Manila, the capital of the Philippines, was described this week as a “water world.” When streets flood to neck height or frightened people in the water are clinging to the rim of a basketball hoop, it is hard to see that as an exaggeration. In just 24 hours, rain clouds dumped as much rain on the city and its surrounding areas as would be expected at this time of year in some 20 days.
The official death toll is so far very low, which may be a testament to the effectiveness of the warnings the authorities gave before the rainstorm hit. Unfortunately, it could equally be because for the present, rescuers are concentrating on helping the living. As the waters recede and mudslides are cleared from shanty town areas, there may be other victims. Nor have the rains fully ended. More storms are forecast.
Southeast Asian states are no strangers to natural disasters, not least those brought about by typhoons and massive monsoon rains. There is an inevitable resilience among the people of these countries, which is not however always matched by the authorities, in terms of their ability to cope with climatic catastrophes.
Past governments in the Philippines have been criticized for their lack of preparation and inadequate responses to, for instance, the typhoons Ketsana and Nalgae in 2009 and 2011, which killed more than 500 people and left tens of thousands homeless.
This time, however, it is clear that the authorities in the capital were better prepared and have coped well, despite the extraordinary extent of the rainfall and consequent disruption to power and communications. Rescue teams were properly equipped with distinctive uniforms, buoyancy aids and boats. Moreover, in excess of 60,000 people were moved in advance from areas where it was known the floodwaters would arrive to places of safety on higher ground. However, the sheer extent of the flooding and the extra numbers of people that had to be found food and shelter as the waters rose and spread put serious strains on the emergency services, which by and large appear to have managed pretty well.
Nevertheless, President Benigno Aquino has warned that the authorities themselves do not have the capability to deal with a disaster on this scale. He has appealed for ordinary citizens to cooperate and help out.
This seems in large measure to be happening. Public-spirited citizens are doing what they can to shelter those who have been forced to leave their homes. The one sour note in this otherwise admirable story is that some people have already perished and more are in danger because they do not wish to leave their homes and businesses for fear of looters.
Everywhere in the world where disaster strikes, criminal carrion crows sneak in to steal. But what perhaps makes the Philippines different is that many of those who are risking their lives to stay with their worldly goods are doing so because these are all that they possess. Because insurance is an unaffordable luxury, the theft of their possessions would be catastrophic.
This underpins the unacceptable disparities in wealth and opportunity that the president must continue to address by breaking the economic power of the small privileged elite.