Column: Reimagining Laguna and other suggestions

Published on October 20, 2009.

First, a suggestion that has nothing to do with the challenge of reconstruction. I caught the different news reports on the Catholic Mass Media Awards filed by the ABS-CBN and GMA networks last week, and was (again) disconcerted. As it had done in years past, each network focused only on the awards it received. With the exception of the special Serviam prize awarded posthumously to Cory Aquino, which each network dutifully reported on, the awards rite seemed to have taken place on parallel worlds.

Imagine my distress when I saw that my own newspaper treated the awards in the exact same way: writing only of those prizes we had received.

Surely we are doing the media profession we belong to a disservice when we report only on our awards; the CMMA, like other prestigious awards-giving bodies, seeks to recognize excellence in a given industry or profession. Those that honor the work of media (as the CMMA does, in part) play a special role in the democratic project, which depends on the consent of the governed; these awards help citizens distinguish between the kinds of information they need in order to give their informed consent.

I realize that, just as charity covers a multitude of sins, the CMMA rite has grown over the years to include all sorts of awards, open to anyone in the communication (not merely the media) business. Maybe the organizers should think of trimming the list down. But partial coverage is no answer to the problem of award sprawl.

* * *

Paging Kuya Kim. A suggestion for the TV networks: Instead of waiting for the national weather bureau to finally purchase the right equipment (the Doppler radar, for instance, that can help estimate the amount of rainfall), why not expand your weather coverage to include information, from other weather monitoring institutions, that are already available on the Internet?

I can imagine, say, “Kuya Kim” Atienza discussing Mike Padua’s pioneering Typhoon 2000 website, for instance, right after a report on a Pagasa forecast. Or Mel Tiangco asking follow-up questions of Pagasa spokespersons based on, say, a different reading by the excellent Hong Kong Observatory.

The ultimate goal would be, like CNN, to establish your own weather monitoring center, staffed by your own meteorologists. “Ondoy,” in a crucial sense, marked the end of an era: the days when weather news could be considered a commodity, sourced from a single supplier.

* * *

Paying for reconstruction. I got interesting feedback about last week’s suggestion, about the need for an ambitious recovery plan. Candidates for the presidency can do worse than to accept the challenge, and propose a massive reconstruction program that will not only prevent future Ondoy-scale floods from swamping Luzon, but also stimulate the economy. One question was: How will we pay for all of it?

The other day, a government agency published its estimate of the costs involved in relocating informal settlers in a 10-year period: some P32 billion. The guesswork includes only those settlers affected by the Manila Bay clean-up. The costs of relocating hundreds of thousands of informal settlers living on waterways, mandated by the devastation wrought by Ondoy, can only be dramatically higher.

The costs will be truly staggering. I am reminded of South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak’s ambitious campaign promise to build the Grand Korean Canal; he has since backed down (and transformed the idea into the only slightly less audacious Four Rivers Plan). But the rationale for the project is worth a closer look: to stimulate the economy at a time of severe stress.

A bold program, the centerpiece of an administration’s entire six-year term, can do just that, essentially by re-imagining Laguna de Bay, the country’s largest lake, and the areas that surround it. (The western side forms one boundary of the Calabarzon growth region.)

But how to fund it? One possible answer lies in a form of debt-for-equity swap.

It was former Speaker Jose de Venecia who first broached the idea to the international community: convert part of the foreign loans contracted by today’s highly indebted nations during the freewheeling 1980s into productive assets, by “diverting” a considerable portion of the debt service payments into “national anti-poverty programs.”

For the Philippine case, post Ondoy, debt service payments (well over P250 billion a year, as of last count) can be diverted to the massive reconstruction project—an integrated program that can combine, in De Venecia’s formula, both social development and wealth creation.

Each of the leading candidates for president have a direct line to De Venecia: Gilbert Teodoro was recommended for the post of defense secretary by De Venecia, among others; Chiz Escudero was minority leader during one of De Venecia’s terms as speaker; Noynoy Aquino served as deputy speaker for Luzon. Manny Villar shares an even tighter bond; he served as speaker too.

Maybe they can pick up the phone and start asking him questions.

* * *

High noon. Now may be the last, best time for Sen. Manny Villar to make a dramatic reappearance in the Senate—to put on the white cowboy’s hat (to shoot down the C-5 related charges aired against him by Senators Ping Lacson and Jamby Madrigal) and at the same time to claim the mantle of underdog, the victim of political intrigue. He is in no danger of being expelled from the Senate, much less suspended or even censured. But he is at risk of having his silence cement a reputation he has said he does not deserve.

In our litigious world, silence can also mean assent.

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