By now, the world knows the devastation wrought on the Philippines by Typhoon Haiyan, one of the most powerful storms ever to make landfall. It's left thousands dead, hundreds of thousands homeless, millions needing aid, and billions of dollars in damage—in a region still reeling from the Oct. 15 earthquake that destroyed more than 70,000 homes and demolished centuries-old churches.
Filipinos' problems go far beyond Mother Nature, though: For a corrupt, ill-led country like mine, one can't help worrying about the coming decades under a violently changing climate.
Just last week, Filipinos were gripped by a storm of a different consistency and colour. A special Senate committee continued its dramatic investigation into allegations that three of the country's most powerful senators were among those who funnelled as much as $230-million through dummy aid organizations and ghost projects, some of which were ostensibly engaged in agrarian reconstruction after typhoons Ketsana and Parma hit in 2009.
Now, as disaster relief pours in from around the world and Filipinos prepare to rebuild again, Haiyan has provided a distraction that's terrible for most and convenient for these powerful few. Call it counterintuitive or callous, but it's precisely times like these when we must scrutinize the leaders we trust to prepare us for a volatile future.
It's not as if the Philippines hasn't been warned. The archipelago is walloped by several typhoons or tropical storms each year – there were 19 in 1993 – and we routinely make international news with massive flooding caused by kickback-plagued infrastructure, slapdash zoning, corner-cut construction and environmental pillaging that results in massive erosion, flash floods and chronic vulnerability to extreme weather.
The country also sits on the Ring of Fire, hit often enough by temblors that our Spanish colonizers built impressively buttressed churches in a style now known as "Earthquake Baroque." In 1991, volcanic activity even forced the United States to abandon two of its key military bases, which were buried under thick layers of tephra and ash.
Despite this reality, Philippine leaders have historically been complicit in either benefiting from the causes of these disasters, or their effects. Not a few political dynasties are reputed to have filled election war chests with the proceeds of clear cutting, reducing the country's forest cover to less than 20 per cent and leaving denuded slopes prone to sudden landslides. During the administration of former president Fidel Ramos, officials were convicted for embezzling funds allocated for the mega-dike intended to protect the country's most fertile agricultural region from Mount Pinatubo's volcanic flow. And everyday local-level corruption allows developers to flout regulations, which explains the country's moonscape roads, shoddy municipal drainage and flimsy buildings.
It isn't just elected officials who fail the 96 million people of the Philippines. Religious leaders in this predominantly Roman Catholic country have zealously opposed a landmark reproductive health bill that seeks to address runaway overpopulation and offer medical care and education to empower families struggling with poverty. In response, bishops promised to rally against leaders who supported the bill, and powerful politicians such as Senate Majority Leader Tito Sotto (accused of plagiarism in his pseudoscientific speeches against the reform) obediently fell in with the king-making clergy. Meanwhile, President Benigno Aquino, who backed the bill, faced excommunication, and a number of university professors were threatened with heresy.
On natural disasters, the church's outlook has been at best reactive – and at worst, ridiculous. Last year, Bishop Broderick Pabillo claimed that Typhoon Bopha, which killed nearly 2,000 Filipinos, was God's warning against reproductive health reform. Last week, Archbishop John Du urged sincere prayer for protection from Haiyan, while also reminding people to reinforce their homes with tree branches. And Bishop Joel Baylon asked Filipinos to recite the Oratio Imperata, a prayer for good weather – reputed to have helped recovery from a 2006 typhoon. Although the church and its organizations respond to such calamities with tireless selflessness, one can't help but wonder whether faith and fatalism too often stand in for proper preparedness.
It's often said that Filipinos habitually elect bad leaders because of our short memories of the past. But as temperatures and sea levels rise, resources grow more scarce and population increases, the effects of corruption and irresponsible planning promise a difficult future. It seems unlikely that our present politicians can lead us against such inevitabilities.
When the news cycle moves on from Haiyan and returns to the Senate investigation, the spotlight will again fall on familiar faces: Senator Juan Ponce Enrile was once the lap-bulldog of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Senator Jinggoy Estrada is the son of former president Joseph Estrada, who was ousted and convicted of plunder. Senator Bong Revilla, a popular actor, is the son of a former senator and movie legend. They, along with dozens of other politicians and officials, must now answer to accusations that they plundered public funds earmarked for reconstruction and development.
Alas, for Filipinos, this is an old, familiar story. Just as deadly typhoons are an annual reality.
To the international community, I urge you to donate what you can through reputable channels. And to the millions of Filipinos at home and abroad, let's use this tragedy as a reminder to take our leaders to task. What's at stake is nothing less than our future.
Miguel Syjuco is the author of Ilustrado, which won the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize. Born and raised in Manila, he is currently a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard University.