Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Reading water

WHEN a lethargic sun appeared after five days of rain, the birds came out, scolding.

One flock swirled around, black check marks brushed against a leaden sky. Another group, white on their tail tips, swung from the electric cables.

I’ve been watching these birds from the kitchen window. They are noisy like children but wise in other ways. No birdsong ever wakes me when I leave home, the streets sunny, and arrive in another city, an hour or so later, rainwater gurgling in the gutters like some ancient creature loosed from the abyss.

How do birds know what they know?

Yet, we, too, are creatures of the monsoon.

It is my second year in this metropolis. Sprawling, brawling, and sleepless, this city becomes a mere toy subject to the caprices of the monsoons that hit the country from July to August.

With such a regular but unwelcome visitor, I expect communities have a repertoire of responses for surviving days and nights of having more water than one knows what to do with.

In some ways, the efforts of scientists, local governments, and journalists are showing fruit. While it cannot yet be said that many citizens have become amateur meteorologists, we exhibit a behavior that helped our ancestors survive when they first settled along coasts and river banks: we watch the water and teach ourselves to read its ways.

We tap technology, particularly the news media, to monitor the level of water rising in or overflowing from rivers, lakes, and creeks. We take note of high tides that exacerbate flashfloods. We read as yet unseen but familiar outcomes from rising water levels in dams, their dreaded opening and anticipated closing. We watch the eerie stillness of water cities rising overnight or after a few hours of rainfall transform what used to be cavernous underpasses and distant skyways.

Even the mini-tempest contained within a city gutter speaks volumes of what connects affluent well-paved districts to the overcrowded illegal settlements clinging to easements and choking canals and natural waterways that, unblocked, would have released a surfeit of water to the sea, where it can do no damage.

Many things as well get lost in translation.

A pool of water is an invitation for children to swim. No matter how murky, deep or dangerous, floods are a boon for inner city children, starved of amusements that should not threaten their health or endanger their lives. Why has the sight of city kids frolicking among floating waste never inspired public or private funds to be poured for public pools or more public parks?

Yet, what mystifies me most about monsoons is not the torrential rains but our response to it. Then and now, rescuers and journalists are exasperated by the stubbornness of some people to resist being evacuated.

One reporter even coined “self-evacuation,” a redundancy that nevertheless captures the novelty of residents voluntarily leaving home and property before rising water levels put them at greatest risk or the government sends troops and trucks to “strongly persuade” them to save themselves.

“Kalmado sila dahil sanay na raw sila (they are calm as they are used to this)” was commented by a reporter for more than one community or group of late evacuees. Some residents cling to their second floors or roofs, their faith unshaken by repeated warnings that these are no havens if the rains continue or dams are opened.

Drivers in stranded trucks slept, waiting for flooded streets to go back to normal. More than one government executive said that after the floodwaters subside, evacuees will return “home”: the unpredictable, unsettled life beside riverbanks or under bridges.

To be unsettled is preferred to being resettled. “Walang buhay doon (there’s no life there)” is a judgment passed by many who refuse to be moved to faraway places the government argues are high, dry, and safe.

We are a people of the monsoon, inured to all disasters but the curse of losing our home.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu's Aug. 25, 2013 issue of the Sunday editorial page column, "Matamata"

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