Living in San Gabriel, Tuguegarao City, a place of relatively high altitude, Jozelle Miguel, a second-year BS Food Technology student at UP Diliman, did not anticipate the fast rise of flood levels at all. Filled with panic, she and her family continued to pack their belongings even when the water inside their house was already knee-deep.
“Noong 2009 pa last na nangyari yun. But the moment I saw sa Facebook na seven gates ang open at 30 meters high sa Magat Dam, I knew this is going to be worse than the 2009 flood,” Miguel said.
In a span of five hours, San Gabriel was flooded at waist-level and the rest of Cagayan Valley was already submerged. It was the worst flood that the region has experienced in 40 years. Reports of the aftermath swamped social media: snapshots of children in makeshift floats, shouts of families awaiting rescue in the dark, and news of deaths by drowning, electrocution, and landslides.
Despite having no typhoon signal raised in the region, Ulysses left Cagayan in utter devastation. The horrifying flood was said to be caused by the massive release of water from the Magat Dam, one of the largest dams in the Philippines responsible for irrigation, flood control, and power generation of most parts of Metro Manila. Think-tank Infrawatch PH explained that the dam’s gates had not been opened two to three days before the typhoon, as they should have been.
While this error has been pointed out to be the proximate cause of the heavy flooding, the reason behind the destruction is beyond that. As Cagayan Governor Manuel Mamba phrased it, “[Ang nangyari sa Cagayan] ay summation ng mga mali sa environment natin.” It is a result of years of downplaying environmental issues and disregarding scientific solutions.
Deaf and In Denial
With the onslaught of typhoons Rolly and Ulysses, conversations on the 2019 Kaliwa Dam Project have reignited. Because of the dam, Sierra Madre, the country’s longest mountain range which shields the country from the full wrath of typhoons, was subjected to quarrying and deforestation.
Scientists, along with advocates and indigenous peoples, opposed the dam’s construction. AGHAM, a national organization of scientists and science workers, stated, in 2019, that putting up more dams in rivers will cause tremendous damage to both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and can also cause harmful effects on the local climate.” Even so, the government turned a deaf ear to the calls of experts, and the project pushed through.
This is not the only instance of the government’s refusal to acknowledge the voice of scientists. The recent Manila Bay Rehabilitation Project has garnered a strong objection from the science community. According to the UP Marine Science Institute (MSI) in their official statement in September, “the use of crushed Dolomite sand will not help solve the environmental problems in Manila Bay. At most, it is a beautification effort that is costly and temporary.”
As expected, the calls to condemn the project were dismissed, although this time, scientists were not treated as if they were invisible anymore. Their calls were heard but instead of getting acknowledged, they were dismissed. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Undersecretary Benny Antiporda told UP experts that they have no right to criticize the project, even going as far as calling them ‘bayaran’.
This is the unfortunate reality of being a scientist in the Philippines. Not only are their voices ignored, but they are also blatantly slammed for merely doing their jobs.
Cuts and Scrapes
With Ulysses came whispers about the termination of the Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards (Project NOAH). The project was shut down in 2017 due to insufficient funds for the implementation of its programs. Fortunately, despite being cut off by the government, it still continues to function today as UP adopted it, though with reduced availability and scope of work.
According to UP NOAH’s executive director, Dr. Mahar Lagmay, “UP recognized the importance of retaining human resource(s) because there are many skilled scientists of NOAH that are doing a lot of work for disaster risk.” After all, the center’s job is extremely significant as they lay out information for consumption and knowledge-building, as well as working towards the resilience of communities.
For Lagmay, preparation is always the best response. To create a sustainable disaster plan, science is needed to understand the behavior of natural phenomena. However, by ceasing to support NOAH, the government shows that science is not its priority.
In fact, the country’s science and disaster management capability has been crippled a lot of times even before and since the shutdown of NOAH. In 2020, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council’s (NDRRMC) fund was met with a budget cut of about P4 billion. Before that, P23 billion was cut from the 2016 calamity funds, leaving only Php15.8 billion in 2017.
The Department of Science and Technology (DOST) also faced a slash in its budget for 2020, with a difference of P79.85 million from the P20.26 billion budget for 2019. Even after experts recommended allotting two percent of the gross domestic product to research and development (R&D), and science, technology, mathematics, and engineering (STEM), the allocation for these has not reached one percent.
The 2020 budget allocation alone shows what the government’s priorities are. While the funds for DOST and NDRRMC were cut, the budget for the government’s military, police, and intelligence operations was increased. The military got a P2.093-billion increase and an additional P1.73 billion was given to the police.
This is the unfortunate reality of being a scientist in the Philippines.
Upshots and Responses
News on the state of Cagayan was disseminated late. Miguel, along with netizens from the region, had to tweet about what was happening on the ground and ask for coverage by mainstream media. The hashtag #CagayanNeedsHelp flooded the internet because they were literally and figuratively left in the dark.
“Sa tingin ko po nag-kulang sa pagkalat ng information regarding sa pag-release ng tubig sa Magat Dam … Sana ang advisories ay hindi lang puro numbers at figures. Sana mas descriptive,” Miguel says, expressing her dismay over how poorly warning alerts were given.
Science communication is a vital part of disaster response and building resilient communities, and is one of the functions of the NDRRMC. However, the relevant authorities failed to provide warnings to the residents of Cagayan, as well as of Marikina City and Rizal, as to the gravity of the typhoon. Although they received alerts, most of these were about the state of other cities.
“Responding to disasters has a lot to do with how well-prepared the communities are, how well-communicated information is. Not just one or two days or hours before, but long before. Months or years or decades, even,” said Lagmay.
The goal of science is to be in the service of humanity, but science alone cannot improve the quality of life in the Philippines. As Dr. Caesar Saloma, editor-in-chief of the Philippine Journal of Science, stated in an editorial for the journal, continuous and focused investments in STEM are what makes capable R&D institutions, not chances or memoranda.
Ulysses brought to Cagayan Valley the worst flood it has experienced in 40 years. Reports of the aftermath swamped social media: children in makeshift floats, shouts of families awaiting rescue, and news of deaths by drowning and landslides. Amid all this, the longstanding plea to the government is amplified: Listen to scientists. ●
This article was first published on December 2, 2020.
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