By Thin Lei Win
Mindanao, the resource-rich island in the southern Philippines, has historically been spared the wrath of the killer storms that batter the rest of the country every year. But after two deadly typhoons in two years, Mindanoans are wondering whether these are a sign of things to come.
Last month Typhoon Bopha slammed into eastern Mindanao leaving more than 1,800 dead or missing, wiping out villages and devastating farmland.
Every survivor I spoke to on a visit to the worst hit provinces of Davao Oriental and Compostela Valley was bewildered by Bopha’s intensity. “We’ve never experienced such a storm before,” said one octogenarian grandmother who was staying in an evacuation centre after losing her home and farm.
When Bopha, the sixteenth and most powerful storm to batter the disaster-prone Philippines in 2012, struck in the early hours of Dec. 4, it flooded farming and mining towns and buried people in mudslides. It damaged over 210,000 houses and destroyed tens of thousands of hectares of banana and coconut fields, decimating rural livelihoods.
Almost exactly a year before, Typhoon Washi killed more than 1,200 people in northern Mindanao but Bopha has had a more devastating impact on livelihoods and infrastructure.
“Climate change is a reality,” Aurthur Uy, the governor of Compostela Valley, told me in an interview.
“Considering that for two successive years Mindanao was hit by two typhoons, people are saying it may be because of a change of path for the typhoons.”
The unusually bad weather hadn’t stopped when I visited the island almost seven weeks after Bopha. Heavy rains and strong winds continued to hammer the far eastern Cateel region where I saw flooded houses and large areas of submerged land. Many villagers had been forced to flee their homes for a second time and blamed the unseasonal weather on climate change.
A NEW NORMAL?
About 20 typhoons hit the Philippines every year and the country is ranked the third most vulnerable to climate change in a United Nations survey.
“Climate change science does predict more extreme weather events, and the disaster trend in Mindanao is worrisome,” said Joe Curry, country representative for aid agency Catholic Relief Services (CRS).
“Mindanao is not normally in the path of typhoons … Mindanoans are not as well prepared as people in other parts of the country.”
Days after Bopha hit, Climate Change Commissioner Naderev Saño broke down as he addressed delegates at the international Doha climate talks.
Saño told how Bopha had “wreaked havoc in (a) part of the country that has never seen a storm like this in half a century” and he appealed to world leaders to “open our eyes to the stark reality that we face”.
“Please, no more delays, no more excuses,” he said.
Jerry Velasquez, head of the Asia Pacific office for the U.N. agency in charge of disaster risk reduction (UNISDR), told AlertNet a single event could not be attributed to climate change.
But he said typhoons like Bopha were consistent with the global trend towards more extreme weather events identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading international body for the assessment of climate change and its potential impact.
PREPARING FOR THE FUTURE
Velasquez said Mindanao must take urgent action to understand the threats it faces from climate change. Local authorities in other areas of the Philippines have used U.N. and government maps which show the risks of seismic, volcanic and storm activity to warn, inform and sometimes relocate populations, he said.
“Early warning needs to be taken more seriously next time both by authorities and the people,” he added.
The Philippine government started taking precautions as early as Nov 30, including evacuating people, but some families preferred to stay put because they had nowhere else to go or because they did not expect the typhoon to be so strong.
Experts urged the authorities to strengthen building and land use codes and stop economic activities in dangerous locations such as river bends where floods usually hit first and hardest.
“(Mindanoans) need stronger infrastructure, including better roads and bridges, that will ensure that floods don’t isolate them,” said CRS’s Curry.
For Velasquez, improving livelihood opportunities and moving people away from dangerous jobs such as small scale mining is another way to minimise the impact of future typhoons.
“Many of the affected people are poor or marginalised. Some braved the storm and were killed because the threat of not eating was greater than the threat of being killed by the typhoon,” he said.
But even those who moved were not always safe. Some evacuation centres were destroyed during Bopha and people who had sought refuge were washed away. Experts said more must be done to ensure centres are secure.
Carin van der Hor, country director for aid agency Plan International, also called for buildings other than schools to be used as shelters.
“Now it is usually the schools that are being used as evacuation centers, but that means that education is disrupted and that children cannot connect with their peers and cannot be accessed for assessment of their trauma,” she added.
Joel Umbod, a farmer in Cateel in Davao Oriental, believes deforestation due to illegal logging contributed to Bopha’s impact in Davao and Compostela which he said were once known for high-quality timber.
“Most of the land and soil are now eroded because there aren’t big trees anymore” said Umbod, pointing to hilltops now covered with coconut trees which are less effective in providing a defence against flash floods.
“It’s the small people who suffered the most from the typhoon. The government has to bring back the green environment that can protect us from the storms,” he added.
It is a sentiment shared by many, including Compostela governor Uy.
“Deforestation definitely contributed to the storm’s impact, although at present we have no logging anymore as we have no more trees,” he said.
“In 2010, we started a reforestation plan to plant 20 million trees by the year 2015. Unfortunately those trees that we planted are all gone now too.”