environmental conservation

[OPINION] The environmental crisis must be a matter of national security!

Lemnuel Aragones

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[OPINION] The environmental crisis must be a matter of national security!
Why is biodiversity loss a very tricky or wicked environmental problem to solve?

The impacts of typhoons on societies, such as flooding and landslides, are primarily due to human activities in the past and present that have resulted in significant changes to our environment. As our population grew, we needed more land for residential as well as agricultural areas. We cleared forests, covered wetlands, channeled rivers, to mention a few – practically converting significant proportions of our ecosystems, and thus losing regulating services such as water absorption or flood regulation and soil formation.

We are often more biased towards the provisional services of our ecosystems for obvious reasons, as it provides us food and water. Further, we have forgotten to respect, or have underestimated the features, of our inherent environment, especially in the context of the Philippines being an island archipelago located in the tropics. 

Some background information

The Philippines is an island archipelago of about 7,641 islands, with 11 of the largest containing 95% of the population. Our total land area is 300,000 square kilometers, which historically consisted mainly of various types of forests and wetlands, and often with ragged terrain and some dynamic plains such as winding rivers, steep sloping mountains, valleys or catchment basins, and beautiful coastal areas. In some cases, these rivers dry up for some time. But these can be filled up during the rainy season, particularly when typhoons bring in extreme amounts of rainfall. These winding rivers also bring about nutrients and sediments, and these are also important to soil formation and for agriculture. 

The isolation of these islands for tens of thousands to millions of years resulted in a high diversity of endemic species (mainly wild animals and plants). This means they are only found in such areas, and if they are overexploited or destroyed, they are gone forever. We must understand that an area with a good biodiversity assemblage is often more advantageous as they are resilient to impacts, since there will always be other species to take over those that might have been eliminated or exploited.  

And since the Philippines is in the tropical zone, we have two distinct seasons only: wet and dry. ‘Yan po ang tag-ulan at tag-init. So, every year we may experience very wet (flooding) and very dry (drought) months, and sometimes this could be extreme or protracted. Similarly, the Philippines is in the Pacific typhoon belt. An average of about 20 typhoons enter the Philippine Area of Responsibility (PAR), with about 5 making landfall and often being destructive. The destructive impacts of these typhoons are further exacerbated by the contribution of climate change.

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Other pertinent issues

The shifting baseline is a type of change as to how a system, in this case our ecosystems, is measured compared to previous reference. In the absence of reliable national databases, we often end up having a not-so-good reference point for appropriate comparison. Then, people in general just say that the forests and wetlands are still there. 

If people visit a national park like Mt Pulag, they will still be awed by its natural beauty,  so they end up not doing much even if the environment has already been significantly reduced (i.e. converted). Similarly, those who go “dolphin watching” in Tañon Strait or Panglao, Bohol will be amazed by spinner dolphins. However, I know that there were far more diverse species commonly sighted 20 years ago, such as pilot, false killer, and melon-headed whales, which was why it was called “whale watching” then.

Furthermore, there is the shifting baseline syndrome (SBS), which is a situation wherein people have lost awareness of the real state of their natural environment because they cannot perceive the actual changes. This is because our lifetime is too short in comparison to the perceivable changes in our ecosystems.

These are some of the reasons why biodiversity loss is a very tricky or wicked environmental problem to solve, especially for a developing country like ours. It is interconnected with other environmental problems such as the growing human population, poorly planned and rapid urbanization, resource depletion, the energy crisis, pollution, and climate change. Thus, an environmental crisis!  

We have been neglecting our environment, which is our natural capital, for some time now. However, the reality is that we cannot live without it. For instance, there is no industrial equivalent that can produce oxygen and sequester carbon on the scale that nature can. Note that past major extinctions provide evidence that the natural environment will survive and thrive even without us. 

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Furthermore, we also tend to cluster in urban centers (e.g. Metro Manila, Metro Cebu, Metro Davao). To date, one out of two Filipinos live in urban areas, and it is anticipated that 60% of our population will be living in cities by 2050. However, poor planning and rapid urbanization amplifies our environmental problem. Rapid urbanization often results in significant increases in impervious surfaces (concrete/cement), so that there are hardly any green spaces left in our cities. Water then tends to accumulate because of these impervious surfaces, enhancing surface flow towards lower areas.  Similarly, with the growing number of urban poor, and as prices of properties increase, we now tend to choose to live in vulnerable areas (e.g. near rivers or in floodplains). 


We truly must 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 must keep our eye on the ball. We must be proactive, not just reactive, most of the time. We must bring our acts together, guided by appropriate science-based policies, to be able to mitigate these impacts! The earlier realization and acceptance of these problems as an environmental crisis will boost its possible consideration as a matter of national security! – Rappler.com

Lemnuel V Aragones, PhD is Professor and Director of the Institute of Environmental Science and Meteorology in UP Diliman.

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