©PhilSTAR Daily, Inc

Some have described the calamitous flooding that hit the Cagayan Valley in the wake of Typhoon Ulysses as a once-in-a-century event. Not so. It could very well be an annual occurrence.

It is easy to politicize this calamity. A few shallow students from an exclusive university, for instance, are calling for a strike to protest government’s handling of the flooding.

It is easy to assign blame. One television network for instance made the grossly erroneous claim that the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP) is responsible for releasing water from the Magat Dam. The National Irrigation Administration (NIA) fully controls the dam. The agency makes all decisions regarding releasing overflow water to ensure the safety of the facility. A dam break would have caused a catastrophic mass casualty event.

True, the release of water from the dam might have been a factor contributing to the severe flooding. But it is not the only reason the valley has become vulnerable to inundation.

Just last December 2019, with no storm signals raised and only ordinary monsoon rains occurring, the municipality of Alcala, Cagayan was submerged. Over ten thousand families were affected. The flooding was called a once-in-a-century event. But that was only last year.

Former NEDA chief Romy Neri copied me a truly informative post by a Philippine native tree group. It discusses the findings of a team of scientists commissioned by the town of Alcala to study why last year’s flooding happened.

The scientists examined the length of the Cagayan and Pared rivers, observing the rocks and banks, the vegetation and the river flow. They concluded that the flooding as due to a confluence of factors.

Most obviously, Cagayan Valley is a valley. Water flows from the mountain ranges on either side. If the mountains lose their natural ability to hold water because of the loss of native trees that performed that function, the water runoff comes down faster to inundate riverine communities.

Over the past few decades, the slopes and watershed in the entire Cagayan Valley were stripped of the native trees that regulated water release. The loss of the native tress is due both to illegal logging as well as agriculture. The slopes were cleared for yellow corn farming and the use of herbicides kills all the natural vegetation, weakening the soil. Rapid water runoff is guaranteed.

Where Alcala is, the mighty 400-meter wide Cagayan River suddenly constricts to a narrow 180-meter channel. The constriction of river flow causes a rise in water volume and backflow. Sedimentation merely complicates this.

The scientists recommend planting a 30-meter wide vegetation shield to protect the riverbanks. It is urgent to do this – and then eventually restore the native tress in the mountain slopes.

The town actually started doing this, including urging farmers to shift from corn to agro-forestry. But it was too late to prevent last week’s flooding episode.

Until we restore the natural order of things, flooding will happen.

Rapid response

Social media encourage the uninformed convenient (and often anonymous) platforms to castigate irresponsibly.

For instance, in the face of Typhoon Ulysses’ fury, power supply was cut in many areas. People were quick to criticize distribution utility Meralco for that. But they conveniently forget that electricity and water are a deadly combination. In areas under water, it is actually perilous to restore power. It is also dangerous to send repair teams into flooded areas to deal with live power lines.

The truth is, Meralco’s response in the wake of the last typhoon was exceptionally fast.

The distribution utility is the country’s largest, with a customer base of 7 million. On Thursday, shortly after the typhoon passed, 3.8 million customers were affected. By Friday late morning, according to a briefing by company spokesman Joe Zaldarriaga, the number was brought down to 453,349. By Saturday, the number of customers without power supply went down to 213,000 – or 3 percent of the total customer base.

The rapid restoration of power despite the severity of the natural disaster was due to the fact that the company’s entire workforce of line crews worked around the clock in the days after the typhoon. The remaining areas still without power by the weekend are those in heavily flooded areas or those where transmission posts needed to be rebuilt.

The dedication and courage of the line crews who worked under the most difficult conditions ought to have been praised. These are men who work in high winds and heavy rain to repair cut lines or replace busted transformers.

What the unkind commentators on social media miss is that the distribution utility does not thrive by not delivering electricity. It is a business that recovers its investments by delivering power as promptly as possible. The company’s and the customers’ interests are fused.

Fortunately, there were a few reasoned responses in social media too. One article was aptly titled: Don’t Demand Meralco to Restore your Electricity. Their Linemen are not Aquaman. The piece called out the unfair commentary and asked the critics to “check your damn privilege” and puts things in the perspective of a calamity.

Apart from responding to downed power lines, Meralco and its social development arm One Meralco Foundation joined the Power Restoration Rapid Deployment (PRRD) Task Force. The company deployed some of its assets far beyond its franchise area to assist communities devastated by Typhoons Rolly and Ulysses.

It will serve us all well if those who indulge in destructive commentary might instead volunteer their time and energy to help in the rehabilitation effort.