Philippine floods: a disaster waiting to happen

Posted: 30 December 2011

The floods which have devastated huge tracts of Mindanao island in the Southern Philippines, with the known loss of  over a thousand lives and many more families rendered homeless or still missing, was a disaster waiting to happen says our East Asia correspondent, Henrylito Tacio

Ten days before Christmas, tropical storm Sendong (whose international name is Washi) hit Mindanao dropping a month’s worth of rain in only a few hours. People were already asleep when the storm hit pineapple plantations that don’t absorb water; it was also high tide and waterways were heavily silted. It was”unprecedented and overwhelming” Gwendolyn Pang, secretary general of Philippine Red Cross told a national daily.

Rescuers paddle their boat to search for survivors after Typhoon Washi. Photo credit:

Benito Ramos, administrator of the Office of Civil Defense, said that in his 60 years, this was the first time such a strong storm hit those places. Almost always, weather disturbances move westward, almost in a horizontal fashion, by-passing Mindanao, he said.

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 and the local disaster agencies.

Denuded land

But 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,” said science journalist Ernesto Lawagan.

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.

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 part, too, but Acosta dismissed it as “minor ” in comparison to deforestation.

“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.”

Denuded mountains, the Philippines
Denuded mountains, the Philippines. Photo © Henrylito Tacio

Another culprit of the recent disaster is the land’s topography. Both Cagayan de Oro and Iligan are low-lying areas which are prone to flooding. As such, both cities have reduced capacity to accommodate rushing water from the deforested upstream rivers, said Leo Jasareno, Mines and Geosciences Bureau chief.

Changing climate

Now it seems that freak weather phenomena will happen again and again as the global heats up. Normally, the country experiences tropical cyclones of up to 20 a year. In recent years, stronger typhoons have become more frequent.

Ramos is among those who attribute the changing weather patterns to global warming. “In December, we don’t usually see storms like this,” he said. In Hotspots! – Mapping Climate Change Vulnerability in Southeast Asia, the provinces of Lanao del Norte and Misamis Oriental – where Cagayan de Oro is located – were ranked high.

Senator Loren Legarda, the chair of the Senate Committee on Climate Change, believes 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 that action be taken to implement 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 build 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 the floods As it was a sandbar and not an island, “the entire Isla de Oro should not be inhabited,” said Environment Secretary Ramon Paje.

John Terborgh, in his book, Requiem for Nature, opines that the “overpopulated Philippines ” is “already beyond the point of no return.”

Is someone listening?