and vulnerability to natural disasters. The country desperately needs investment in long term preventive infrastructure, but the government seems committed only to a reactive approach.

It’s not really about lack of money. Just as people suffer the effects of this killer typhoon further south, a political storm continues to unfold in Manila: a corruption scandal implicating members of the political elite, including President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino himself, who came to power in 2010 pledging to clean up patronage politics.

Conspicuously, allegations centre on the ransacking of two government funds designed to boost spending on infrastructure and poverty reduction. Money that should have gone to house vulnerable squatters and build flood protection in coastal communities has brazenly been funneled away.

Far from being quiescent, ordinary Filipinos have had enough. In August 100,000 people marched in Manila calling for the abolition of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (aptly renamed the “pork barrel” fund) which allows the President billions of pesos in discretionary (read, unaccountable) spending. No doubt in the wake of Yolanda these nation-wide protests will continue.

Philippines Cardinal Tagle makes a surprise appearance at the Million People March in Luneta. Ryomaandres/Wikimedia Commons

Second, the unprecedented intensity and destruction of Typhoon Haiyan has already prompted political discussion at the international level. While it may have been branded by some as “bad taste” to politicise the recent NSW bushfires with links to climate change, in the case of this Philippines environmental disaster things couldn’t be more different.

On Monday, as news of the suffering to the south shocked the country, the Philippines Movement for Climate Justice (PMCJ) mobilised a thousand people to march on the US Embassy in Manila, carrying banners that read “US Dirty Energy means Our Disaster and Our Misery”.

Philippine protests about the link between killer storms and climate change have not been limited to the streets. A year ago the head of the Philippines delegation to UN Climate Summit in Doha broke into tears while addressing the plenary. Just days before, Typhoon Bopha had made its destructive way through the Southern Philippines, leaving over a thousand people dead, tens of thousands dislocated, and livelihoods destroyed. “Madam chair,” he said, “we have never had a typhoon like Bopha, which has wreaked havoc in a part of the country that has never seen a storm like this in half a century”.

Almost a year later to the day, with his country even more shaken by Typhoon Haiyan’s human carnage, the same lead negotiator for the Philippines on Monday brought the opening session of the 2013 UN Climate Summit in Poland to its feet in a standing ovation, as he made his emotional plea on behalf of Typhoon Haiyan’s victims:

What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness, the climate crisis is madness. We can stop this madness right here in Warsaw.

The unprecedented scale of Typhoon Haiyan was influenced by climate change, scientists have confirmed. Given this is the case, the Filipino people not only urgently need a more responsive government, they may just need more from the international community than a short-lived burst of sympathy and donations.