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Unnatural disaster: super typhoon Pablo kills 1500 in the Philippines

Ruins of Cateel, Central Elementary School
LD Borromeo

December 31, 2012

Southern Mindanao lies outside of the Philippines' very wide typhoon belt. In 2011, it was hit by a category 5 typhoon which killed approximately 1500 people. On December 4, 2012, it was hit by Typhoon Pablo, another category 5 typhoon. Category 5 typhoons are referred to as super typhoons and have wind speeds in excess of 250 km/hr. The Philippine government now predicts that deaths from this latest super typhoon will once again exceed 1500.
On December 4 the initial death count – wildly inaccurate – was 42; on December 6 it was 322, and on December 21 it was 1050. Much of this is to do with the slow pace of rescue efforts: over 800 people were still missing by Christmas. Meanwhile over 2,400 families -11,680 people - are staying in 43 overcrowded evacuation centers around the country with inadequate access to medical treatment, sanitation, food and water; 711,682 families or 6,243,998 people are listed as "affected" by the typhoon. A large proportion of these casualties come from Southern Mindanao.
Global warming will mean more typhoons in general for a population whose architecture, general infrastructure, and agriculture depends on relatively calm weather. Capital internationally blocks every effort to stop climate change, but it is the poor of the developing world who will be the first to pay the price.
But to understand the severity of the crisis we need to see the context into which global warming enters. The Philippine GDP was $224.8 billion in 2011; the Davao Region – which was particularly hard hit by the typhoon – contributes just over 10.4 per cent to that total. Services are the single largest contributors to this, however mining and agriculture are important as well. Strip mining, logging and intensive agriculture have depleted the forests at the same time as they have marginalized small scale farmers and miners. These industries not only release large amounts of greenhouse gases, contributing to global warming they also increase the severity of floods and landslides by destroying the forest cover. Over the decades, these developments have pulled some out of dire poverty, pushed others into it, and, in general, mirrored the economic inequality typical of Philippine society. Naturally, the families injured by the typhoon are not seeing the wealth that they generated for the Philippines being marshaled for their aid; in fact national development has increased the dangers of "natural" catastrophes without developing a commensurate safety net. This is demonstrated by the fact that a year has passed since the last super typhoon and yet the human cost is the same.
More than this, Mindanao is the site of an extended civil war, and is therefore one of the most heavily militarized areas of the country. Resistance fighters have declared a ceasefire in response to the typhoon, so the issue is not a lack of personnel. The fact that a single organization, the military, is tasked with both oppression and emergency relief is the issue. The military has acted for decades as legal mercenaries for the capitalists – both domestic and international – to clear communities of the Bangsamoro, indigenous peoples and peasants. The New People's Army – the armed wing of the largest Maoist organization in the country – claims that the government in Manila, with the help of American troops, is using the disaster to further attack the sovereignty of the local population by "monopolizing" aid work with various private organizations ignoring and undermining the local networks.
The inclusion of private organizations here points to another issue: the long term retreat of the state in the period of neoliberalism. There has been a steady pattern of the state abdicating responsibility in every imaginable sector of society from housing to disaster relief. It is therefore unable to provide a centrally funded and coordinated response to catastrophic events and so relies on NGOs and charitable organizations to handle the work according to whatever methods each group deems appropriate (the government is however capable of giving "regulatory relief" to adversely affected banks). This issue is exacerbated and complicated by the government's inability to work in partnership with the local peoples of Mindanao or to truly recognize their claims to sovereignty – an inability structurally determined by the current needs of Philippine capitalism.
Although the Bangsamoro and indigenous peoples have made some important gains in the past year, the truth is that global warming and the various contradictions of Philippine capitalism are going to conspire to keep the poor of Mindanao – and indeed the rest of the Philippines – vulnerable to similar catastrophes for a long time to come.

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