Government hit for failure to act on flood peril

Cabinet ignored scientists’ warning
/ 12:22 AM December 27, 2011

FILIPINO RESILIENCE Slowly regaining strength and balance after a devastating calamity, flood victims carrying relief goods head back to evacuation centers in Iligan City. AP

Barely a month into the Aquino presidency, green activists warned Cabinet officials of a looming climatic catastrophe.

The warning went largely ignored, but the Climate Change Congress of the Philippines (CCCP) headed by Archbishop Antonio Ledesma plodded on, raising alarm bells.


The warning was repeated to Cabinet officials in an antipoverty conference two weeks before Tropical Storm “Sendong” struck on December 16.

Officials on the ground were caught unprepared as the howler strayed from the normal typhoon corridor and turned its wrath on the largest and widely denuded watershed in Northern Mindanao.


The deaths and destruction in the storm rampage and the flash floods it ignited surpassed anything the world has seen in the past 12 years, according to a US meteorologist.

Swaths of impoverished urban settlements mainly from the hard-hit cities of Cagayan de Oro (CDO) and Iligan disappeared in the deadly brown torrents of slime and mud. Freshly cut timber from the Lanao mountains tumbled and smashed communities in the lowlands.

The official death toll has reached 1,200 and around 2,000 are missing—more than the 902 people who perished in the storm in Brazil in January, or the 657 who died in massive floods in Thailand in the past three months.

Scores of bodies are still being fished out of the waters of Macajalar Bay more than a week later.

“The point is that the country was fully forewarned about the CDO watershed vulnerabilities,” the CCCP said.

A visiting UN official likened the devastation in the Misamis Oriental capital to a destruction by a tsunami. Photographs of the city certainly reminded this writer of Banda Aceh in Sumatra, which was destroyed in the aftermath of the tsunami that a massive earthquake unleashed in December 2004.

As the magnitude of the Sendong disaster unfolded in Mindanao, the CCCP issued its oft-repeated plea, “Let us avoid another catastrophe … Let us save the future—now!”


The organization of civil society groups urged President Aquino to put in place an integrated watershed management program “immediately and decisively” instead of a “narrow and selective” rehabilitation initiative.

“The reality is that the whole country can be divided into different watersheds, with varying levels of vulnerabilities. We all live in a watershed,” said the statement signed by Ledesma, the archbishop of Cagayan de Oro,  and CCCP coconvenor Christian Monsod.

Poor dwellers

The group denounced attempts to blame the urban poor victims for the tragedy, declaring, “Biktima na, sinisisi pa!”

It pointed instead to the “utter lack of integrated area planning, integrated watershed management and coherent agro-industrial development program. This also includes  “asset reform”—the social justice program designed to ease poverty—and encompasses such issues as agrarian reform and addressing the needs of squatters in the cities, fishermen and indigenous peoples.

“The dumping of the dead in the dump is another detestable act. This is unspeakable and unconscionable,” the group said.

Over the past two years, in the wake of the disastrous flooding of Tropical Storm “Ondoy” in Metro Manila, the CCCP has been conducting nationwide multicultural seminars, workshops and dialogues with government agencies on how to reduce the risks facing the people and communities on the climate change front line.

The term gained worldwide currency in  2006 following the screening of Al Gore’s award-winning documentary “Inconvenient Truth.” The film warned of melting ice caps and rising sea levels as a result of global warming, stoked by greenhouse gas emissions in the industrial world.

Climate change impact

In the Philippines, Esteban C. Godilano, a geospatial-watershed specialist, outlined in a recent seminar the effects of the phenomenon:

Rainy days: decrease but intensity higher than normal.

Typhoon: increase intensity and frequency.

Temperature: increase by 3 percent, more frequent and persistent El Niño and La Niña episodes of dry and wet spells and increased evaporation.

Flooding: increase depth, frequency, intensity and severe landslides.

Humidity: upward trend, can alter geographic distribution of pest and diseases.

Godilano also warned of soil erosion, forest fires and overall land degradation severely affecting 20 million hectares, or 67 percent of the Philippines.

He said that 69 provinces in the archipelago’s eastern seaboard were in the grip of La Niña and could be prone to severe flooding and landslides almost year round.

At least 18 provinces are at La Niña risk in the next three months, according to Godilano.

Biblical deluge

This unusual weather disturbance was first felt in the Philippines four decades ago, when the nation went through a veritable biblical deluge that spanned more than 40 days and 40 nights. The July-August downpours in 1972 turned an area from Metro Manila to Pangasinan into a lake.

The need to rebuild the region was one of the justifications cited by President Ferdinand Marcos for his declaration of martial law a month later and assumption of dictatorial powers.

The Ondoy inundation two years ago drove home yet again the climatic risks confronting the country. At least 464 people died in the flooding.

Tropical Storm “Pepeng” followed on its heels with equal ferocity, killing 465.

Godilano has in fact been putting together climate change impact maps since 2003 and knocking on government doors  pleading with officials in the previous Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration to prepare at least to mitigate the anticipated disasters.

Meeting with execs

The CCCP officials in July 2010 met with Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, who heads the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council. He got the Godilano maps, expressed appreciation and said that these would be integrated in the government planning.

Also in the same month, the group met with Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, who expressed awe of the risks and appreciation of the dangers confronting the country.

In January, the group brought up the possibility that Cagayan de Oro would suffer the same fate as Marikina, the worst hit city in Ondoy’s onslaught. It presented the differences between the official geohazard maps and the climate change maps done by Godilano.

Mapping controversy

CCCP scientists in February drew up a draft proposal for a P700-million “vulnerability and poverty mapping”—programs discussed with Cabinet officials in the antipoverty summit early this month.

Unfortunately, material and budgetary support for the Cagayan de Oro watershed plan was slow in coming.

Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan, chief of the World Wide Fund for Nature-Philippines, said he also had warned about the Mindanao disaster three years ago but that he was dismissed by lawmakers as “too alarmist.”

Palace reaction

Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda declined immediate comment, saying he still had to verify the charges.

Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said, “It’s obvious the main responsible authority on this is really the LGU (local government unit) and therefore this is something they are already correcting.”

She added it was also “common sense” that the victims should not have been in areas at risk of flooding.

In the finger-pointing, the Aquino administration has asked why geohazard maps purportedly distributed to LGUs as guide to climate change adaptation measures were not used.

The CCCP said that the mapping issue was more complex and that it was difficult to put all the blame on the LGUs alone.

“In the first place, assuming that these were indeed distributed, these geohazard maps are able to show only landslide and flooding areas (within the LGU area) but not the overall watershed boundaries,” the group said.

The Cagayan de Oro government has no control over the water and debris coming from the 174,000 hectares comprising its watershed area straddling the provinces of Bukidnon, Lanao del Norte and Misamis Oriental, the CCCP said.

This is why the government needs to adopt immediately “an integrated watershed management regardless of political boundaries among provinces, cities and towns.”

“There is an urgent need for technical support in information and education dissemination among the LGUs. Maps are too technical and need to be properly explained in layman terms. Above all, there should be watershed and area planning in the context of climate change, followed by action in support of the plan,” the CCCP said.

Plea to Pres. Aquino

The CCCP appealed to President Benigno Aquino III to carry out five important measures.

Immediately declare CDO as a protected area and support the strengthening of the Cagayan de Oro River Basin Management Multisectoral Council, integrating the political and administrative boundaries in planning and management and focusing not only on forests but also “on the three R’s—ridge, rivers and reefs.”

Implement anticipatory and community-based strategies to disaster preparedness and magnification of climate change maps to clearly identify barangays that are most vulnerable so that these can serve as a platform for disaster preparedness and watershed planning and management.

Declare a moratorium on all mining operations in highly vulnerable areas and the full implementation of the total log ban without exception to give way to the rehabilitation of the degraded environment and restoration of lost natural resources.

Prepare the most vulnerable 24 provinces and their watersheds on predicted La Niña risks.

Undertake nationwide community rebuilding of both the urban and rural sectors in the context of climate change adaptation, which can help create millions of jobs. With reports from Cathy C. Yamsuan and Leila B. Salaverria

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TAGS: Aquino Administration, Benigno Aquino III, Climate Change, Disasters, environment, Flooding, Government, Mindanao, Natural Calamities, Tropical storm Sendong
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