Smokestacks in a storm


The appalling human and economic toll of the recent typhoons has led to ritual finger-pointing and recrimination among government agencies. A prominent example is the argument over the role played by the release of dam water, particularly from Magat Dam, in exacerbating the floods experienced in Cagayan and Isabela. The provincial government of Cagayan has now threatened to sue the National Irrigation Administration (NIA), which operates Magat Dam, for the damage the flooding has caused.

And — as called for in the usual script — a congressional fact-finding investigation is also in the offing.

In their own defense, the dam operators point out that not being able to relieve the pressure on the dam would have led to a dam break and an even worse catastrophe. In a possible court case, the province would need to argue that the dam operator’s behavior rose to a threshold of negligence that led to a strict liability. Against this, the dam operator will likely contrapose a defense of statutory privilege (Magat was ordered built by the dictator Marcos in 1978), force majeure (the fact of the typhoon itself), and processes beyond the dam owner’s control (e.g., watershed denudation owing to logging, mining, and the river’s meander).

On the narrow issue of negligence, the dam operators’ main argument is that they followed the letter of the existing protocol for releasing dam water, that is, providing sufficiently early warning about the timing and volume of water about to be released (it is said, via e-mail, text messages, and hard copy). This, after all, was all that was required under their “mandate.”

All these narrow legal points however obscure a larger problem. This much became evident in an Inquirer interview with the Cagayan governor, Manuel Mamba, who was quoted as saying, “Sa amin, we don’t know the extent of the effect on the flooding itself. Kahit na sabihin mo sa aming 6,000 [cubic meters per second of water], kahit sabihin mo sa aming apat na swimming pool per second ang mailalabas niya… ‘Di naman [kami] sinabihan na magpa-evacuate na kayo dahil mag-release kami ng ganito, ganito kasi ang mangyayari, they do not even tell us dahil hindi nila alam kung gaano kalalim. ‘Di nila alam kung anong epekto ng binibitawan nila.” (Even if you tell us 6,000 [cubic meters per second of water], even if you say you will release four swimming pools per second… They did not tell us to start evacuating because we will release this much because this will happen, they did not even tell us because they did not know how deep. They did not know what the effect of what they released would be.) The newspaper report then goes on to speculate that the tragedy in question was due to “unclear communication” from the dam operators. But, really, it was more — and worse — than that.

The first and obvious failure was one of science — both its production and use. The governor was complaining that the factual and scientific information provided (i.e., cubic meters of dam water released per second) was insufficient data to act on. The dam operators provided an input into how much they were about to contribute to the river’s flow. But the single crucial variable was the predicted overall rise in the river’s flood level taking everything into account, i.e., not just the dam’s contribution but also how much rainfall there had been, the river’s present carrying capacity, the level of ground saturation, its meander, etc. — all of which in turn depended on longer-term processes such as siltation, changing forest cover, land use especially in the watersheds, and climate change (yes, Nonoy, that too).

A second piece of useful knowledge would have been the areas of settlement at various elevations that were at risk of, say, inundation or landslides given varying levels of rainfall and flood. None of these data were apparently readily available — not even now. Producing the data and making them available, but more importantly piecing them together in actionable form, was a task that fell between chairs: it was viewed as the responsibility of neither the dam operator NIA, nor the local government, nor PAGASA (Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration), nor DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources), nor of any single government agency for that matter.

Joel Mokyr, the doyen of the history of technological change, draws a distinction between “propositional knowledge” (episteme) and “prescriptive knowledge” (techne), i.e., the “what” as distinct from the “how.” Propositional knowledge is knowledge of natural laws and of cause-and-effect relations in the abstract — say, that wind loads and wind uplift of a certain force will threaten the integrity of buildings of certain types. Elements of prescriptive knowledge, on the other hand, “consist of ‘do-loops’ replete with ‘if-then’ statements instructing one how to carry out activities…” [Mokyr 2002: 10]. In the case of typhoons, which occur frequently, both types of knowledge are by now established and well-known. The propositional fact that winds of 100-185 kph will rip the roofs off most houses of light materials is coupled with the technological “routine” or prescription that tells people to take shelter in stronger structures once Signal No. 3 is raised in their area.

In the case of the Cagayan-Isabela floods, however, this type of science and technology — particularly the codification of propositional knowledge into prescriptive signals and routines — was clearly absent. There is still a gap in the country’s warning system in that it fails to translate expected rainfall — particularly when typhoon signals are down, as they were in Cagayan — into predicted flood levels on which local governments can base actionable routines.

The type of integrative science required is not unknown, however, and was already exemplified by the late-lamented Project NOAH. That multidisciplinary project under the Aquino administration, led by UP’s Mahar Lagmay and C.P. David and using LIDAR, produced ground-breaking disaster maps under various scenarios for 16 provinces, down to the barangay level. Among its achievements was the establishment of a storm-surge warning system (learning from Yolanda) apart from flood-, wind force-, and landslide-warnings. Unfortunately the program could not be expanded — and therefore did not include Cagayan and Isabela — before its funding support was cut by the incoming Duterte administration in 2017. (The current presidential spokesman cannot now even recall that it existed. Oh, well.)

The second and deeper failure however is one of governance. The government’s typical disjointed approach to preparing for and mitigating disasters and other novel challenges reflects the widespread “silo mentality” or “smokestack syndrome” among its agencies. This refers to the inability or unwillingness of agencies to share information and responsibility. Instead, each entity routinely spews out its customary information or follows an inflexible routine as listed in its “mandate” — in the worst sense of the word bureaucratic — without much regard for whether these are still relevant or adequate to the tasks at hand.

While more or less present in all complex organizations with a division of functions, the smokestack syndrome is particularly acute in the Philippines owing to the deep politicization of the civil service. At the beginning of his term, the president personally appoints thousands of his erstwhile supporters into the bureaucracy — from cabinet secretaries down to bureau directors, a global idiosyncrasy — each claiming to have a more or less direct line to the chief and therefore entitled to their own autonomy and discretion in their own larger or smaller domains. Much like the Holy Roman Empire (i.e., medieval Germany), each prince, whether petty or great, has a direct franchise from the emperor which makes others loath to intervene or cooperate — for good or ill. No surprise therefore that in this environment, any initiative for a joint effort will be in short supply and always dependent on prior clearance from ever-higher-ups — and ultimately the president. More importantly, lower subordinates come to develop a parochial patriotism and servile loyalty towards their specific bosses that kills all initiative and makes cooperation and coordination tedious and long-winded.

Proof that this happens will be seen in the strange penchant among departments and agencies for signing MoAs (memorandum of agreement) not only with non-government entities but revealingly even with each other to accomplish some common function that should have been part of their duties anyway. MoA signings — the obligatory pomp and photo-ops are testimony to the arduous effort required to reach agreement — are homologous to treaties between sovereign states. Hundreds of these exist, e.g., between the NIA and the DENR; between the NIA and PAGASA; between the Department of Finance (DoF) and the money laundering council; the DoF and the Philippine Competition Commission (PCC); the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the PCC; the DTI and the Department of Energy (DoE); the DTI and the telecoms commission, and so forth and so on, with even more for lower-level agencies. And here’s one for the books: there are actually MoAs signed between a department and its own subordinate bureaus! One example is a MoA between the DoF, the Bureau of Customs and the Bureau of Internal Revenue — suggesting that the latter two are virtually independent kingdoms (which they are).

Apply this to the disaster at hand and view it from the vantage of a local mayor. The NIA operates the dam and has a MoA with PAGASA and the DENR but is concerned only with conditions affecting the structural integrity of its dams — not the total runoff and flooding of the local communities. There is a big data hole when it comes to the effects on a mayor’s particular jurisdiction. Of course, local politicians are not blameless, either — they could have pushed politically for the information needed and shown initiative by themselves funding the studies required.

A rare exception that has made the rounds of social media is the case of Mayor Cristina Antonio of Alcala, Cagayan, who earlier on took the initiative to commission a study by UP scientists of the flooding hazards in her town. As even this exemplary case shows, however, although expert advice may exist, implementing it frequently requires powers that challenge the financial and logistical capacities of local governments, as well exceed their jurisdictional authority. The mayor’s plea in her social media post in the midst of desperate flooding contained a gem of wisdom: “The problem being complex, the solution is also a combination of interventions that should be anchored on science and drawn after scientists have studied the Cagayan River itself” (my emphasis). Under the current system, if the mayor had to solve this problem on her own, apart from finding the finance to do it, she would probably have to work for and sign separate MoAs with PAGASA, the DENR, the Department of Public Works and Highways, the NIA, the Department of Agriculture, among others — not leaving much time till the next typhoon.

In any event, the government’s solution to the complex multifaceted problem posed by the recent calamities thus far has been its other favourite response besides MoAs — forming a “task force.” BAYAN’s Rep. Carlos Zarate counts 15 task forces already in existence (the Inquirer counts 18). The so-called “Build Back Better” (actually a post-Yolanda slogan borrowed from the Aquino administration) task force has 24 members — which almost qualifies it to be the entire government. Other observers have rightly observed that the ad hoc, time-bound nature and propaganda imperatives of task forces gives little opportunity for carefully considered solutions to what are in reality complex problems tractable only by well-founded science. The real impact (and danger) of including many agencies in a task force, however, is that it allows a reallocation of budgets to other priorities the task force may decide on. For good or ill, it overrides the priorities these agencies have set and substitutes for them the task force’s own judgement.

In the worst case, a task force will choose and implement priorities that are haphazard and misplaced. As the mayor of Alcala warns, “It is not dredging every which way, it is not putting up a dike here and there. It is knowing, based on sound science, what to do and what not to do…” In the best case, a task force may indeed choose the right priorities for the moment. But task forces will ultimately disband, and once the crisis has passed or media attention dies, the various agencies will go back to emitting their own varicolored smoke — or resting under their own kulambo (mosquito net) — until roused by the next catastrophe. This is no way to build lasting institutions.

Emmanuel S. De Dios is professor emeritus at the University of the Philippines School of Economics. He has no interest in where the president was or what he was doing. Only in things that matter.