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Disasters Without Borders: How Climate Change Impacts a Developing Archipelagic Country

In late 2020, five typhoons in three weeks were like a flurry of punches that knocked out the island of Luzon in the Philippines. In doing their worst, the typhoons had a lot of local help.

By Dennis Legaspi

The virus SARS-CoV-2 and the disease it causes, COVID-19, went global because of the free flow of goods, people and services through trade and tourism. Countries that closed their borders to foreign travelers early enough were least affected by the country-hopping malady.

A typhoon cannot be controlled in the same manner.  It forces its way across oceans and drops its cargo of destruction when it hits land. Municipal, provincial and national borders cannot prevent the visitation of extreme weather conditions. When mountains are denuded of their forests, the direct result is the flooding of lower regions. Wind and water become impossible to contain. And entire populations take the brunt of their impact.

The increased frequency and power of typhoons have been proven to be a direct consequence of industrialization and the emission of greenhouse gasses (GHG).  Hence, the inernational community concluded the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and check the spread of Greenhouse Gasses (GHG) in the atmosphere—thereby alleviating climate change. By virtue of the Kyoto Protocol a cohort of industrialized countries committed themselves to reducing their C02 emissions.

Trashing the Protocol

But the Kyoto Protocol did not work: of the 36 countries that signed it, about half of them failed to meet their GHG reduction targets. It was not a bad agreement but it failed because industrialized countries, which as a group account for most of the world’s GHG emissions, did not live up to their commitments. 

Apart from the Kyoto Protocol, which bound only the developed countries, a new international agreement to check climate change, the Paris Climate Agreement, was opened for signing four years ago. As of today 187 countries are party to the agreement, each of them—developed, developing and outright poor—setting their own targets for cutting down GHG emissions. 

The widespread view, however, is that the pledges that signatories committed themselves to in the Paris Agreement are not robust enough to check the rise of global temperature to the targeted 1.5 degrees centigrade. To make matters worse, even those watered-down commitments are not being met.

Failure at the global level to deal with Climate Change has a much to do with human suffering at the local level—as global warming brings about extreme weather conditions that are particularly harsh on archipelagic and island nations under the monsoon winds. This is precisely the predicament that the Philippines must bear with today.

Familiar visitors

Because of its geographic location, the Philippines is visited on the average by 2o typhoons, besides several dozens of low pressure conditions that bring in rains. Filipinos are used to these typhoons and consider them part of the national life. In recent times, however, typhoons that inflict destructive winds and rains have become more frequent and more ferocious. 

Typhoon Ondoy (known internationally as Ketsana) whipped up rains that submered much of Metro Manila in September 2009 and killed almost a thousand people. Four years later, in November 2013, super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) barged in and left behind some 6.400 confirmed dead, almost 2,000 missing and several provinces flattened. 

Seven years later came Typhoons Quinta, Rolly, Siony, Tonyo and Ulysses (known internationally as Molave, Goni, Atsani, Etau and Vamco), making landfall between 25 October and 11 November 2020, killing at least 500 people and setting back at least five regions (groups of provinces) several years in damaged infrastructure, wiped out agricultural crops, and lost livelihood. The country’s biggest island, Luzon, bore the brunt of the quintet’s assault. 

In its unpreparedness, the Philippines was much like a man in the street overmatched against a skilled boxer: the first three typhoons were well placed body punches followed by a jab and a right hook to the jaw. Winner by KO: Climate Change!

Local accomplices

But the analogy is flawed. While it is true that failure of the international community to deal effectively with Climate Change has impacted adversely on nations like the Philippines, the global malefactor also got plenty of local help. Here’s how.

In an earlier time we the natives of Luzon Island in the Philippines believed that the mountains could protect us from foul weather. We were taught as children that typhoons spawned by the West Pacific must lose energy as they hit the Sierra Madre, the country’s longest mountain range. When the rains finally reached the lowlands, they had just enough force to fill dams and irrigation systems.

But in recent years, typhoons stronger than their predecessors exposed persistent failures of governance. When the five typhoons hit Metro Manila in October and November 2020, the metropolis was simply overwhelmed and went underwater—because the Sierra Madre, now deforested, had lost its capacity to protect the lowlands. Its trees had been cut to give way for quarrying for gravel, limestone and marble. 

The local governments issued the quarrying permits, as they had gained the power to do so by policies of devolution and local autonomy. They issued permits without clear guidelines on land use as the country does not have a land use plan. The quarrying spree brought a lot of revenues to municipal and provincial governments. That also brought devastating floods during stormy weather. 

The deluge and the dams

North of Metro Manila, the large provinces of Cagayan and Isabela also went underwater, although they did not suffer any high winds as none of the five typhoons made landfall in that area. The rains did not even drop directly on the area. And yet the deluge overwhelmed the river systems and brought about the greatest flooding the region in decades.

The United Nations reported that “more than 3.6 million people have been affected by the floods, with nearly 280,000 displaced and at least 73 deaths… more than 67,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed, and power and communications” were cut off in many areas.

Most of the water which submerged farms and residences, caused landslides and carried bridges away came from the dams.  Water was released from Magat, Angat and Wawa embankments as soon as the water levels reached critical points.  The dam officials’ primary concerns were to make sure the dams were not damaged so they could contiue to generate electricity, and provide water for irrigation and domestic use when the rains would be gone.  Preventing floods was not in their mandates. 

In many places it took time for help to arrive. The island province of Catanduanes, off the southern part of Luzon, when ravaged by Rolly, was cut-off from the rest of the country for several days as eighty percent of its infrastructure was destroyed or damaged.  Communications with the island was reestablished only when the weather allowed a police contingent to land with satellite equipment. Relief operations soon followed via air and sea.

Where is the solution?

The organization “responsible for ensuring the protection and welfare of the people during disasters or emergencies” is an inter-agency working group known as the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC).  It is manned by personnel seconded from other government agencies when there are impending calamities. Gaps in disaster response are often attributed to the ad hoc nature of this organization.  

In September 2020, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would create a Department of Disaster Resilience.  The proposed department would implement emergency measures in anticipation of, during, and in the aftermath of disasters.  Aside from typhoons, the agency would also respond to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, pandemics and outbreaks, and even man-made calamities except for elections. We have a Commission on Elections for that.

The solution to the problem of typhoons and the floods that attend them may or may not involve the creation of a new government agency: what is important is that there be a plan to build the hard and soft infrastructure for national resilience in the face of natural disasters that frequently visit the country, a plan that is supportive of and is supported by the national development program, a plan that is fully funded and faithfully implemented.

And of course it would also greatly help if at the global level the international community finally carries out a concerted action to deal effectively with the reality of Climate Change. At the very least that would entail all countries—developed, developing and outright poor—strictly meeting their commitments to both the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Climate Change Agreement.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of WRN Pinter Politik.

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