Time’s Up

WITH MAYON still behaving erratically, spewing molten lava and ashfall like no other in between 4 to 5 hours a day, we can just commiserate with residents of Legazpi City in Albay, as well as adjoining communities, as they grapple with their harrowing day-to-day experience. Volcanic eruptions are of course nothing strange in the Philippines. These cataclysmic events can happen anytime, anywhere throughout the archipelagic contours of a country long inured of natural disasters, from mighty earth-shaking events to super-typhoons that bring torrential rains and winds on hapless communities along the danger path.

Last month, December howlers criss-crossed northern Mindanao and central Visayas, leaving a swathe of destruction the nation has not yet gotten things back on track, unexpected as it must have been to spoil the holiday mood of the time. This month, it’s Mayon acting up, again catching many of us out of our January doldrums, edging out of the national consciousness issues of economic afflictions brought about by a rampaging train at year’s start.

The good news is disaster preparedness would seem to be in place, even as the danger zone expands its radial coverage from 6 to 8 kilometers from the crater. The bad news is how the residents living nearest Mayon are coping with the tension-filled experience. Soon after a volcanic eruption, during the in-between hours, they’re back to their homes and fields planted to rice, vegetables and grazed by work animals.

It’s been touch and go since Mayon began acting up a week long since. Thus far, forced evacuation has not been raised as yet, as volcanologists continue their hour-by-hour vigil over Mayon. When the Big Bang materializes — they say the frequency of minor eruptions has become shorter by the day and it’s imminent by every passing moment — shall we again count up the casualty ranks? Shall we just gnash teeth over fatalities that could have been averted if warnings have been heeded?

Even before new lessons are learned the hard way, it’s about time we get to revisit our own disaster plans and check-mark how prepared are we. Are we in fact adapting to a world whose climate swings and natural events are happening rather harshly, punishingly if you will, as if in retribution for what we’ve been doing in the last centuries? Our experience last December clearly indicates that the typhoon victims were caught up in a maelstrom of landslides and flooding in areas expected to be stricken by cascading soil and debris. Either they were not forewarned enough, or they ignored whatever alert notices have been given. Evidently, there’s more nonchalance than disturbance, and we saw more people engulfed in holiday, than on survival, mood.

For us in Baguio, the closest we can relate to severe weather aberrations are the 1990 killer quake and the subsequent huge typhoons that have caused widespread damage not just on lives lost but on economic activities that ground to a halt from dislocated infrastructure systems. To this day, the decade of the nineties still presents a grim reminder of lessons learned and sadly, seemingly forgotten.

When the earth let out a mighty heave on July 16, 1990, doomsday scenarios immediately loomed life-size as 26 seconds of roller-coasting movement rocked many of us down to our knees. Casualties by the thousands were record-high simply because buildings of recent vintage were erected on vulnerable mountain slopes and awakened fault-lines. To this belated day, we remember loved ones gone, but we forgot how better built structures can save more lives, how adaptive to today’s climes we could have been. To this belated day, construction works have gone on frenziedly, characterized by the traditional shortcuts and without respect to geohazard risks.

In his recent newspaper column, noted urban planner and architect Felino A. Palafox Jr. has this to say when today’s buildings, amid climate change, must go through adaptation:  “What is certain is that climate change causes natural disasters to worsen, as pointedly shown to us by our Yolanda experience. That being now the new normal, as architects, we should foresee these kinds of disasters and construct buildings sturdier than before, stronger and more resilient.”

He further advises that building planners and designers must focus on sustainability if we have to strive in keeping the adverse effects of climate change in check, at the very least. Green buildings will allow minimum energy consumption and reduce waste production. Newer technologies, he emphasized, have been paving the way for innovative building materials, lighting, ventilation, and other mechanisms which increase efficiency but are low in energy consumption. Summing it up, he’s telling his colleagues in the profession to “shape our buildings responsibly and in accordance with nature now.”

Somehow, in post-event analysis after the 1990 killer quake, that makes sense. In today’s climes — when events of greater force and ferocity are taking place with impunity, when super weather afflictions quickly develop in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, when seemingly dormant volcanoes go in erratic mood swings, when mighty earthquakes heave out powerful jolts  — that makes super sense. Too bad, we quickly forgot all about that, and by our inaction these recent years, we continue to bask in archaic architectural and engineering practices that ignore climate change induced weather and geologic disturbances. Too bad that business as usual has been good for business, while being bad for the rest of us puny inhabitants of the only planetary home we have.

Clearly, in the aftermath of Harvey, Irma and Maria and during earlier times of Ondoy and Yolanda, and now of Mayon, life can never be as usual, completely unaffected by the new normal that climate change has bred.  Natural disasters will always take place, intensifying each time they strike. Earthquakes will occur more frequently without warning and in greater ferocity. Typhoons will get stronger, lashing at wider areas than before.

True, nature has its own way to take its course, but we have the option not to allow inaction to breed from our own indifference. Leaders may come and go, but people is constant. There will always be victims among us. But we can opt not to be willing victims when natural disaster inflicts its deadly force on vulnerable communities. We can lend a voice to the global cry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that have caused, for centuries now, much of the global warming that our planet has absorbed from our own economic activities.

Are we doing enough to reduce our contributed carbon footprint through self-chosen activities that disengage us from our motor vehicles, even if a bit of a time each time? Are we pressuring our own leaders enough for them to be more serious in alternative energy use? Are they in fact setting iron-clad policies that veer away from coal-powered energy — the very culprit why too much carbon dioxide and other toxic gases are polluting the atmosphere, why our polar icecaps are melting, why our seas are getting warmer, why Harvey, Irma and Maria quickly develop into signature catastrophic events?

Time is swiftly ticking by. Mayon may let out the Big Bang any moment now. Must new lessons be learned once more, in grief? Shouldn’t we be convinced that by our singular effort, done collectively, we can help meet climate change challenges by doing what we can before they take place, and being prepared when already upon us in a face off like no other?

Let us not wait for time to run us out. The reason is simple: time’s up.

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