Philippines: A Hotspot for Climate Change

Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio

Davao City, 9 November 2010. Manila, the country’s capital, is the most vulnerable province when it comes to climate change.  That’s according to Dr. Herminia A. Francisco, director of the Singapore-based Economy and Environment Program for Southeast Asia (EEPSEA). 

“In Southeast Asia, Manila ranks seventh,” Dr. Francisco told the participants of the climate change media workshop convened by the Philippine Network of Environmental Journalists, Inc.

In 2009, EEPSEA made a detailed mapping assessment of seven countries in Asia, namely: Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.  The assessment studied 590 subnational areas comprising 341 districts in Indonesia, 19 provinces in Cambodia, 17 provinces in Laos, 14 states in Malaysia, 74 provinces in the Philippines, 72 provinces in Thailand, and 53 provinces in Vietnam.

Herminia: High density regions most vulnerable to onslaught of climate change.

The result of the study was the publication, Hotspots! — Mapping Climate Change Vulnerability in Southeast Asia.  Dr. Francisco, who used to teach at the University of the Philippines at Los Baños, co-wrote the book with Dr. Arief Anshory Yusuf who currently serves as the secretary-general of the Indonesian Regional Science Association.

The climate hazard index used in the study is a simple average of five standardized climate-related hazards (cyclones, floods, and droughts in terms of average annual frequency of occurrence from 1980 to 2000, the degree of landslide risk, and the extent of a 5-meter inundation zone due to sea level rise).

In addition, the study used population density as a proxy for human sensitivity to climate-hazard exposure.  “We assume that regions that are relatively less inhabited will be less vulnerable compared to regions with high population densities, given the same degree of exposure to climate hazards,” Dr. Francisco explained.

This was one of the reasons why Manila tops them all.  A study conducted by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) some years back reported that a 90-centimeter water upsurge (as a result of sea level rise) would lead to the inundations of some portions of the reclaimed areas in Metro Manila, some districts in Manila and Manila Bay shoreline areas. 

A weather bureau study claimed that more than two million people around Manila Bay would be displaced by 2025 as a result of rising sea level.

“The Philippines is extremely vulnerable to the ravages of climate change,” the World Wide Fund for Nature once declared. 

Typhoons, droughts, landslides and more are symptomatic of extreme climatic changes.

The EEPSEA study supports this claim.  It found out that the top 10 vulnerable provinces in the Philippines are located in Luzon.  Rounding the top five are Manila, Benguet, Batanes, Ilocos Sur, and Rizal, all in the northeast part of the country. 

“The vulnerability of all these provinces is dominated by high exposure to climate hazards, except for Manila where the dominant factor is its high sensitivity due to its high population density,” the study pointed out.

The other provinces in the top 10 are Bataan, Batangas, Bulacan, Abra, and Albay.

“The provinces in the most northern Luzon islands (Abra, Ilocos Sur, and Benguet) experience frequent typhoons, droughts, and landslides,” the study found out.  “The vulnerable provinces in the vicinity of Manila (Bulacan, Bataan, Rizal, and Batangas), on the other hand, are less exposed to landslides, but record frequent flooding on top of typhoons and droughts.”

Albay, which ranks 10th in terms of overall vulnerability, has always been battered and exposed to climate hazards such as tropical cyclones and natural disasters such as flash floods and volcanic eruptions.  “Albay is a one-stop shop for disasters,” commented Albay Governor Joey Salceda.  “Name it, we have it.”

“Based on our mapping assessment, we found out that all the regions of the Philippines are vulnerable to climate change,” Dr. Francisco declared.

The next 10 provinces in the vulnerability ranking are Quezon, Nueva Ecija, La Union, Aurora, Mountain Province, Tawi-Tawi, Romblon, Laguna, Camarines Sur, and Sorsogon. 

Davao del Sur is 28th in ranking but the first to be listed in Mindanao.  The other provinces that belong to the group (ranks 21 to 30) are Nueva Vizcaya, Cavite, Occidental Mindoro, Ilocos Norte, Kalinga-Apayao, Isabela, Zambales, Camarines Norte, and Catanduanes.

Surigao del Norte leads the pack of the fourth group (ranks 31 to 40).  Others in the list are Misamis Occidental, Pampanga, the two provinces of Lanao, Northern Samar, Oriental Mindoro, Ifugao, Pangasinan, and Leyte.

Masbate ranks 50th in the list of the fifth group (ranks 41 to 50).  On top is Negros Oriental, followed by Bukidnon, then Quirino, Zamboanga del Norte, Tarlac, Negros Occidental, Marinduque, Western Samar, and Cagayan.

From ranks 51 to 60 are Camiguin, Palawan, Agusan del Sur, Maguindanao, Antique, South Cotabato, Zamboanga del Sur, Agusan del Norte, Misamis Oriental, and Cebu.  The ABD study also singled out reclaimed areas in Cebu to submerge should there be one meter sea level rise in the country.

The remaining provinces are Davao Oriental, Southern Leyte, Sulu, Sultan Kudarat, Surigao del Sur, Eastern Samar, Siquijor, Davao del Norte, North Cotabato, Capiz, Iloilo, Bohol, Basilan, and Aklan.

Actually, it was Dr. James E. Hansen, of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), who first raised the problem of global warming.  In 1988, he told an American Senate hearing that “the greenhouse effect is changing our climate now.”

Global warming is a symptom of climate change. When certain gases – mainly carbon dioxide, ground-level ozone, chlorofluorocarbons, methane, and nitrous oxide – build up in the atmosphere, the so-called greenhouse effect occurs.  These greenhouse gases, as they are called, trap some of the heat (infrared radiation) the earth emits, increasing the earth’s surface temperature and altering the global climate and all the natural and human activities that depend on it.

Rosa: Drinking water and agriculture productivity aren't spared from climate change effects.

For more than three decades now, scientists around the world have warned of dangerous changes in the atmosphere.  “Research shows that the climate is changing faster and in a more dramatic fashion than has previously been reported,” Dr. Rosa Perez, a consultant and researcher on climate change, told participants of climate change workshop.

In the coming decades, scientists anticipate that as atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases continue to rise, average global temperatures will continue to rise as well.

“Climate change means much more than higher global temperatures,” pointed out ex-Senator Heherson Alvarez, vice chairman of the Climate Change Commission.  “(It) could result in a wide range of catastrophic consequences.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of 2,000 scientists which advises the United Nations, said the rising of sea level is one of the most certain outcomes as a result of climate change.

“A continuing rise in average global sea level would inundate parts of many heavily populated river deltas and the cities on them, making them uninhabitable, and would destroy many beaches around the world,” the UN panel said.

Increased temperature is one stressor that can cause “the tropical rainforests of the sea” to bleach, which in turn diminish their growth and threaten critical habitat for fish and other marine resources.

“An increase of one to two degrees Centigrade can cause corals to bleach, as they expel the algae that provide them with food and lend them their vibrant colors,” explained Molly O'Meara, a staff researcher at the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute. “Sustained increase of 3-4 degrees Centigrade can cause significant coral death.”

According to the international marine watchdog group Reef Check, fish species are already starting to disappear from Philippine waters as delicate coral reefs, some of the biggest in the world, are destroyed in the archipelago.  In a recent report, the group said coral reefs were already suffering from severe bleaching.

Increasing sea level rise would endanger the drinking water quality and agricultural productivity, Dr. Perez said. This is due to possible salt intrusion in coastal soils and fresh water aquifers.

Increasing ocean acidity levels affect the delicate balance of marine ecosystems.

Climate change also threatens the wildlife species.  “If climate zones shift, existing national parks or protected areas would no longer preserve the habitat for plants, fish and wildlife for which they were established,” noted Lulu Bucay in a primer circulated by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.  “Few forests, for instance, could keep up with the predicted temperature change causing hard consequences on the species that depend on them.”

Another consequence: spread of diseases.  Greenpeace Philippines said climate change could amplify the proliferation and transmission of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever because of changes in water distribution, rising temperature and the increase of microorganisms.

“Global climate change will have diverse, escalating impacts on human health,” said Tony McMichael, a professor at Australia’s National University, who launched an international effort to study global environmental change and health.

Less rice to eat thanks to climate change.

Agriculture is extremely vulnerable to climate change.  “Higher temperatures eventually reduce yields of desirable crops while encouraging weed and pest proliferation,” noted the new report released by the Washington, D.C.-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

Take the case of rice, the cereal grain that millions of Filipinos depend on as a staple food.  A study done by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) has shown that even modest rises in global temperatures can decrease production. 

Rising temperatures in the past 25 years have already cut rice yields in some parts of Asia by 10-20 percent.  “As the daily minimum temperature increases, or as nights get hotter, rice yields drop,” said University of California’s Jarrod Welch, lead author of the IRRI study published in the U.S. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The consequence of global climate change are so pressing that it doesn’t matter who was responsible for the past; what matters is who is responsible for the future – and that means all of us,” declared actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California.  “The rich nations and the poor nations have different responsibilities.  But one responsibility we all have, and that is action… action, action, action!”

Katherine Richardson, a climate scientist at the University of Copenhagen, urged: “We have to act and we have to act now. We need to realize what a risk it is they are taking on behalf of their own constituents, the world’s societies and, even more importantly, future generations.