Natural, human forces at play in ‘Sendong’

KD Suarez
It's too early to say climate change was the sole culprit, experts say

LOGGING. A source of livelihood, logs from the forest brought tremendous damage when these were swept by cascading floodwaters from the mountains. Photo by Manman Dejeto

MANILA, Philippines – With over a thousand people already dead, scores still missing, and damages pegged at already millions of pesos, people are now wondering, what happened during tropical storm Sendong (Washi)?

Both natural and human factors came into play in the disaster, and all these contributed to one of the deadliest disasters in recent memory.

First, tropical storm Sendong was a rainfall-heavy storm. The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) initially pegged rainfall to be around 50 mm/hour, and a station of the Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) in Cagayan de Oro measured 188 mm of rain between Friday and Monday (There is no synoptic station in Iligan City).

Cagayan de Oro and Iligan are both located on a flood plain, the catchment basin for water coming from the highlands of northern Mindanao. This meant that the already unusually high rainfall measured by the PAGASA in the lowlands, was exacerbated by the water cascading from the highlands.

Aside from these, the height of the rains came in the early hours of December 17, when people were fast asleep. Worse, the high tide pushed water back to land instead of draining fast towards the sea.

Global warming? Not so fast

But is this a result of climate change and global warming? Ma. Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga, executive director of the Manila Observatory, says not so fast. “We don’t know yet,” she said.

She said we still have to take into account the other environmental conditions at the time when the storm happened, such as local and regional weather and climate conditions. One needs to consider not just statistical trends, for example, but the number of storms crossing the area too, to conclude such, she explained.

“You cannot just say, ‘hotter weather caused this,'” she said, adding that scientifically, people still have a lot to learn about it.

Human footprint

It wasn’t just the storm and the flooding that caused the disaster.

Presidential Adviser on Environmental Protection Neric Acosta said the disaster bore marks of a “human footprint” — this includes the “deadly” combination of deforestation, heavily-silted and shallow river systems, urbanization, increased preparation, and unprepared communities and local governments.

“[A] disaster doesn’t happen unless you have a human component,” Yulo-Loyzaga said.

Acosta said deforestation is a big factor in the disaster, adding that illegal logging still continues to this day. With no trees to hold water and soil, the rivers, in turn, become heavily silted and shallow.

Thus, when the rains fell, there was no way for the watershed to hold on to the water and the soil, which then cascaded down to the lowlands.

GRIEF. Those left behind deal with their painful loss by together remembering the departed.

No warnings?

Were the residents adequately warned of the impending disaster? The national government, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) and the PAGASA had repeatedly maintained they did; local government officials and residents, meanwhile, claimed otherwise.

Records show that as early as Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011, foreign weather agencies, such as the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, were already tracking the storm. Several weather agencies’ forecasts and satellite images were also able to monitor the storm. Weather blogger “typhoonk,” even predicted it will become “a meanie.”

However, it was only on Thursday, December 15, that the state weather bureau released its first Severe Weather Bulletin for Sendong, after it entered the Philippine Area of Responsibility (PAR).

But despite these warnings, even with the comparatively “late” forecast from the state weather bureau, the local governments and the people themselves did not heed the warnings and neither did they evacuate to safer ground, Acosta said.

There were reports of people still going to a night market and attending parties the night before the disaster, he added.

Another factor is urbanization and unchecked land use. In Cagayan de Oro alone, rapid urbanization in recent years has resulted in people living in areas where floods usually occur — along riverbanks — said Acosta.

Lessons

What could we learn from this disaster? For one, we need to be more prepared for, instead of just reacting to, disasters and other phenomena.

Yulo-Loyzaga said Sendong showed that local governments need not just look at their immediate area when preparing for disasters.

“When you’re a coastal city, you need to anticipate not only rain that will fall on your city; but since you are also part of a flood plain, the politico-ecological boundary is also important to you,” she said.

She added that an informed observation system — one that encompasses not just weather observation but also covers watersheds, rivers, etc. — is a critical tool in preparing for disasters and natural phenomena.

Besides hazard maps, Yulo-Loyzaga recommends the development of “vulnerability maps” that shows not just the natural hazards, but also levels of human activity and exposure.

“We can always track a storm, but do we track where people are living and why? What are those drivers?” she asked. Vulnerability maps can help in answering these, she continued.

Another thing to include in disaster preparedness is exposure, not just of human settlements, but also of economic and political elements such as economic infrastructure (roads, telecommunication systems for example), which could mitigate a place’s vulnerability to disasters.

“[The] gravest concern is really the need to establish systems where quality of life can be as humane as possible,” she said.

Land use, political will

Locally, Acosta said the disaster showed the need for proper land use and disaster preparedness plans.

Acosta said that in the short term, local governments must enforce relocation to safer grounds, away from geohazard zones. “Local officials can do it in a month or two,” he said, as long as there is a clear relocation and land use policy. There must likewise be “political resolve and will” to move people.

For the long term, he stressed the need to address the sources of flooding, by rehabilitating watersheds, as well as improving river embankments. “The laws are there, but the power of the government, LGUs (local government units) to enforce reforestation, desiltation should also be there,” he said.

Acosta also cited the need for a better disaster risk preparation plan, citing the province of Albay as an example.

In the end, he said, stakeholders should think beyond relief and rehabilitation when it comes to disasters.

Yulo-Loyzaga also said that all stakeholders should learn to collaborate and share information critical for disaster risk-reduction.

“How many people need to die…before we will agree to share critical information that’s vital for human life?” she asked. – Rappler.com