Philippine Daily Inquirer

The cave

- mtan@in­quirer.com.ph MICHAEL L. TAN

To­day marks the sec­ond week since the cri­sis be­gan in Chi­ang Rai, Thai­land, af­ter a coach and 12 young boys, mem­bers of a soc­cer team, en­tered Tham Luang Nang Non cave and got stranded in­side be­cause of ris­ing waters from heavy rains.

While the whole drama has been nerve-wrack­ing, it does show a side of hu­man­ity that we may have given up on, what with the daily fare of news of wars and shoot­ings and mur­ders. This cave cri­sis has mo­bi­lized the Thai navy as well as nu­mer­ous gov­ern­ment agen­cies, and with help from var­i­ous coun­tries, no­tably Bri­tain, the multi­na­tional en­deavor shows we are ready to pour in mas­sive re­sources to save lives.

The drama gives a new mean­ing to hope. The first few days af­ter the team dis­ap­peared, jour­nal­ists were re­port­ing on the pes­simism among of­fi­cials, who felt the chances of sur­vival were slim. Yet the res­cue ef­forts per­sisted, and on day 10, the world cheered when the boys were fi­nally found on a muddy, el­e­vated rock about 2 kilo­me­ters from the en­trance. Bri­tish and Thai divers were able to dive into the waters and make their way to the boys.

Videos taken in­side the cave have been heart­warm­ing. The boys, al­though in poor nu­tri­tional con­di­tion and in low spir­its, are still able to smile and laugh, as in one video where they each in­tro­duced them­selves, and one of the younger ones protested be­cause the team for­got to let him have his turn.

But the ela­tion has given way to more anx­i­eties as ex­perts looked for ways to bring the boys out. The boys were stranded, and could not get out be­cause the cave was flooded. The Thai mon­soon is like our own, run­ning from June to Novem­ber. If heavy rains come in, there is the dan­ger of the waters in­un­dat­ing the last refuge of the team. Most of the boys can’t swim, much less han­dle scuba gear.

That got me think­ing of our sit­u­a­tion in the Philip­pines. Un­til re­cently, peo­ple avoided caves, which were as­so­ci­ated with the supernatur­al, and with dan­ger. In the last few years, tak­ing off from the rise in western coun­tries of cav­ing (or spelunk­ing) as re­cre­ation, we now have young peo­ple in coun­tries like Thai­land and the Philip­pines drawn to the caves by a sense of ad­ven­tures and mys­tery.

The prob­lem for devel­op­ing coun­tries is that our safety cul­ture is still weak, and the gear for safe cav­ing is ex­pen­sive. All the more rea­son we need to in­sti­tute clear poli­cies, safety guide­lines and train­ing for cav­ing ac­tiv­i­ties.

I was also not sur­prised to read that most of the Thai boys could not swim; it’s the same sit­u­a­tion in the Philip­pines. We re­ally should con­sider how we can get more young peo­ple to learn swim­ming, and I mean real swim­ming and not just dog pad­dling.

The Thai drama will heighten in the days to come. An ear­lier plan was to have the boys dive into the wa­ter and swim out with ex­pert adult divers, af­ter get­ting crash lessons in swim­ming and the use of scuba equip­ment. But that is now seen as too risky.

A bolder but less risky plan is to con­tinue to pump out wa­ter and to cre­ate more air pock­ets in­side, and then use a very long static rope for ex­pert divers to use to pass the boys to each other, re­lay-style, for the en­tire 2-km stretch. The adults would carry the oxy­gen tanks, ready to be ad­min­is­tered to the boys if needed.

Get­ting the boys out of the cave and to the wel­com­ing arms of their loved ones will only be the first step in a long re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion process to heal phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal trauma. In the years to come, though, that cave will stand as a sym­bol of a time when the world found respite from the mad­ness of war and killings.

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