Opinion: Ondoy & company and the wages of sin

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By Linda Bolido, Philippine Daily Inquirer

Typhoons Ondoy, Pepeng and Santi may have been natural shocks, but the devastation they caused and the number of lives they claimed went way beyond what was natural and got more than a little help from a host of factors.

Dr. Ernesto M. Pernia, a professor at the University of the Philippines School of Economics and a former ADB lead economist, said, through sins of omission and commission, people had made the effects of these – and most likely future natural calamities – worse than they were in the past.

Pernia, named Outstanding Young Scientist for Social Sciences in 1980 by the National Academy of Science and Technology, admitted that the “usual suspects”– climate change, deforestation, outdated weather forecasting, and neglect of standard urban and regional development planning – indeed had a lot to do with the extent of the damage wrought by the recent disasters.

He said the country had been repeatedly warned for years about the calamitous effects of climate change, including the steady rise in the Earth’s average temperatures because of the unabated release into the atmosphere of gases that trapped heat resulting in greenhouse effect, and the massive clearing of forests that resulted in soil erosion, among others.

As for weather forecasting, he said our country has an antiquated and unreliable system. Despite being prone to severe weather shocks, such as tropical storms and volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, we have woefully failed to invest in weather forecasting facilities and resources, both equipment and human resource.

“The country should have state-of-the-art equipment. Investment in these would seem to be of obvious cardinal importance given the country’s vulnerability to natural calamities,” the economist said.

He said the government has the wrong priorities. Perhaps the equipment needed were not pricey enough to yield significant payoffs for the sponsors, he conjectured, or visible enough for politicians to write their names on so people would know they were acquired through their political leaders’ “generosity”.

But while Pernia conceded these factors – climate change, deforestation, outdated forecasting tools, and poor urban and regional planning – helped make the recent typhoons so deadly and destructive, he also wondered why authorities and the media had, for the most part, ignored – or deliberately overlooked – another important factor why the calamities brought so much tragedy to the country: rapid population growth.

In the 1970s, the social scientist recalled, a seminal multi-disciplinary study – “Population, Resources, Environment, and the Philippine Future” (PREPF) – by academics and policy experts already discussed the critical implications of the dynamics of rapid population growth, natural resource depletion and environmental degradation.

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The study only looked at the possibilities 25 years hence. But today, major strides the country had made in the late ’60s to the early ’70s had all been lost and forgotten.

Pernia said the Philippines was among the first in Asia to adopt a population policy in 1969. But lack of political will and fierce resistance from the Catholic Church hierarchy and other conservative religious groups had buried the policy into oblivion.

The economist said unmanaged population growth, especially if it meant a large proportion living in poverty, was relevant to disaster prevention and mitigation. “A large population that is poor is evidently more vulnerable to disasters,” he pointed out.

One had only to remember images created by the recent typhoons of the poor and marginalized living in vulnerable areas like along waterways and coastal areas and on mountain slopes, who were the first to lose whatever little they had and even their lives. In fact, many of those who found shelter in government structures, including schools, were reluctant to leave their new accommodations, which were definitely safer than the ones they lost, and where they were also assured of three meals a day.

Pernia said the argument that a large population was an asset because of the human resource it represented was flawed. “This (view that population is a resource) is well and good if – and only if – you can give all of them quality education and health care, as well as gainful and self-fulfilling jobs,” he said.

“If a rapidly growing population is good for the economy, the Philippines should today be the most progressive and dynamic economy in Asia. But we have become the laggard instead,” he pointed out.

Pernia, like others who support a sound population policy for the country, said it was about time our political leaders faced up to the conservative religious groups and ceased being held hostage by them. Italy, the seat of Roman Catholicism, and Spain, which brought the religion to the Philippines, have long tolerated modern family planning practice and made contraceptive information and services available to their citizens. In these countries (Italy, Spain and other Catholic countries in Europe and Latin America), church and state have long arrived at mutual understanding and tolerance. “Why can’t this happen in our country?” Pernia (whose first degrees were in Philosophy and Theology) wondered.

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Pernia said those supporting the Reproductive Health Bill had pointed out that “slower population growth is more conductive to economic growth, poverty reduction and preservation of the environment.” It would lead to higher private and public savings that could be invested in human capital (health and education) and infrastructure.

Slower population growth coupled with faster economic development would mean less poverty, inequality and environmental stress. It would also help improve the status of women who would be less burdened by frequent pregnancies –which are usually mistimed or unwanted – that often led them to undergo deadly illegal abortions. It would, moreover, be good for family welfare.

“The argument of those who oppose the bill and say that there is no population problem is based on neither serious empirical research or by public opinion surveys. While rapid population growth may not be considered as the cause of the country’s economic backwardness and poverty, at the very least it exacerbates its underdevelopment and makes poverty more difficult to tackle,” Pernia said. It also makes urban and regional planning more complicated.

Corruption, usually blamed for the country’s ills, has indeed been a major drawback to progress but Pernia pointed out that the Philippines’ Asian neighbours have also been plagued by the problem yet they have been able to achieve economic dynamism. The reason, he believed, was a synergistic combination of good economic policies and sound population policy.

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