The Typhoon in the Philippines... and the Destructive Unnatural Forces of Imperialism

November 14, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper |


Typhoon Haiyan (also known as Yolanda) struck the populous, and poor, island nation of the Philippines on Thursday, November 7, causing staggering devastation to its people, land, and economy, especially on Leyte and Samar islands. Tacloban, a city of 220,000 people and the provincial capital of Leyte, has reportedly been largely destroyed.

Haiyan hit land with sustained winds of up to 195 miles per hour. To get a sense of how strong this is, when Hurricane Katrina brought death and destruction to New Orleans in 2005, the highest sustained winds were estimated to be 130 mph.

The winds also brought a nearly 20-foot-high storm surge, a wall of water that inundated coastal areas, turning land and cities into swamps and lakes in a matter of minutes.

Survivors of the typhoon walk through the devastated city of Tacloban, Philippines, November 11. Photo: AP

The full scale and scope of suffering left in the storm's wake is not yet clear. Haiyan impacted a wider area than Hurricane Katrina, and communications with many places hit had not even been established six days later. But initial estimates of deaths run from a minimum of 2,410 (as of November 13) to ten thousand or more. At least 600,000 people have lost their homes, with tens of thousands injured.

Reports of conditions in the aftermath of the storm are horrible and heartbreaking: Dead bodies, rotting, smelling and a possible source of disease, are everywhere; food and fresh uncontaminated water is almost unavailable. Rations in one area were reported to be 34 ounces of water—about four cups—per household per day, with temperatures in the high 80s! People are so desperate for water they are digging up and breaking water pipes to extract whatever is in them. Eight people were reportedly killed trying to get rice from a warehouse when a wall collapsed on them.

Hospitals are completely overwhelmed and out of medicine. Doctors working days without sleep, near tears, can only apologize to people they are unable to treat. People desperate to get on outgoing planes are being driven back at gunpoint by Philippine government soldiers at the airport.

Why Is This Happening?

As millions around the world watch, as our hearts are ripped apart once again by so much agony and suffering, the mainstream media assaults us with the same tired narrative: "It's a natural disaster, it's just the way things are," and we are to be reassured that the United States is on the way to the rescue with some of the fleet of warships that just happen to be in the area.

It is true that powerful and destructive storms are part of life on our planet, and humans have always had to find the best ways to minimize the damage and suffering they cause. But in this case—as was the case with Hurricanes Katrina in 2005 and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti—the power of nature has "intersected" with the forces of capitalism-imperialism: with this system's destruction of the environment, with the way it impoverishes people all around the world, and with its completely reckless disregard for the lives of the masses, which lead them first, to fail to give adequate warning to the people, and then to fail to provide anything approaching the aid and relief needed in the face of this powerful storm.

Global Climate Change and the Increase in Deadly Storms

Climatologists (scientists who study the climate) point out that the formation of massive storms involves the interplay of many different factors, and therefore that it is impossible to say conclusively that any particular storm is a result of the climate change that is causing a global environmental emergency. Typhoons, hurricanes, and cyclones (which are all the same event, just named differently in different parts of the world) occur naturally and vary widely in their strength and size.

But there is increasing evidence that global climate change is already leading to more severe weather extremes and, very likely, to more powerful storms—and this is predicted to increase as climate change advances. The impact of climate change on the severity and number of hurricanes is a point of debate among climatologists, but there are a number of studies that predict hurricane intensity will increase in at least some regions of the planet.

Hurricanes gather their energy from warm waters in the oceans. The oceans are warming as a result of the build-up of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This build-up is caused by the mad drive for profitable production by global capitalism-imperialism.

According to the Guardian newspaper, Philippines government statistics indicate an increase in peak wind speed strength of the strongest typhoons hitting the Philippines over the last six decades. Haiyan was an extraordinarily powerful storm—in fact, it may be the most powerful hurricane/typhoon in recorded history.

So while it's not possible to say that Haiyan was "caused" by climate change, it is the case that warmer oceans fuel hurricane strength, so it's quite possible there was a climate change component at work in building Haiyan's power.

Also, much of the damage of cyclones is caused by storm surge—put simply, water levels rise and overcome natural and artificial barriers that normally keep them from flooding inland. But sea level (the level of the ocean relative to the land) has been rising due to global climate change as well, which means that the "starting point" for the storm surge is going to be higher than it otherwise would be.

What this means is that for much of the world—especially in the tropical and sub-tropical regions which are mainly very poor, and many of which have huge populations as well as much of their agriculture and industry concentrated on the coast—this is going to increasingly be the shape of things to come. This underscores the need for massive and urgent efforts to halt the burning of fossil fuels and other practices that are causing climate change and allow the climate to  re-set and nature to heal.

Not only is there the sudden loss of life in storms, but the gradual flooding of coastal areas will both reduce food production (as farm land is destroyed) and turn millions of formerly productive (but very poor) people into refugees who will need to be fed, clothed, etc. The potential for suffering in all this is almost unimaginable, and we are really just scratching the surface of this here.

Yet year after year, the imperialists organize international conferences of governments that are aimed at making it look like they are working to solve this, when in fact they are continuing and even increasing the level of profit-driven environmental destruction that created the problem in the first place. So these meetings come up with no proposals for meaningful change, and often even their most modest proposals for reform are then blocked by the refusal of the U.S. and other major powers to support them.

Last year, Naderev Sano was the representative from the Philippines to the Conference of the Parties [COP] to the Kyoto Protocol (an international conference on climate change) in Doha, Qatar. Expressing his extreme anger and frustration at the meeting, he said: "The outcome of our work is not about what our political masters want. It is about what is demanded of us by 7 billion people. I appeal to all: Please, no more delays, no more excuses." But these meetings are exactly about what their "political masters"—most fundamentally the U.S. and other imperialist powers—want, and so once again, no meaningful action was taken at that meeting either.

This year Sano is again representing the Philippines at the COP meeting being held now in Warsaw, Poland. On November 12, five days after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, he announced at the conference that he was going on a hunger strike to demand concrete steps to fight global warming. Sano said he was fasting "in solidarity with my countrymen who are now struggling for food back home," including his own brother who "has been gathering bodies of the dead with his own two hands." Sano said, "What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness."

(To learn more about the seriousness, source and impacts of climate change, see the articles "New Scientific Studies on the Dangers of Global Climate Change" and "Superstorm Sandy and Climate Change," To understand why capitalism-imperialism is completely incapable of dealing with this or other major problems facing humanity, see "On the 'Driving Force of Anarchy' and the Dynamics of Change, A Sharp Debate and Urgent Polemic: The Struggle for a Radically Different World and the Struggle for a Scientific Approach to Reality.")

This powerful storm has intersected with the extreme poverty, backwardness and corruption in the Philippines, which is also a product of capitalism-imperialism, to make the immediate impact of the storm much worse, and to make the relief and rescue effort into a disaster in its own right. And there is nothing "natural" about any of this.

One element of this—and this is common around the world—is that as imperialist capital has penetrated into rural areas, particularly in the Third World, small-scale agriculture has been wiped out, and hundreds of millions of peasants have been moving to major cities to try to find work in industry or the underground economy. The majority of the world's people now live concentrated increasingly large cities, under conditions of extreme poverty, and these cities are often on coastlines, or on rivers. In other words, the workings of imperialist capital have driven millions of people into impoverished conditions where they are also a concentrated "target" for "natural" disasters.

No Warning to the People as the Storm Grew in Strength

Although scientists were tracking Haiyan for almost a week before it hit, and although they recognized it as a very dangerous storm three days before, people in the area had almost no warning of what was coming, and no assistance to do anything about it if they knew.


First of all the scientific ability to forecast storms was badly hurt when the U.S. stopped sending weather planes into storm systems around the world and specifically stopped doing that in the Pacific for "budget considerations"—this in spite of the fact that most tropical cyclones occur in the Pacific. To have the technical and scientific capacity to give people advanced warning on these deadly storms and to refuse to do so is nothing short of criminal.

But once scientists did track this storm and began to recognize that it was highly dangerous, the Filipino people were still not warned. Scientists began tracking the storm on November 2; it reached tropical storm levels and was named "Haiyan" on November 4; it became a typhoon on November 5; on November 6 it was declared a Category 5 cyclone. (Katrina was a Category 4)

Only at that point did the responsible Philippine government agency authorities issue a public warning—a level 1 warning, which is the lowest of four levels. Finally, on November 7, it raised it to level 4, cancelling classes at schools and ordering some people to evacuate. But clearly that was much too late for a large and predominantly poor population to clear the area.

The government's main preparations seem to have been to move police into the area. There are no reports for example of food, equipment or medical supplies being gathered around the country or moved into the area in the storm's path, nor of stockpiles existing, outside of private rice mills and warehouses.

No Aid for the Victims

Then in the wake of the storm, the rescue and relief operations have been painfully short of what was needed. Jamela Alindogan, a reporter for the TV network Al Jazeera who was in Tacloban, expressed extreme frustration with the aid effort in an interview with Democracy Now!:

"Emergency response is very slow.… [M]ost of the people who are hit by these calamities are actually those who are really at the lower sector economically. They are the ones who are most vulnerable. What has the government done? With all the typhoons and all the devastations and all the natural disasters that has hit this country, it seems as if the ability to act and ability to respond is still very much slow...

"[L]ook at how the government has responded. They have been given days to prepare, and yet they said that they had their supplies ready, and where were these supplies?… I mean, the interior secretary was there days before, the secretary of defense. We were all in the same hotel. And it seems as if you ask them, they—they seem to be taken aback by this disaster. And yet, they have been warned.Over a thousand people have been—have died, and thousands more have been—have gone missing. Millions more, in fact, have lost their homes. The numbers may have changed, the names of the disasters may have changed, but the outcome in the stories of these people is still the same. When disaster strikes, they are on their own. And unfortunately, it seems as if the Philippine government is always, always really very close and very slow in terms of responding to the needs of the people who have been affected on the ground."

Some people are looking at the inability of the Philippine government to adequately respond to this emergency, pointing to corruption and incompetence—which is all too real. But this is not the heart of the problem—the real heart of the problem lies in the fact that the Philippines is a country dominated by imperialism.

The Philippines was directly ruled by the United States as a colony for nearly 50 years, from 1898 to 1946 (though it was largely occupied by Japan during World War 2). Direct U.S. rule wrought tremendous suffering among the people, including brutal repression of any resistance, and then when the U.S. left, it put in place brutal puppet dictators to represent its interests. Through these governments, as well as through investment and other means, the U.S. remains the key political, economic and military power in the Philippines. A government established under U.S. domination is a government of reactionaries that exists to maintain the oppressive feudal relations in the countryside, the grip of highly exploitative foreign investors in the urban areas, and the domination of imperialism over the whole country. Such governments are not about meeting the needs of the people—they are about repressing and exploiting the people on behalf of the United States as well as for the power and wealth of local oppressors and exploiters.

Is it any wonder that such a government does not put, and in fact is not capable of putting, the needs and interests of the people first?

And frankly, even if the U.S., the Philippine government, and other oppressive powers wanted to provide all the aid needed, their way of doing things, which is very much to rely on money, machines and technology while keeping the people "under control," is not a good way to respond to a disaster like this. To the extent the U.S. does provide aid, they do it at gun point, with people lined up under the watchful eyes of soldiers as helicopters either drop food from above or land with their terrible roar and wind. The masses are reduced to either helpless victims or people trying to survive the best they can who are then accused of being unruly "looters" or troublemakers.

But there are undoubtedly millions of people in the Philippines (and neighboring countries)—from fishermen, truck drivers, vendors and farmers to doctors, teachers and definitely tons of youth—who would love to be able to put their energy, skills and creativity to work to meet the needs of the suffering people in the disaster area.

With revolutionary leadership, people in every neighborhood could be mobilized to collect food, water and supplies, and then people could utilize the means at their disposal, whether trucks, cars, small boats, bicycles, or on foot, to get them to the affected area and distributed throughout. Leading this would be the primary way revolutionaries would solve these problems. But these are not methods that the imperialists will or can employ.


"A ghost town in just a matter of three hours"

Jamela Alindogan, a reporter for Al Jazeera who was in a hotel in Tacloban, vividly described the impact of the storm in an interview with Democracy Now!:

"[A]ll of a sudden the typhoon struck, and there's just this incredible wind, basically. These trees, they were blowing like they were weightless, they were paper. And roofs were being blown away, just like that. The visibility was in fact only a meter. We were close to the coastline, but I couldn't see the waves coming. And all of a sudden, in just a matter of 30 minutes, the water surged up as high all the way up to the second floor….

"And all of a sudden we felt that, you know, the wind was actually starting to—the roofs and the ceiling was actually starting to give way. And in just a matter of 20 minutes, it started caving in, and this really, really scary sound. And all of a sudden the entire roof is gone, and we were exposed to this beast, this incredible power that is really unimaginable. The sound is absolutely terrifying. It is horrific. I mean, it's beyond what anybody else could imagine. I have covered armed conflict, but there is nothing like this, nothing as incredible and as scary as covering a natural disaster like Typhoon Haiyan….

"[After the wind died down] we just made our way out of that area, basically, because there was nothing left. I mean, that place has become a ghost town in just a matter of three hours. And walking out of there took us about three hours to get to the next town. And it was just devastation everywhere. There was looting already. And it was hard to imagine how—you know, the damage. I mean, it's something that you see in the movies, you see, but you can't quite—it's very overwhelming to see it in reality. You don't think that it was possible. And within just a short span of time, to see that an entire province—actually, a very historical area of central Philippines has been destroyed just like that."

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