"..a bardy view!"

The Philippines – Drowning in a Storm of Semantics…

Most of the 1000 fatalities in the southern Philippines typhoon and flood disaster this December lost their lives "due to the process resulting in primary respiratory impairment from submersion or immersion in a liquid medium". That is the Philippines Department of Health (DOH) definition of "drowning".

Apparently many drowned because they couldn't swim. There is barely no research to back up this statement, but according to the Philippines Daily Inquirer newspaper, it is based on anecdotal evidence. Lifeboat volunteers were asking children bobbing up and down in the sea, surrounded by dangerous logs and clinging on for grim death "Can you swim?"

The suggestion is that if they had the basic skill many would have survived.

What is the implication I wonder? Here you have one of the worst disasters to hit the Philippines for many years – a disaster which experts had been warning about regularly; a disaster compounded by illegal logging and deforestation; uncontrolled slum dwellings along river banks; over population; and instead of addressing all of those factors, the victims are blamed because they carelessly failed to learn to swim! How inconsiderate!

Well we've all seen pictures of the Indonesian and Japanese tsunamis, and it's very unlikely that an Olympic gold medalist swimmer would have survived in those torrents – never mind about anyone else.

Had it been me who was asked this question whilst clinging on to a floating roof hanging on for dear life with salt water invading my lungs, I may have replied:

"Well, its funny you should ask that question. When I was at school I got my bronze swimming medal achieving a full length of the local municipal pool utilising the breast-stroke.

I have been somewhat amiss over the years that I did not have the foresight to train in survival techniques whilst surrounded by debris and detritus, and I apologise if this lack of judgement is causing you some inconvenience, but I'd be jolly pleased if we can discuss this later, and in the meantime please be a good chap and…rescue me. Thanks awfully old bean!"

Eight people a day die of drowning in the Philippines, and according to Lita Orbillo, "children were found to be more at risk of drowning". Ms Orbillo is from the National Centre for Disease Prevention and Control in the DOH and made this statement during an oral presentation at the 2011 World Conference on Drowning Prevention (WCDP). I'm not sure I'd like an oral presentation from her – it sounds unhygienic.

These statistics are coming to light because of the fuss around the aforementioned anecdotal chit-chat in the wake of the disaster.

UNICEF tells us that the top five causes of death in the Philippines is 1. Road traffic accidents (20%) 2. Gun shots (17%) 3. Stabbings (14%) 4. Drowning (12%) 5. Electrocution (4%).

Indeed, drowning is the second cause of deaths amongst children under 14. Of course, these figures will need to be severely revised now that we know that many of the fatalities in the last tropical storm Sendong were due to primary respiratory impairment from submersion or immersion in a liquid medium.

Neither the first nor last surprise me. Driving in the Philippines is a risky business, and a driving test to obtain a license is a mere 10 minute appraisal to determine a knowledge of the geographic location of the pedals. The brake is very important, but more important is the horn, because that tells everyone to get out of the way.

As for electrocution nothing is earthed. The Philippines uses the dual flat pin plug the same as in the Americas, except that devices there in the USA for example have a round earth coil attached to the cord. In the Philippines plugging in anything electrical will invariably result in a blue spark and the feeling of euphoria having survived is a great cause for a drink. It certainly adds a new dimension to a hairstyle.

But back to drowning. I know it's an unpleasant subject but this is Bardiness (bold audacious defiant etc).

The high incidence of drowning in the Philippines has prompted the DOH to "develop the draft National Framework of Action on Drowning Prevention as the first major step in the fulfillment of its commitment to eliminate drowning as a crucial concern of the country."

The report titled "Development of the Philippines National Framework of Action on Drowning Prevention 2011-2015," was prepared by non other than our famous oral presenter Ms Orbillo, together with Dr. Juanita Basilio and Dr. Manuel Calonge.

In a nutshell it aims to implement a programme of educational swimming awareness particularly amongst the young, and as well as highlighting the recreational dangers in fishing and boating, will include natural calamities like floods and tsunamis "with strategies outlined in this policy directive, it is hoped that drowning incidents in the country will be lessened."

Those of you who think I am being churlish or supercilious about the loss of life are mistaken. The Philippines is an archepelago of 7000 islands, and not one citizen is more than a skip and a jump away from a river, lake or ocean.

Astonishingly the DOH in its instructions to avoid drowning is (apart from learning to swim): closely supervise children, wear flotation devices, participate in water safety awareness activities including life support and basic survival swimming courses.

UNICEF's Philippine National Injury Survey (PINAS) in 2003 said there were 2,822 cases of death by drowning, and over one third were children under 14 years of age.

A study by the World Report on Child Injury Prevention 2008 said that 98% of death by drowning occurred in low-income countries.

So if you are poor you have more chance of drowning. Typhoons are not that selective, but governments can be.

Here's a crazy thought. Educate the people. Give them opportunity. Provide them with decent housing. Give them a realistic dream. And while you're at it, protect your environment, aim for protecting conservation and culture, and enforce rigorous penalties to illegal loggers and commercial exploiters, restrain property developers and let the people work the land.

So this is my message to the President of the Philippines: Your people are your asset, not your GDP. The GDP is in the land which is systematically being destroyed.

Don't blame the poor for being unable to swim. They are already great swimmers – but they are swimming upstream and they are constantly fighting against the current.

Unfortunately an illegal log will tumble down from the mountain and knock them right back to base sending them into the sea.

But they aren't strong enough to fight against that, and they will die due to primary respiratory impairment from submersion or immersion in a liquid medium.

December 26, 2011 - Posted by | Conservation, Culture, Current Affairs, Education, Events, General, History, Politics, Science, The Philippines, Travel | , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Harrowing read and I dare say you are right. You usually are. I’m often surprised how these days most governments seem to have lost the capacity to think? Anyway must go before ‘primary respiratory impairment from submersion or immersion in a liquid medium’, claims another victim.


    Comment by Spook Moor | December 27, 2011 | Reply

  2. It is just so sad to know that the poor suffer more because they are poor. Knowing how to swim is not an assurance that you are immune from drowning because even a good swimmer can die due to drowning.


    Comment by Sarah | June 5, 2012 | Reply

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