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The season of hope

/ 03:17 PM December 04, 2013

It is quite surprising, the way the twin calamities hit the Visayas have raised the collective political awareness. Nothing like a calamity to reveal the social weaknesses. Such as for instance, the logic of designing our cities so that the common good is best served. Such as for another instance, why we need to work some more to solve the problem of poverty here. Such as for still another instance, why we need better political leaders.

All are interrelated. While it may be true that an earthquake or typhoon is blind to social and economic status, the truth is that the poor are always more vulnerable than others. There is of course a prevalent quotient of hunger among the poor even when there is no calamity. And yet when calamity does come, the poor are the first to suffer. They are less capable of preparing for a calamity by stocking on food and other necessities.

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There is also a prevalent quotient of anarchy in the slums. The poor are often less prone to rely on police and government to keep order in their communities. The sense of order results from a tight complex of social relationships entirely different from what we find in other communities, especially communities where residents have security of tenure over their properties. In a state of calamity, this sense of order is bound immediately to break down.

The vulnerability of the poor to calamities may be seen in a city’s topography. It would be a complex history that explains why urban slums everywhere are usually found near the coastlines a bit away from a city’s downtown centers. It is possible these were fishing villages in earlier times. Slowly they were pressured away from the areas where the shipping ports grew. It is understandable why they would still try to occupy any available area near the ports and the coastlines. These offer opportunities for employment even if mostly informal. Fishing and the fish trade still exists to this day and so it is not surprising that the coastlines are occupied by people involved with this general occupation.

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The well-to-do on the other hand move away from often crowded urban coastlines. They move to gated subdivisions in the hills or to condominiums in the uptown areas, which are usually more peaceful and less crowded. Over time, a city’s geography begins to be defined by the social and economic distributions, the city’s topography. The advent of greater potential for calamities resulting from earthquakes and typhoons gives this topographical distribution a new reading. It is a distribution which defines also the potential for death, hunger and suffering resulting from natural calamities. But it is a fact that over time calamities also tell the story of how people adapt to the challenges nature sets for it. Japanese cities have always adapted to regular and seasonal storms and earthquakes. The Philippines will now have to do likewise or more will perish over time. This act of adaptation is long overdue.

Think for instance: Why does Cebu still have its electrical wires raised on posts instead of buried underground, given how we are regularly visited by typhoons? If in the past the city-fathers thought underground electrical wiring is simply too expensive, perhaps now they might reconsider the emerging economics of that option given how we will have more and bigger typhoons from hereon.The act of strengthening or reconstructing slum communities near the coastlines is an option that should be studied as a complex phenomenon related to any plans to ease poverty over all. It is knee-jerk idiocy to think that this requires only a simple act of ejecting coastline slum dwellers from their homes since most of them are “squatters” anyway. The act of ejecting people this way never solves the problem. They just cause among the poor greater frustration, greater suffering and over time greater poverty. This is a complex issue requiring profound study. Whatever final decision is made over these poor, it is imperative they should be part of the decision making process. Otherwise, it may be said, we did them worse than the typhoon itself.

Typhoon Yolanda showed to us just how badly led we are. We could have worse leaders than we have now, but it is equally true the country needs a better quality of leadership. There is a prevalent quotient of bad leadership of course. Nothing like a calamity to show us exactly how bad. Yet, all these result from corruption and how leaders are often elected using the very same corrupt structures that prevail, the way our leaders buy votes and political positions, which they use only to improve their economic stock.

The end of the pork barrel system is a step forward to improving the quality of the political life here, but it is not the end itself. We are generations away from having good political leaders. Is there really hope we will ever put good leaders into office? With another round of elections coming soon, we are not far from finding out.

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