(This is the full text of the commencement speech by Dr. Mahar Lagmay delivered at the UP Diliman College of Social Science and Philosophy [CSSP] Recognition Ceremony last June 27 at the UP Theater)
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Congratulations to everyone! For the students who will graduate, you have earned your college degree that you will use from hereon in life. Your education is like having learned to ride a horse—and now, you are ready to take the horse to battle. Take advantage of your education to win many battles in life. Use your knowledge to think in order to trust better your judgment and decisions.
For the parents and guardians, you have struggled and waited patiently for your child to finish their college education, an important key for a good future. You definitely need a big round of applause. Palakpakan po natin sila, mga nanay, tatay at mga tumatayong mga magulang. Isama na rin po natin ang mga guro at administrador.
Twenty-eight years ago, I graduated from the UP College of Science, one of the three colleges formed in 1983 when the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) was divided. The other two colleges are the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy (CSSP) and the College of Arts and Letters (CAL).
Although now physically separated in terms of College, the natural sciences should never be isolated from the social sciences and the humanities fields in finding solutions to problems of an individual or society. To find the right treatment, the doctor must be interested in the person as a whole and not on the symptoms of a disease alone. We can have all the frontier science and employ the most advanced technologies, but it still will not automatically equate to social progress.
I was humbled and troubled when I was invited as guest speaker to this recognition ceremony. It is a great honor to speak in front of the best minds of our country, but I was troubled because it is not easy to prepare a speech that is supposed to inspire. What I can do is to tell you stories since the time I graduated from UP College of Science. Hopefully there are some lessons that you can remember in these narratives.
My first anecdote is when I was having dinner at college in England while taking my Ph.D. studies. Trying to strike a conversation, I asked the Caucasian guy sitting in front of me where he graduated in high school. He replied confidently, “Eaton, do you know the place?” I said, “Of course. It is a boarding school where the royalty and the children of rich families go to school”. Then he asked me back, “How about you?” I replied, “From UP High. Do you know the school?” He said, “No, where is that?” I smiled and said, “It is along Katipunan, beside Balara. Do you know that place? You should!”
The lesson in this anecdote is to take pride in yourself no matter where you come from. Brand names do not define you or automatically make you somebody, although they help in your packaging. It is your character and your work that make you who you are.
After coming back from my studies abroad, I was involved in several projects. The first one was on global research on the interaction of volcanoes and their basement. When volcanoes grow, they are influenced by faults. For example, faults provide pathways where magma can reach the surface and grow. Conversely, a mature or big volcano can dampen fault movement and affect its activity. For this project we had to work with an interdisciplinary group. We were working with people even outside of our field of specialization – Paleoseismologists, Seismologists, and Planetary Scientists.
In this story, there are again some lessons: 1) Never look at a topic in one dimension; 2) There is much to learn from other people and no matter how intelligent you are, one can never learn about everything in one lifetime; 3) Learning how to work with others also make you better. Sugar is made up of Hydrogen, Oxygen and Carbon. Independently, they are totally unlike substances. But when they combine, they can become sugar with a different nature. You can be the sweetest person on earth but without others, you can never be sugar; 4) When working with other people, try to assimilate the best traits in everyone. Cross-disciplinary work is a perfect opportunity to do so. Try to learn the art of others when possible. There’s this Italian scientist I worked with and he was highly impressive. He’s a scientist who can sell his ideas very well. He was so good he can sell sand in the desert. Hopefully, I can be like him someday.
The next project I did was to work with different people in various government departments and agencies of the country. I worked with NAMRIA, DFA, Department of Justice, UP Law and international consultants. This project was to show before the UN Commission on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) our technical arguments to claim seabed territory in the Benham Rise Region, East of Luzon. We also had to do the report for the West Philippine Sea. This is contested territory claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and China. We wanted to claim our part, Vietnam and Malaysia their part, but China wants the whole West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) all the way to the coastline of the Palawan. They call this claim the nine-dash-line.
Technically, it is easier to prove geologically that the Kalayaan Group of Islands in the West Philippine Sea or South China Sea is part of Philippine territory. It was much more difficult to prove our claim for seabed territory in the Benham Rise region east of Luzon. This is because if there is an active trench adjacent to the coast, then you can’t extend your territory beyond the trench. Trenches are deep canals in the ocean floor. They are so deep that you can fit the Himalayas in the canal. Some famous examples are the Philippine Trench and Marianas Trench.
There is no active trench offshore Palawan so it is easy to prove an extended continental shelf. However, there is an active trench east of Luzon, called the East Luzon Trough – that is if we believe what is written in the literature. Having no other recourse, we had to do our own research. To do this, government had to spend millions of pesos. It turns out that the canal east of Luzon or the East Luzon Trough is no longer active. It was active 20 million years ago but not since then. Armed with new knowledge, we had the opportunity to claim the Benham Rise up to 350 nautical miles offshore Cagayan, Quezon, Aurora and Bicol. After delivering the technical arguments in front of the UNCLOS commissioners in New York, the Philippine delegation successfully claimed seabed territory nearly half the size of the Philippine land area. This is the first time in Philippine history that Filipinos were able to claim territory – not but by guns and bullets, but by pen and paper.
Learning about our success, the Japanese immediately approached us and asked us how we did it. We told them that it is difficult. But it was not to discourage them. They had a similar problem with their active trenches east of Japan. Remember that they can’t extend beyond an active trench. One of them generated the 2011 Tsunami that devastated Sendai. One of the Japanese territorial claims most probably will not progress much in UNCLOS, because the last time I looked, it goes nearly halfway to Hawaii across the Pacific Ocean.
There are several lessons from this story: 1) Do not immediately believe in everything you read; 2) You can create your own knowledge. What foreigners say doesn’t mean they are always correct; 3) Science is universal and we are allowed to find truth ourselves; 4) Science is self-correcting. Never be ashamed to admit you are wrong if there is new evidence against your science. Conversely, be bold to present your work and findings, it may be right.
Another research effort I was involved in has been on the geological hazards of the Bataan Nuclear Plant (BNPP), which we published in a scientific journal. Much of the scientific understanding of volcanoes emerged only over the past three decades, after the BNPP was constructed in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I knew that my knowledge on volcanoes and earthquakes could help assess the vulnerability of the nuclear power plant to volcanic hazards, and it was my duty as a responsible citizen to share such knowledge. This piece of work, though self-funded, can serve in part as a technical basis for addressing a vital issue that concerns all of us.
Our findings were used in the deliberations in Congress on whether or not to revive the BNPP. In short, we found that the BNPP is on top of a big stratovolcano, 25 kilometers in diameter and more than 1000 meters high. It was bigger than Mayon. Its history of explosive activity was similar to that of Pinatubo, although the date of its last eruption was much older. Moreover, there are active faults very near to the BNPP. Our role in the issue was only to generate the scientific information to be used as basis for the decision on reviving the BNPP. There are IAEA guidelines that we can follow but we need the scientific information to be able to use those guidelines.
Several months after came the Sendai earthquake and the Fukushima disaster. Despite this incident, we still find statements such as, “The design for BNPP is more earthquake resistant than Fukushima. What I’m telling you is that the Bataan plant is a better power plant (design) than Fukushima, although we really need to look at Fukushima as a benchmark”. These declarations are possible and should be respected. Everybody is entitled to his or her opinion. Along with the conclusions in our work on the BNPP, it should also be carefully considered in making important decisions for our society.
The lessons from this story are: 1) If you know that you are capable of sharing your knowledge to your community, go the extra mile. Knowledge, if it is kept to yourself, diminishes its importance; 2) There must always be scientific basis to our decisions and you are the instruments to make them. Can you think of other Filipinos who can do it for us in the future? Your work is very important for the development of the Philippines. I know that it is easy to be dismayed by the work conditions in the country but if everybody takes a negative attitude, if everybody abandons ship, the Philippines will remain backward and will not progress; 3) Lastly, there really are limits to human foresight when dealing with disasters and the best we can do is to acknowledge those limits and learn from experience. We do not want to repeat the same mistakes.
After writing a UP policy paper on lessons from recent Philippine disasters, I became involved in Project NOAH (Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards), DOST’s flagship program for disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM). This 2 billion Peso government program aims to reduce casualties and property loss from extreme hazard events and to build disaster resilient communities in the Philippines, by devising research and development platforms and promoting frontier science and technology in disaster efforts. Similar to our major effort to claim seabed territory, Project NOAH is truly interdisciplinary, deploying and coordinating the skills of programmers, geographers, GIS specialists, soil engineers, civil engineers, physicists, meteorologists, geologists, and anthropologists to mitigate the impacts of natural hazards. Physical scientists and social scientists work together because problems are best understood and solved that way. I believe that the physical sciences address only 20% of our disaster-related problems. The social sciences can do the rest because the problem is related to culture and behavior.
We’ve had some success in DOST-Project NOAH and some failures. We had two flood events during Habagat 2012. Marikina river water levels rose twice up to the second floor in the span of 3 days. In 2013 during Habagat as well, Marikina River rose up to the second floor of houses. The same happened in 2014 where Marikina River rose during severe Habagat rain events. However, nobody died in all these extreme events because there was timely, reliable, and accessible information given to warn the people – and the community responded appropriately. Typhoon Pablo in 2012, the lowest latitude supertyphoon every to make landfall in history, devastated the eastern part of Mindanao. A whole barangay was covered by giant boulders during a world-class debris flow event in Compostela Valley. In Cagayan de Oro, however, the flood-related disaster brought Sendong in the previous year was not repeated. Although there were deaths from a world-class debris flow event in Compostela Valley, a repeat of the Sendong disaster in Cagayan de Oro which happened a year earlier was averted. Despite the rise in the water level of the Cagayan de Oro River by about 6 to 7 meters, nobody died because the people were warned and the community made the appropriate response. The same happened during Agaton in January 2014 when Butuan flood waters rose above the head but there were few deaths.
We call these the “disasters that did not happen”. There is much to learn from these success stories in the same way that there are a lot of lessons learned from disasters. Unfortunately, these success stories do not make the news. I am sure that you have not heard of them because they were not reported. Why? It is probably because it is boring to report. This is unfortunate and we must change this kind of attitude.
Haiyan was fatal and we learned a lot from this catastrophe. We learned that it was not enough to provide a warning 2 days in advance of storm surge values because it was like providing an absolute value over a relative landscape. As a result, people underestimated the impacts of storm surges and there was no clear picture of the appropriate action to take. What were needed were more detailed and accurate hazard maps and visual material, which is what Project NOAH does.
Learning from Yolanda, NOAH provided storm surge hazard maps for coastal barangays along with warnings for storm surges that may be generated by typhoon Ruby. Believe it or not, Ruby spawned storm surges that totally washed out at least 1800 houses. Nobody died in many villages of Northern Leyte and Western Samar from the deadly storm surges of typhoon Ruby. This success story again was not reported that well by media except for the one written by Rappler. It’s a pity because we can learn a lot from it.
Just last year, although only a tropical depression, Seniang delivered rains in Visayas and Northern Mindanao. The rains of Seniang were more than those of Sendong. Tagaloan River flooded but because people evacuated, there were no casualties except for one who did not—he was captured on video being washed out by the rampaging waters. This is yet another success story because government has made disaster risk reduction efforts more scientific and empowering by making data openly accessible.
DRRM work in the Philippines is extremely difficult because there is politics in the disaster arena, heavy politics! We can only counter those who want to use the disaster platform for self-serving intentions through science and a feel for what is right.
Let me give an example. There was one time when we were invited by a big international group to present NOAH in their conference. But a day after, a young emissary from the same group comes and asks us not to highlight DOST-Project NOAH in our talk. I thought it outrageous but understood where they were coming from. For decades, they have been involved in giving aid and loans to the Philippines for disaster work in the form of development assistance. Now, when they present proposals to NEDA they are told that they don’t have to do that because NOAH is already doing the detailed hazards mapping and developing early warning systems. I understand that is a big blow to them because disaster efforts require big money and what is in the form of assistance or loans is actually selling their country’s products and expert services. We do appreciate help but it must be beneficial to both parties in the long run. We have for so long been dependent on them and we should change it if we can. And I know we can, because there are people like you, young bright minds from the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, who are highly educated and inspired. Take pride in your work, yourself, and your country. Millions of Filipinos depend on you.
Please remember that we can never uplift Philippine society with science and technology alone. It is imperative that we combine science and the humanities for more effective use of knowledge. There are limits to what science can do. Only when we are able to understand the Filipino mindset and only when we give a human and ethical dimension to our actions, can we attain the change that we desire.
Congratulations again, CSSP graduates!