Deforestation Negative Impacts: Flooding, Erosion and Damage

Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio

Davao City, 1 December 2012. When nature strikes back, Filipinos should better watch out!

It happened in December last year in the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan.  It happened again this year – also in December – in Compostela Valley (particularly the town of New Bataan) and Davao Oriental (specifically Cateel).

Nature took in the form of tropical storm.  Last year’s “Sendong” (international codename: Washi) laid to waste vast sections of Northern Mindanao, an area previously thought to be away from the path of storms. It killed more than 1,500 people.

“Pablo” (Bopha) left almost 400 people dead and hundreds more injured as it slowly exited the country.  More than 300 are still unaccounted for.  Most of the fatalities – some of them still unidentified – died from flash flood and mudslide.

The aftermath of Sendong

The aftermath of Sendong

Again, the usual suspect in the latest tragedy is deforestation.  In a recent press conference, Ramon Paje of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) claimed that about 80 percent of the remaining illegal logging “hot spots” in the country are located in the provinces hardest hit by “Pablo.”

According to the DENR head, the remaining hot spots are concentrated in Region 13 (Caraga Region) and Region 11 (Davao Region), which includes Compostela Valley and Davao Oriental.

Paje surmised that the devastation could be blamed in illegal logging operations in these two regions. “This is now proving that total log ban is right. Several quarters are criticizing the declaration of a total log ban but look at what happened?  It is now proving that we really must stop timber harvesting, especially in our natural forests,” he pointed out.

The total log ban is covered under Executive Order 23 which President Benigno Aquino III issued in February 2011.  The order stopped all authorized logging operations in natural forests nationwide, virtually halting timber extraction of about 300 million board feet a year.  As a result of the implementation of EO 23, the illegal logging hot spots have been drastically reduced to 31 from a high of 197.

In the case of “Sendong,” the heavy downpour of rains was just part of the disaster.  “The extent of the disaster brought about by ‘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.

Destroyed bridges after the onslaught of extreme weather.

Destroyed bridges after the onslaught of extreme weather.

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.

“The waters came so suddenly and unexpectedly, and the winds were so fierce, that compounded the loss of lives and livelihood,” Compostela Valley Governor Arthur Uy was quoted as saying by Reuters.  He added that water catchment basins for farms on top of the mountains gave way due to the torrential rains, sending down heavy volumes of water to the flatlands.

More than 90 years ago, the Philippines was almost totally covered with forests distributed throughout the archipelago.  But with the current rate of deforestation rate of 157,400 hectares per year, the country is likely to lose its forests cover in less than 40 years.

“The Philippines is among the countries that are losing their forest cover fast, ranking fourth in the world’s top 10 most threatened forest hotspots,” wrote Marjorie Pamintuan, the spokesperson of Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment.  “The area lost to deforestation every year is twice the land area of Metro Manila.”

Statistics showed that 54 years after Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan “rediscovered” the Philippines, 92% (27.5 million hectares) of the country’s total land area of 30 million hectares was covered with forests.  This went down to 70% (20.9 million hectares) in 1863 and then to 64% (18.9 million hectares) in 1920.

Then, Ferdinand Marcos became the president of the country.  After declaring Martial Law in 1972, the country saw rapid deforestation as the president changed the rules on logging leases, from one year to 10-year and even 25-year terms, according to James K. Boyce, author of the book, The Political Economy of Growth and Impoverishment in the Marcos Era.

By 1981, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations officially classified only 9.5 million hectares “closed forest” — with 70-100% forest cover —and 3 million hectares considered “undisturbed,” with 2 million hectares as “severely degraded and incapable of regeneration.”

There are several causes of deforestation in the country but logging – legal or otherwise – is the worst of them all.  “Logging is most ecologically destructive in the mountains,” wrote award-winning science journalist Alan C. Robles.  “It is next to impossible to replant trees on rocky mountainsides once their thin skin of topsoil has been washed away.”

As mountains are devoid of forests, flashfloods and landslides become a common thing during typhoons.  The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA), the country’s weather bureau, said the country normally experiences tropical cyclones of up to 20 a year. 

But in recent years, typhoons have become more intense, stronger and destructive.  In November 1991, “Uring” claimed 5,101 lives and almost 3,000 others missing. 1984’s “Nitang” took the lives of 1,492 while 2008’s “Frank” snatched the lives of 1,410.  The death toll of 2006’s “Reming” was 1,399.

The culprit for these stronger typhoons, experts claim, is global warming that caused an increased sea temperature which, in turn increase the number of tropical cyclones and storms.  “Weather patterns could become unpredictable, as would extreme weather events, hurricanes could become much more stronger and more frequent,” wrote Lulu Bucay in a brochure published by the DENR.

Something must be done soon if the country has to survive.  “With the dwindling forests, coupled with the threats of more disasters brought by climate change, it is high time for a log ban and a massive reforestation effort,” Pamintuan suggested.  “However, the threats should be addressed so that the opportunities can be maximized.”

Others see it otherwise.  “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.”