|Current music:||Manic Monday, The Bangles|
IT WAS one of the most searing and deadliest environmental and public health disasters to hit Europe in decades, if not centuries. Last Friday the International Herald Tribune reported that the number of people who died in this summer's heat wave in Europe might have totaled 20,000.
In France, perhaps the worst affected by the canicule (hot summer days), about 10,000 people were reported to have died as a result of the vague de chaleur (heat wave). Many victims were old people who were left at home by family members who left on holiday. (This is something that does not happen in the Philippines, where people bring along the old folks on their vacation trips or sufficiently provide for their food and health needs.)
Another factor that accounted for the insufficient health care accorded the elderly at a time of unusual weather was a law that limits France's workweek to 35 hours. The law left hospitals short-staffed at the height of the heat spell.
The International Herald Tribune said "images of refrigerated trucks and tents set up to hold the overflow of unclaimed corpses... have become the shocking visual leitmotif of this summer." How ironic that a body should enjoy airconditioning and refrigeration when it is already stone cold and dead.
In Spain, a national patients' rights watchdog group put the number of heat wave deaths at 2,000. In Portugal, where fires destroyed hectares of forests, the health ministry reported 1,316 deaths in the first two weeks of August. In Italy, where temperatures rose to as high as 40 degrees Celsius or 104 degrees Fahrenheit, the deaths were estimated at about 1,000. The estimate was in the range of 900-1,000 in Britain and the Netherlands.
In Germany the heat wave prompted the government to impose speed restrictions on the rail network as tracks were buckling in the extreme heat and trains were derailing.
What caused the heat wave? It was attributed to the intense monsoon activity in the sub-Saharan Africa, funneling hot desert air over Europe and blocking cooler air. But it may also have been one indication of the accelerated global warming. The continuous, unabated burning of fossil fuels and industrial activity produce chlorofluorocarbons that punch big holes in the ozone layer that protects the earth from the excessive heat of the sun. Deforestation depletes the oxygen in the air and increases carbon dioxide. Desertification makes the air hotter. We may have seen this year the beginning of the warming of the planet's temperate zones.
One factor that may have aggravated the effects of the heat wave is the lack of airconditioning in the old buildings of France, especially in Paris. Probably the owners didn't think about installing airconditioners because summers in the past were usually mild and the heat was bearable, and indeed, was actually welcome after the harsh winters. In Paris you have to stay at a three-, four- or five-star hotel that is climatis (airconditioned) if you want to escape from the sweltering heat.
Filipinos would easily survive the heat wave of Europe. After all, they are used to temperatures of 35 to 40 degrees Celsius in their tropical country, and even to searing highs of 45 to 50 degrees Celsius in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Middle Eastern countries.
But Europe's experience with this most deadly and disastrous heat wave should serve as a warning to areas in the Philippines that are susceptible to cold waves, such as the Mountain Province. Early this year, in Baguio City alone six deaths were reported caused by the cold wave.
The record heat wave in Europe should also serve as a reminder to us Filipinos that we are in the midst of a continuing environmental disaster that does not seem to worry most of us. We refer to the worsening air pollution in Metro Manila and other cities and highly urbanized areas. A report of the Asian Development Bank said air pollution had caused thousands of deaths and cost about 392 million dollars in treatment in 2001.
Already there are indications that there are some major changes in weather patterns in the Philippines. For instance, August is normally a hot, sweltering month but last month was comparatively mild, and was marked by some typhoons and a lot of rain. We have to prepare for the rest of the rainy season this year which could see more extensive flooding, higher floodwaters and the death of hundreds and the destruction of millions of pesos worth of crops, public and private property unless steps to prevent them or at least mitigate their effects are taken at this time.
We have misused and abused our environment, and now we are suffering the karma of our misdeeds.