Arroyo must make good on radar systems pledge

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 October, 2009, 12:00am

A government's priority is to protect the well-being of its people. There is no better test of its commitment than when disaster strikes. Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's administration has, in this regard, failed time and again. It did so spectacularly with Tropical Storm Ketsana, again revealing how little it cares for its constituents.

The Philippines is pounded by as many as 20 typhoons a year. Dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people are killed and many millions of dollars of damage is caused. Nature cannot be tamed, but in the case of severe weather events, technology means its wrath can be anticipated. Arroyo for the past five years has repeatedly promised to have advanced forecasting radar systems installed; politicking, corruption and government waste means they remain a pledge.

What happens when such systems are absent was demonstrated by Ketsana. Manila has not experienced as violent a downpour in 40 years. But in the hours before the storm struck on the morning of September 26, state weather forecasters were predicting only moderate to heavy rain. No alert was issued and the city of 10 million was caught off-guard; about 300 people were drowned by floodwaters and 300,000 made homeless. Some parts of the city are still flooded.

The government's failure extends beyond forecasting. Disaster response mechanisms broke down. Emergency phones went unanswered. Rescue teams had insufficient equipment and numbers. Citizens were forced to fend for themselves.

Arroyo has promised, as she did after devastating storm-caused landslides in 2004 and 2006, that there will not be a repeat. The first two of up to 10 new weather radar systems could be in place by the end of the year. Filipinos have learned not to hold their breath: they have watched millions of dollars that could have bought such systems several times over frittered away and Congressional debate focused on seemingly more pressing matters like constitutional change. But this time has to be different. Too many lives and livelihoods have been needlessly lost and remain at risk.