COTABATO CITY–The music of Mindanao clashed with the local natsots and soundbites we were sending to Manila.
It was a mix of the pounding drum and the penetrating kulintang. A group of boys played the beat and danced to it, inches from our satellite setup outside an events center.
They wore native garb of glossy greens over their t-shirts, shorts, and slippers.
Two boys twirled around as they brandished wooden castanets. Two others put on costumes resembling clothed medieval horses, which they bucked up and down like the lions on Chinese New Year, only smaller.
They call these “unta,” translated as horses and as good luck.
The guests arrived as the boys rehearsed for their grand entrance. Many wore smart casual clothes. A number, mostly the older ones, put on their brightest dresses and head scarfs.
Outside, a row of pleated banners striped red, yellow, and green lined the road leading inside. It’s the same color on the frills worn by the dancers and the mascots.
The colors signal a wedding, already the second this day and one of many in the city in this month of nuptials.
We already arrived here on its third week of flooding. Unrelenting rains and a clogged river had inundated 33 of the city’s 37 barangays. Neighboring town Sultan Kudarat had it worse.
The images we transmitted that night bared the effects: the influx of evacuees, the flooded city center, and the soup kitchens put up by the local ABS-CBN station.
Yet like the entourage of the bride and groom ready to march, the stream of life could not be stopped by rising waters.
Passengers glanced out the windows of our PAL plane as it descended from the clouds into Cotabato. Where land should have been, we saw houses jutting out from lakes of water.
In another aerial shot, we saw the scale and the cause of Cotabato’s problem: a mass of greenery looming on the river that plies the city.
These plants, called water hyacinths, were familiar elements of the Central Mindanao ecosystem until a month of rains turned them into a threat.
These aquatic weeds grow anchored in the Liguasan marsh south of the city. The rain water filled this basin to the brim that the plants soon broke off and drifted in hectares to the Rio Grande de Mindanao.
At the river, silt which had built up for years jammed the plants and merged the soil under them. Hence the virtual islands under Cotabato City’s Delta Bridge, hence the clog.
The Rio Grande separates Cotabato City and Sultan Kudarat town. When the river is swells, both suffer.
We saw children swimming in pools of clear, running water that had flooded both sides of the road we passed from the airport.
In the worst-hit communities and in Sultan Kudarat, the water reached waist level. Relief had to come in boats.
Aside from the plight of affected residents, our reporter Ron Gagalac’s stories checked on the progress in clearing the 12-hectare water hyacinth island.
Soldiers and workers had to dig through soil and cut through plants with chainsaws, bamboo poles and shovels.
The dredging also needed large-scale help from the amphibious tractors we learned were called Water Masters. Only a handful are in the Philippines, two of them already here.
But the problem seems as dense as the river’s buildup of sediment.
While the month-long operation has finally removed the island, officials are calling for long-term ways to prevent the plants from converging again.
There is actually a government office looking at the Rio Grande, the marshes, and the streams connected to them.
Archbishop Orlando Quevedo, who heads the Presidential Task Force on Mindanao River Basin Rehabilitation and Development, says the public works department also needs to expand and continue its clearing of silt in the river bed.
Many farmlands were submerged when the river swelled because they were lower than the river bed.
The search for solutions has inevitably pointed to episodes of neglect which allowed the plant clogs to accumulate.
Still, locals are no longer surprised when the waters rise.
Some have simply learned from the floods caused by the 2008 typhoons. They have moved their belongings higher or adjusted their homes anticipating the next storm.
But as the task force has already urged, government can pursue systems to stop sedimentation in the river, catch the water hyacinths, and alert residents of impending danger.
Some engineers have suggested that the columns in the unfinished Delta Bridge should be redesigned.
Even now, more hectares of water hyacinths are still drifting toward Cotabato City. And even after chunks have been separated at the bridge, some still clump together as they drift on.
Another onslaught of rain, and another threat of floods.
On one end, seeing the green island under the Delta Bridge has made people up in Luzon take a second look at the water lilies plying their rivers.
It has also boosted the prospects of weavers in Las Piñas who have turned the weeds into bags and ornaments.
Back in Cotabato, the festivities continue.
Rains did not dampen the parade of floats for Jose Rizal’s 150th or the march of local groups for the city’s 52nd foundation the next day.
Later that week, visitors in blue gowns and barongs flocked to the events center for another wedding.
It was sunny, perfect to see the flower girls wearing tiaras. The weather has been tricky of late–some days it scorched, other days it showered.
It was a consolation for residents that when Manila and Central Luzon was beset with floods, the area had at most a drizzle.
As most of the city has gone back to business, its less fortunate residents are still holed up in schools that have suspended classes. Till when, those at the school couldn’t say.