The Calm Before the Storm

This June, the Philippines was ranked first in the world in terms of storm-related fatalities for the second consecutive year. The year 2012 left the nation with the highest number of storm casualties anywhere in the world, the same was true in 2011 as well. The previous year, Filipinos endured Typhoon ‘Sendong’ which left 1,257 people dead and over US$31.7M in property damage. The year before that, typhoon ‘Pablo’ was sensationally named as the “world’s most destructive storm”, grouped as a Category 5 super typhoon by international weather stations and claimed 1,900 dead. The material damage was also a whooping US$1 billion.

Earlier this year, the capital was plagued by a flash flood that welcomed the start of the rainy season. Yet, it was merely a normal setting for Metro Manila during the rainy season. Indeed, storm-related deaths and flooding is no rare occasion in the Philippines; but in saying so, where then is the solution to this problem? Nowhere in sight, it can be said. To make matters worse, the nation’s weather-forecasting agency the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) is busy weathering it’s own storm.

The agency is coping with faulty equipment and an exodus of scientists to accurately warn the country of typhoons. The biggest blow so far is the resignation of their top scientist, administrator Nathaniel Servando has left his post to pursue a teaching job at a university in Qatar. Meanwhile, the recent Congress concluded having failed to enact a bill that would modernize the agency. Ironically, PAGASA translates to “hope” in English; given the circumstances they are in and the advent of the rainy season, can the Filipino masses pin their hopes to an agency in crisis?

The Philippine Army distributing relief goods to flood-hit residents.
The Philippine Army distributing relief goods to flood-hit residents.

Much like any other promise given by the government, the dream of a modern PAGASA has been unfulfilled for several administrations now. Anecdotes of procuring modern equipment for the agency can be traced as far back as the Ramos administration of 1992, but it’s 2013 now in the tenure of Ramos’ predecessor’s son Benigno Aquino Jr. and we are not any closer to having an efficient, accurate weather forecasting agency.

To make it worse, the agency is facing a mass exodus of trained personnel. This should come as no surprise, the worsening effects of climate change has caused an increase in demand of weather scientists abroad. The paltry salary earned by domestic scientists makes a move overseas a no brainer; in fact, wage demands were the biggest complaints among protesting PAGASA personnel. One of them, Jori Loiz, went on air to say that he has to borrow money from relatives just to commute to work because his take home pay was not enough to sustain his family. The monthly Php20,000 wage earned by PAGASA scientists is miniscule compared to the average Php200,000/month earned abroad, which made the Philippine Weathermen Employees Association (PWEA) warn that more skilled professionals would seek greener pastures overseas.

This trend is worrying, the Philippines is constantly ranked among the countries in the world most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and it’s driving foreign investors away. Not to forget the sizable collateral damage sustained from these typhoons, especially the agricultural sector which composes a significant chunk of the country’s GDP. This issue is certainly an economic one as well.

So if the PAGASA is so important, where is all the effort to improve it? Certainly not with the Congress, after the Upper House ended their most recent session failing to enact the PAGASA modernization bill. When approval was about to take place, only 10 senators were present in the quorum out of a required 15, therefore the bill wasn’t passed. An existing law, the Magnar Carta for Scientists, also failed to provide scientists with their mandatory Php6,000 benefits due to an unreleased budget.

The officials who were elected to serve the people are certainly relaxed about the threats of natural calamities even with the surprising statistics about typhoons already known. They were chosen to fulfill one job, attend House sessions in order to enact laws, but when only 15 of the twenty-four Senators were needed to finally modernize PAGASA, only ten were at work. What could be more important than serving your country?

Indeed it sends a bad message regarding the commitment of the country to curb the damage mother nature is capable of, not just to foreign investors but more importantly to the Filipinos who are footing the wages of these public officials. The PAGASA modernization bill is still enrolled in Congress, these politicians have a shot at redemption when the next Session opens. But time is running out, more violent typhoons are forming and PAGASA is helplessly unable to warn the public about them. More modern technology and better incentives for scientists are needed fast, otherwise the recent troubles affecting PAGASA is merely just the calm before the storm.

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