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  • Filipinos’ problems go far be­yond Mother Nature, though: For a corrupt, ill-led country like mine, one can’t help worrying about the coming decades under a violently changing climate.
    Just last week, Filipinos were gripped by a storm of a differ­ent consistency and colour. A special Senate committee con­tinued its dramatic investigation into allegations that three of the country’s most powerful sena­tors were among those who fun­nelled as much as $230-million through dummy aid organiza­tions and ghost projects, some of which were ostensibly engaged in agrarian reconstruction after typhoons Ketsana and Parma hit in 2009.

    Now, as disaster relief pours in from around the world and Filipinos prepare to rebuild again, Haiyan has provided a distraction that’s terrible for most and con­venient for these powerful few. Call it counterintuitive or callous, but it’s precisely times like these when we must scrutinize the lead­ers we trust to prepare us for a volatile future.

    It’s not as if the Philippines hasn’t been warned. The archi­pelago is walloped by several ty­phoons or tropical storms each year – there were 19 in 1993 – and we routinely make interna­tional news with massive flooding caused by kickback-plagued infrastructure, slapdash zoning, corner-cut construction and envi­ronmental pillaging that results in massive erosion, flash floods and chronic vulnerability to extreme weather.

    The country also sits on the Ring of Fire, hit often enough by temblors that our Spanish coloniz­ers built impressively buttressed churches in a style now known as “Earthquake Baroque.” In 1991, volcanic activity even forced the United States to abandon two of its key military bases, which were buried under thick layers of tephra and ash.

    Despite this reality, Philippine leaders have historically been complicit in either benefiting from the causes of these disas­ters, or their effects. Not a few political dynasties are reputed to have filled election war chests with the proceeds of clear cut­ting, reducing the country’s for­est cover to less than 20 per cent and leaving denuded slopes prone to sudden landslides. Dur­ing the administration of former president Fidel Ramos, officials were convicted for embezzling funds allocated for the mega-dike intended to protect the country’s most fertile agricultural region from Mount Pinatubo’s volcanic flow. And everyday local-level corruption allows developers to flout regulations, which explains the country’s moonscape roads, shoddy municipal drainage and flimsy buildings.

    It isn’t just elected officials who fail the 96 million people of the Philippines. Religious leaders in this predominantly Roman Cath­olic country have zealously op­posed a landmark reproductive health bill that seeks to address runaway overpopulation and of­fer medical care and education  to empower families struggling with poverty. In response, bishops promised to rally against leaders who supported the bill, and pow­erful politicians such as Senate Majority Leader Tito Sotto (ac­cused of plagiarism in his pseu­doscientific speeches against the reform) obediently fell in with the king-making clergy. Meanwhile, President Benigno Aquino, who backed the bill, faced excommu­nication, and a number of univer­sity professors were threatened with heresy.

    On natural disasters, the church’s outlook has been at best reactive – and at worst, ridiculous. Last year, Bishop Broderick Pabil­lo claimed that Typhoon Bopha, which killed nearly 2,000 Filipi­nos, was God’s warning against reproductive health reform. Last week, Archbishop John Du urged sincere prayer for protection from Haiyan, while also reminding people to reinforce their homes with tree branches. And Bishop Joel Baylon asked Filipinos to recite the Oratio Imperata, a prayer for good weather – reputed to have helped recovery from a 2006 typhoon. Although the church and its organi­zations respond to such calamities with tireless self­lessness, one can’t help but wonder whether faith and fatalism too often stand in for proper preparedness.

    It’s often said that Filipinos habitually elect bad leaders because of our short memories of the past. But as temperatures and sea levels rise, resources grow more scarce and population increases, the ef­fects of corruption and irresponsible planning prom­ise a difficult future. It seems unlikely that our present politicians can lead us against such inevitabilities. When the news cycle moves on from Haiyan and returns to the Senate investigation, the spotlight will again fall on familiar faces: Senator Juan Ponce Enrile was once the lap-bulldog of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Senator Jinggoy Estrada is the son of for­mer president Joseph Estrada, who was ousted and convicted of plunder. Senator Bong Revilla, a popular actor, is the son of a former senator and movie leg­end. They, along with dozens of other politicians and officials, must now answer to accusations that they plundered public funds earmarked for reconstruction and development.

    Alas, for Filipinos, this is an old, familiar story. Just as deadly typhoons are an annual reality. To the international community, I urge you to do­nate what you can through reputable channels. And to the millions of Filipinos at home and abroad, let’s use this tragedy as a reminder to take our leaders to task. What’s at stake is nothing less than our future. Miguel Syjuco is the author of Ilustrado, which won the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize. Born and raised in Manila, he is currently a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard University

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