As the Philippine government dithered and made excuses for its grossly inadequate response to the catastrophic floods — which inundated 80% of the country's capital, Manila — Sonny Melencio was leading a grassroots relief effort that brought the first food supplies in days to some of the poorest and most badly affected communities.
Together with other activists from the Party of the Labouring Masses (PLM), Melencio went to urban poor communities along the flood-breached Marikina River with supplies collected from ordinary people, whose upsurge of solidarity was in sharp contrast with the official response.
On August 13, Peter Boyle, a correspondent for Green Left Weekly and Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, interviewed Melencio, who is the chairperson of the PLM. The party is part of a global network of people’s organisations and NGOs demanding imperialist countries pay up for the consequences of climate change and take radical actions to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
* * *
With heavy rains easing, it is reported the death toll is still rising, about 300,000 people remain displaced and a new danger of disease epidemics is looming. How are the various sectors of Philippine society responding?
Tens of thousands of evacuees are returning to their homes and are facing a situation where they wouldn’t even have a place to sleep. Many houses have been damaged, others are swept away by the flood, and most have collected mud inside their homes as thick as a foot high.
They are forced to leave the evacuation centres, which are mostly public schools and buildings, as classes and government work resume[d] on August 13.
The poor have been the victims of the flood and will continue to suffer from loss of homes, loss of income, damaged health, rising prices and government neglect in all social aspects.
There is going to be an extended period of crisis. After the floods, a health crisis is looming. The government’s department of health has issued a warning alert on an expected rise of leptospirosis, typhoid and diarrhoea due to the flood and contaminated water. The level of crisis is magnified by pharmaceutical companies jacking up the prices of medicine, especially for these illnesses.
The price of anti-leptospirosis medicine, for instance, has been raised by 750%, prompting President Benigno Aquino to censure the drug company responsible (without mentioning it by name), but stopping short from calling for price controls on vital medicines.
On the other hand, I think the ruling class and the trapos (traditional politicians) are heaving a sigh of relief, not because the weather has improved and the floods have subsided, but because they are now free of the pressure to at least show some semblance of responsibility and concern to the flood victims.
It’s back to business for the elite.
The mainstream media seemed to focus on blaming people who refused to leave their homes in the most flooded areas. What is this about?
This has been the case every time there is flooding, especially in Metro Manila. Of course, the usual flooded areas are the poor communities, which are near rivers and canals in the cities.
The TV reporters would report on the dire situation, but one half of the report would be spent castigating people on why they would not leave their flooded homes. In the same breath, these reporters would mention the lack of rescue boats and overflowing evacuation centres for residents in flooded areas.
Those in the studio would do the same thing; they would join in the fray by prolonging the conversation on how “hard-headed” and “foolish” the people were for not leaving their homes.
This is the same spiel we heard from government officials interviewed on radio and TV. I think they have been trained to report this way. It’s almost like they have a scripted report.
Instead of investigating why there are not many rescue boats and what’s happening in the evacuation centres, the media would rather blame the victims for not heeding the government’s call for relocation.
But this call for relocation is usually just a call. How can [the] government expect people to leave their homes when no means of transport was adequately provided, the evacuation centres were public buildings without adequate ventilation and toilets, and there was lack of food, water and other necessities that people need?
In Barangay Olandes, Marikina, which we visited on the second day of the flooding, more than a thousand residents in the evacuation centre and thousands more outside the centre had not had food for a full day. Our porridge was just enough to feed those in the evacuation centre.
In Lupang Arenda, Taytay, the 278 families in the evacuation centre were divided into 14 small classrooms with around 19 families per classroom. It was only on the third day that they were visited by local government officials, who brought 14 cartons of cup noodles and sardines for everyone to share.
There are also reports that attempts to re-plan Manila to avoid the worst flooding are being blocked by official corruption and indifference. What does this reflect structurally?
There have been billions of pesos slated for disasters every year. This year, it’s 10.5 billion pesos (about $240 million). The remaining disaster fund is around 6 billion pesos.
But the release of the fund is open to corruption in the bureaucracy. The fund goes through various departments and local government units concerned in cities or areas where a state of disaster has been declared.
In the end, the bureaucracy decides where the fund will be used. It is easy for any official to divert the fund elsewhere.
We have raised the demand that the fund be used strategically, that is to allocate a big part of the fund to finance structural projects that will control flooding, such as [the] building of dikes, water basins, barriers; modernising [the] drainage system; and dredging clogged rivers and canals.
Now, because of the flood crisis and the impending health crisis, we are demanding that the entire amount be released to fund [a] rehabilitation project for communities, and also to start strategic projects right away.
At times of crisis, we often witness an explosion of human solidarity from ordinary people. Have you seen this in this crisis?
People are showing more solidarity with each other during the flooding. Neighbours helped their neighbours; even children helped out by using styrofoam and plastic basins to roam around the neighbourhood and rescue residents who were trapped in their houses.
Many people’s organisations, NGOs, student groups and civic clubs came out from day one to support the flood victims. In fact, many braved the floods in the first few days, while the government took time to distribute relief.
The barangays (village councils) also became frontline organisations that undertook rescue and relief at the height of the flooding.
Do you think it is possible to generalise this kind of solidarity as a basis for a new socialist society? What can help this and what are the barriers to such a generalisation of solidarity?
I think human solidarity is a basic trait of our people. Especially if it’s not mediated by people and institutions who want to profit at the expense of others, like the trapos who used the occasion to campaign for the coming elections.
The president’s entourage, which boarded a truck that waded through the floods in Pasig City, consisted of senatorial candidates in the coming 2013 elections; shame on them. Or like the pharmaceutical companies and other capitalist corporations, which raised the prices of their goods to astronomical figures because of big demand.
Outside of these elite creatures and capitalist institutions, the ordinary people responded in the most humane way. Most of the support we collected came from workers and urban poor residents too. They donated dry clothing, provided cooking utensils and helped out in the feeding stations we set up in the evacuation centres.
People’s solidarity is a latent component that exists even in the capitalist system. We have to nurture it and provide an environment for it to fully develop by changing the system.
Manila and other parts of the Philippines seem to experience these severe floods every year. Do you think this is a symptom of global climate change?
The large amount of rainfall during typhoon or monsoon season that the Philippines is experiencing now is indicative of climate change. This has not happened before.
We became aware of this phenomenon during Typhoon Ondoy in 2009, which inundated many parts of Metro Manila. What hit the Philippines today is not even a typhoon, it’s monsoon winds and rains, but the amount of rainfall has been reported greater than in the 2009 typhoon.
And this time around, half of Metro Manila was flooded, as well as nearby provinces surrounding Metro Manila in the north and south. Huge flooding in Metro Manila is becoming a normal occurrence and it’s getting worse.
The PLM is part of the network of people’s organisations and NGOs that are demanding the imperialist countries pay up for the consequences of global warming and take radical action to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
We also believe that persuasion will not work with these imperialist governments, and the people of the world should undertake more pressure against them.
In the end, the only solution will be to get rid of the capitalist system and institute a system where human solidarity, human needs and the preservation of the planet’s resources would become a top priority.
* * *
Appeal for volunteers for a clean up campaign organised by various people's organisations.
Support the PLM's Medical Missions
A health epidemic is now looming in the aftermath of the floods. Party of the Laboring Masses-PLM and its mass organisations are now preparing medical missions in the affected PLM base communities (see poster below). There has been no move on the government's part to do so in a comprehensive way. While we are calling on the government to mobilise all health professionals to affected areas, we are undertaking it on our own initiative as we can't wait for the government to respond.
Donations can be made to assist these missions to Transform Asia:
Donations can be made in three ways:
1. For those with PayPal accounts you can send donations email@example.com via PayPal and it will be sent directly to the Transform Asia flood appeal account.
2. Go to the Transform Asia website transform-asia.org/transform-asia-appeal and press the "donate" button.
3. Transfer directly to:
Transform Asia Gender and Labor Institute
Account No. 304-2-30400456-2
Swift Code: MBTCPHMM
Metro Bank, Anonas
Branch: Aurora Blvd, Project 4
Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines
Mobile No. +63 (0)9088877702
A Medical Mission team at Sampaguita Village, Malanday, Marikina.
A Medical Mission team at Sampaguita Village, Malanday, Marikina.