By Henrylito D. Tacio
Davao City, 19 December 2011. Ten days before the Philippines would celebrate Christmas, tropical storm Sendong (international name: Washi) hit Mindanao. The following day, more than 650 people were reported in Cagayan de Oro, Iligan, Bukidnon, Compostela Valley, Surigao del Sur, and Zamboanga del Norte. There were also several deaths reported from Negros Oriental and Dumaguete City.
The exact figure of those who really perished from the tragedy is still sketchy as hundreds are still unaccounted for. For instance, in the badly-hit Cagayan de Oro, almost 500 people remained missing.
“It’s unusual for Mindanao; a month’s worth of rainfall fell in only a few hours; people were already asleep; the storm hit pineapple plantations that don’t absorb water; it was high tide and waterways were heavily silted. It was unprecedented and overwhelming,” Gwendolyn Pang, secretary general of Philippine Red Cross told a national daily.
“An extraordinary situation” was how Benito Ramos, administrator of the Office of Civil Defense, described the freak weather phenomenon. As he told the press during a briefing at Camp Aguinaldo, “In my 60 years, this is the first time such a strong storm hit those places.”
According to Ramos, storms coming from the Pacific usually go to the northeastern regions, such as the typhoon-hardened Bicol and Cagayan Valley, or a little southward to the provinces of Cebu or Leyte. Almost always, weather disturbances known to move westward, almost in a horizontal fashion, go to the direction of Palawan province.
This must be the reason why most residents in affected areas ignored the Storm Signal No. 2 warnings issued by the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) and the local disaster agencies.
Despite the heavy rains, it was “business as usual” for most of the people. But there was tragic brewing. In just 12 hours, Sendong dumped more than a month of average rains on Mindanao. Storms that follow the same path as Sendong come only once in about every 12 years, according to forecaster Leny Ruiz.
In Cagayan de Oro, the rainfall peaked at 181 millimeters (mm) over a 24 hour-period, Pagasa weather specialist Robert Quinto said. The typical rainfall in the city reached only 15-20 mm per hour.
The heavy rains were just part of the disaster. “The extent of the disaster brought about by Typhoon Sendong in Southern Philippines was magnified because most of the forests in that region were heavily denuded due to logging and mining,” science journalist Ernesto Lawagan deplored.
Nereus Acosta, presidential adviser on environment, agreed. In an interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer, he said the deforestation of watersheds in Lanao del Norte and Bukidnon, which feed into the major rivers of Mindanao, had worsened the effects of heavy rains.
The floods blamed on deforestation almost always occur after prolonged rains, which saturate the soil, including forest soil, so that it can no longer absorb more water, explains Forests and Floods: Drowning in Fiction or Thriving on Facts?, published by UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the Center for International Forestry Research.
Rain then has nowhere to go but into rivers where it fills them to overflowing. At its root, the flood equation is pretty simple: If a river cannot handle the load of water it’s required to carry, it must rise. With enough water, it must rise above its banks and flood. The faster water runs from the watershed into the river, the higher a flood will be. Thus anything that increases runoff speed – like excessive pavement or ditching of farmland – will contribute to floods.
“We can really see how vulnerable we are. When you tamper with the watersheds and the forests, we become vulnerable,” Acosta said. Small-scale and illegal mining played a contribution, too, but Acosta dismissed it as “minor” in comparison to deforestation. However, he noted some small-scale mining near the city, which could have silted the river.
“Deforestation is a symptom of a bigger problem,” says Nicolo del Castillo, an architect by profession who teaches at the University of the Philippines. “I probably sound baduy (tacky and outdated) but I see the problem in the prevailing system of values, that is, the greed, the need to be the biggest, the wealthiest, and sometimes you feel hopeless. I am an optimist, but possibly there will be more tragedies and maybe then more people will wake up.”
Another culprit of the recent disaster: the land’s topography. Both Cagayan de Oro and Iligan are low-lying areas which are prone to massive flooding. As such, both cities have reduced capacity to accommodate rushing water from the deforested upstream rivers. That was what Leo Jasareno, Mines and Geosciences Bureau chief, said.
Cagayan de Oro River, the longest in the region, is one of the rivers draining the northern central part of Mindanao. The river serves as the natural boundary between the Bukidnon and Iligan City and between Bukidnon and Cagayan de Oro City.
Freak weather phenomena are bound to happen again and again due to global warming caused by climate change. Normally, the country experiences tropical cyclones of up to 20 a year. In recent years, stronger typhoons have become more frequent.
Ramos attributed the changing weather patterns to global warming. “In December, we don’t usually see storms like this,” he said. He suggested to revisit the storm warning system of Pagasa in order to account for the phenomenon.
In Hotspots! – Mapping Climate Change Vulnerability in Southeast Asia, Lanao del Norte – from which Iligan is a part of – was ranked 34th among the 74 provinces surveyed for the book. Misamis Oriental – where Cagayan de Oro is located – was ranked 59th.
“Climate change is a global challenge that threatens every nation, no matter how large or small, wealthy or poor,” said US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. “The threat is serious, it is urgent, and it is growing.”
Senator Loren Legarda, the chair of the Senate Committee on Climate Change, believed climate change is a clear and present danger. “It is a national security concern,” she said. “Demanding immediate government action to address its impact is the very least we can do in remembrance of the Mindanao flashflood victims who would have hopefully issued a wake-up call for everyone.”
As such, she urged for the implementation of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Plan (NDRRMP). “With the more destructive disasters that have come before us, it is high time that the NDRRMP be immediately launched as this outlines the specific strategies to reduce disaster risks,” she added.
Some believed that more deaths could have been avoided had the population in the country been curbed. If only there were areas where the residents of Isla de Oro could built their homes, they might still be alive today.
Isla de Oro was an islet at the mouth of Cagayan River that was swept away by flash floods caused by Sendong. As it was a sandbar and not an island, “the entire Isla de Oro should not be inhabited,” Environment Secretary Ramon Paje was quoted as saying by Philippine Daily Inquirer. Isla de Oro was formed by accumulation of sand and silt at the mouth of the river, where the freshwater meets the sea water of Macajalar Bay.
John Terborgh, in his book, Requiem for Nature, opines that the “overpopulated Philippines” is “already beyond the point of no return.”
Is someone listening?
By Henrylito D. Tacio