Flooding and social trust
MANILA, Philippines - As early as Monday evening, August 6, a series of rainfall warnings had been issued by PAGASA, highlighting the need to evacuate the low-lying areas in Metro Manila.
Flooding is imminent in these areas due to the overflowing of dams and rivers caused by the torrential southwest monsoon rains. True to their training on disaster management, barangay officials in the identified vulnerable areas started going around their communities encouraging their constituents to voluntarily evacuate to safer ground. Very few however opted to move.
Thus when the rains continued unabated the whole of Monday night up to the early morning of Tuesday, the same residents found themselves trapped by still rising floodwaters. By this time, rescuing them, though still possible, was several times more difficult.
According to PAGASA, a total of 472 mm of rain fell within 22 hours of Aug 6 and 7, 2012. This volume even exceeded the 455 mm volume of rain brought by Ondoy in September 2009. A total of 539,838 families were affected mostly coming from the low-lying barangays of Quezon, Malabon, Manila, Marikina, Pasig, Pasay, and Taguig.
Give or take several inches of floodwater, many if not all of these barangays experienced the same flooding in 2009. If indeed experience is the best teacher, then these residents should have learned from their previous experience. But did they?
As with Ondoy, the last spate of flooding affected people from all walks of life. However because their households were near waterways, working and poorer families – already used to a life of risk-taking – were particularly vulnerable. In oft-repeated scenes in flooding coverage, many residents opted to wait until the last possible minute before deciding to evacuate their homes.
Meanwhile, others flatly refused evacuation, deciding to weather the floods in their own homes. No less than President Noynoy Aquino appealed to the people to heed the advice of local officials when they were asked to evacuate.
Undersecretary Benito Ramos of the National Disaster and Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRRMC) also lamented that many of the flood victims were pasaway (stubborn), making the tasks of the rescuers doubly difficult.
What made them refuse help even in the middle of potential danger? Are they so misinformed, making them incapable of coming up with correct and timely decisions? Didn’t they learn from the misfortunes caused by Ondoy? Is there some truth to Oscar Lewis’ much criticized “culture of poverty?” According to him, the poor have their own sub-culture characterized by lack of vision and too much dependency on others.
Many of those interviewed refused to evacuate since they did not want to leave their houses unattended. For those who were forced to move, a member of the household – usually an adult male – stayed behind to watch over belongings left behind. Have they become so attached to their material possessions they were even willing to put the lives of family members at risk?
I would like to argue that when these people refused to evacuate, they knew exactly what they were doing. They were behaving this way because of the absence of social trust in institutions that, in the past, had provided very little for them and their families.
For one, there seems to be an overall lack of trust in the veracity of rainfall warnings issued by PAGASA. This was further complicated by the confusion stemming from the color-coded warning messages used by the weather bureau.
For most of their lives, these people have lived with the fickleness of these rivers and they believe they know best when to pack their bags and go – not a government agency that cannot even get its colors right.
Based on previous experience, evacuees know the inadequacy of government agencies in securing properties left behind during evacuations. Many of them had experienced returning not only to flooded, but also looted homes. These material possessions may not be worth all that much, but for families with limited economic resources their perceived value maybe more than their actual worth.
Lastly and most importantly, they do not trust the capacity of government agencies to provide adequate and livable evacuation facilities. They have seen and heard enough horror stories about congested evacuation centers and toilets overflowing with human waste.
The overall low level of social trust should not come as a surprise. In a 2006 study by Rothstein and Uslanger, the Philippines was actually cited as one of the countries with the lowest levels of social trust. Some of the factors significantly associated with low levels of social trust were inequality and corruption, and the Philippines scored quite high on both factors.
In a country with a population of more than 90 million, the coverage – not to mention the quality – of universal social programs on education, health, and housing are very limited. In 2010, the country registered a Gini coefficient of 44%, making our country one of the highest in terms of income inequality in Southeast Asia.
On top of this, the country has always been mired in corruption. Even with its “Daang Matuwid” campaign, the present administration has its own share of corruption scandals enough for the country to still rank high in the corruption indices of Transparency International.
Filipinos may have high levels of trust with people they personally know such as members of their family, neighborhood, and communities. But there is very little sense of connection not only with the government, but also with members of society they have nothing in common with.
Build the trust
Why is this low level of social trust especially problematic for a country with high levels of inequality and corruption? Controlling levels of inequality are the objectives of many, if not all countries in the world. The success of programs designed to curb existing inequality and corruption however requires high levels of social trust from all members of society.
Unless the government make good on its promises of providing better access to universal education, health and housing, many Filipinos may have very little option but to live in precarious areas that regularly get flooded.
In a society that provides very little opportunity to succeed in life, they will always find it easier to continue negotiating the system. And in no way do these practices foster higher levels of social trust with government and society as a whole.
Learning from our sad experience with Ondoy and the more recent flooding caused by the southwest monsoon rains, long-term programs that attempt to solve that problem on flooding should necessarily include housing and relocation of people in vulnerable situations.
These however are unlikely to succeed unless government also addresses the more fundamental issue of building more social trust among Filipinos. Though difficult, the government should muster enough political will to provide adequate basic services to all Filipinos regardless of social location. And maybe then, Filipinos can start trusting their own government again. – Rappler.com
Leslie Advincula-Lopez teaches Introductory Sociology and Anthropology at the Ateneo's Department of Sociology and Anthropology. She is presently a lecturer and a PhD candidate.