The impacts of typhoons on societies, such as floods and landslides, are mainly due to past and present human activities that have caused significant changes in our environment. As our population grew, we needed more land for residential and agricultural areas. We have cleared forests, covered wetlands, channeled rivers, to name a few – virtually converting significant proportions of our ecosystems, and thereby losing regulating services such as water uptake or flood regulation and soil formation.
We are often more oriented towards the temporary services of our ecosystems for obvious reasons, as they provide us with food and water. Moreover, we have forgotten to respect or underestimated the characteristics of our inherent environment, especially in the context that the Philippines is an island archipelago located in the tropics.
Some background information
The Philippines is an island archipelago of approximately 7,641 islands, with 11 of the largest containing 95% of the population. Our total area is 300,000 square kilometers, which historically consisted mainly of various types of forests and wetlands, and often with rugged terrain and dynamic plains such as winding rivers, steeply sloping mountains, valleys or watersheds and beautiful coastal areas. In some cases, these rivers dry up for a while. But these can be filled during the rainy season, especially when typhoons bring extreme amounts of rainfall. These meandering rivers also bring nutrients and sediments, which are also important for soil formation and for agriculture.
The isolation of these islands for tens of thousands to millions of years has resulted in a great diversity of endemic species (mainly wild animals and plants). This means that they are only found in these areas, and if they are overexploited or destroyed, they disappear forever. It must be understood that an area with a good biodiversity assemblage is often more advantageous because it is resilient to impacts, because there will always be other species to take over from those that could have been eliminated or exploited.
And since the Philippines is in the tropics, we only have two distinct seasons: wet and dry. ‘Yan po ang tag-ulan and tag-init. So every year we can experience very wet (floods) and very dry (drought) months, and sometimes it can be extreme or prolonged. Similarly, the Philippines is in the Pacific typhoon belt. An average of about 20 typhoons enter the Philippines Area of Responsibility (PAR), of which about 5 make landfall and are often destructive. The destructive effects of these typhoons are further exacerbated by the contribution of climate change.
Other relevant questions
Shifting baseline is a type of change in how a system, in this case our ecosystems, is measured relative to the previous baseline. In the absence of reliable national databases, we often end up having a not-so-good benchmark for proper comparison. Then people in general just say that forests and wetlands are still there.
If people visit a national park like Mount Pulag, they will always be impressed by its natural beauty, so they end up not doing much even if the environment has already been greatly reduced (i.e. converted ). Likewise, those who go “dolphin watching” in Tañon Strait or Panglao, Bohol will be amazed by spinner dolphins. However, I do know that 20 years ago there were much more diverse species commonly seen, such as the pilot, false killer and melon-headed whale, which is why it was then called “the ‘whale watching’.
Additionally, there is the Shifting Base Syndrome (SBS), which is a situation in which people have lost awareness of the true state of their natural environment because they cannot perceive the actual changes. Indeed, our lifespan is too short compared to the perceptible changes in our ecosystems.
These are some of the reasons why biodiversity loss is a very delicate or pernicious environmental problem to solve, especially for a developing country like ours. It is interconnected with other environmental issues such as growing human population, poorly planned and rapid urbanization, resource depletion, energy crisis, pollution and climate change. So, an environmental crisis!
For some time now, we have been neglecting our environment, which is our natural capital. However, the reality is that we cannot live without it. For example, there is no industrial equivalent that can produce oxygen and sequester carbon on a nature scale. Note that past major extinctions provide evidence that the natural environment will survive and thrive even without us.
Additionally, we also tend to cluster in urban centers (e.g. Metro Manila, Metro Cebu, Metro Davao). Today, one in two Filipinos lives in urban areas, and it is predicted that 60% of our population will live in cities by 2050. However, poor planning and rapid urbanization magnify our environmental problem. Rapid urbanization often results in a significant increase in impermeable surfaces (concrete/cement), so that there are hardly any green spaces left in our cities. Water then tends to pool because of these impermeable surfaces, promoting surface runoff to lower areas. Likewise, with the growing number of urban poor, and as property prices rise, we now tend to choose to live in vulnerable areas (eg near rivers or in flood plains).
We really need to rethink how and where we live and manage our lands, and accept and respect geohazards and our natural ecosystems. This environmental problem goes beyond the climate crisis. We have to keep an eye on the ball. We need to be proactive, not just reactive, most of the time. We must combine our actions, guided by appropriate scientific policies, to be able to mitigate these impacts! Earlier awareness and acceptance of these issues as an environmental crisis will enhance its possible consideration as a national security issue! – Rappler.com
Lemnuel V Aragones, PhD is Professor and Director of the Institute of Environmental Sciences and Meteorology at UP Diliman.