Manila's annual monsoon mess
The Philippines is enjoying its lively annual debate about typhoons and their effects on the country. Why is it, the press and the public ask, that every wet season the country is hopelessly unprepared to cope with a natural phenomenon that it should by now be used to? It is a tragically repetitive discussion. Senators demand action, the government promises relief, and yet every year hundreds of thousands of Filipinos suffer because of inadequate preparation for the southwest monsoon.
The passing of recent typhoons - Gloria and Herb between them claimed about 60 lives - brought the debate into sharp perspective once more and highlighted the misery inflicted on normal people.
It is not just the under-developed and most inaccessible provinces that suffer. At the height of the latest storm, the scenes of misery in Metro Manila were reminiscent not of a thriving capital city at the heart of an emerging dragon economy, but of a city on the brink of collapse.
Motorists leaving work in the business district of Makati found themselves stranded along the South Superhighway, which leads to many of Manila's middle-class suburbs. Commuters reported horror stories of taking seven hours to get to the commuter belt of Ayala Alabang - a distance of about 20 kilometres.
Many without cars gave up waiting for buses and walked. 'It took me four hours to get home,' said one exasperated office-worker. 'There were no buses, no jeepneys, no nothing. Is this the way the government is going to continue treating its people?' Senator Ernesto Maceda, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said public works teams were being sent to check the South Superhighway, particularly its drainage and potholes. The question on the public's lips is: why this wasn't done before? Mr Maceda chided the Metro Manila Development Authority, which is responsible for traffic in the city, for not sending extra vehicles to help stranded commuters.
Another part of the problem, according to Mr Maceda, were the government's 'frenzied' efforts to clean up Metro Manila in time for the APEC conference in November. 'The Department of Public Works and Highways has once again resorted to simultaneous implementation of road widening and repairs during the rainy season,' he said.
The Manila Bulletin blamed traffic police for what it called 'the most monstrous traffic jam ever seen by mankind'. The newspaper said most traffic police and road enforcers - part-time government employees who are stationed at critical junctions in rush hours - simply gave up and went home.
One motorist said: 'The MMDA is very good at towing away vehicles, but cannot be relied upon during genuine emergencies.' Another reported that when her car broke down on the South Superhighway she found the police arriving promptly.
'They then told me they would cite me for illegal parking if I didn't pay them a bribe. They wanted 3,000 pesos [about HK$1,000], but I only had 300, so I gave it them and they left, without helping.' After the chaos had subsided, Senator Marcelo Fernan called for the intervention of President Ramos to make sure it could not happen again. 'The presidency should not normally be bothered with problems such as traffic, but the situation has got out of hand,' he said.
'This mess requires nothing less than presidential intervention to sort it out.' But with the typhoon season only just starting, Filipinos are worried that the worst is yet to come.