Almost a year after Typhoon “Sendong” devastated the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan in the northern part of Mindanao, Philippines in December 2011, the historically “typhoon-free” island experienced another similarly rare and intense tropical storm that struck earlier this month. Super Typhoon “Pablo” slammed into Siquijor, Misamis Oriental, Surigao del Sur, Agusan del Sur, Compostela Valley, and Davao Oriental, hitting some of the same cities and towns still recovering from the havoc suffered during Sendong.
According to the Philippines Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA), Pablo was 375 miles in diameter and packed gusts up to 130 mph with torrential rains that averaged one inch per hour. Likewise, when Sendong made landfall, it dumped more than a month’s worth of average rainfall in just 12 hours, sparking flash floods in the middle of the night and trapping hundreds of thousands of residents. In relation to 40 years of meteorological records, Mindanao has not experienced such storms, heavy rainfall, and landslides since Typhoon Titang hit back in 1970.
According to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council(NDRRMC), as of December 18th, the death toll from Pablo had reached 1,046 people with 841 still missing, with agriculture damages likely to reach $398 million, infrastructure damage equaling $190.4 million, and private property losses of $1.2 million. The same source later said the death toll was likely to top 1,500 people killed.
Some blame the high death toll and Mindanao’s extreme vulnerability to such strong storms, floods, and landslides on the unabated illegal logging and mining operations in the area. However, there isn’t much scientific evidence from past flood tragedies to confirm this theory. The Society of Filipino Foresters issued a statement earlier this year referencing past typhoons Ondoy (2009) and Sendong (2011) and recognizing the fact that “forests can help minimize but cannot totally prevent the occurrence of floods,” and that massive floods are more a result of weak infrastructure and the ever increasing amount of moisture in the atmosphere.
Although deforestation and environmental degradation play a role in amplifying the destruction that occurs during such extreme weather events, climate change is a greater factor in determining the severity of flooding than the cut logs and debris that clog waterways and lead to overflowing river banks. In the same sense, weak disaster preparedness and disaster risk management plans are also partly to blame for the large number of lives lost in natural disasters and for continuing to allow populations to live in geo-hazardous areas.
As The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines, Steven Rood, further explains: “The only time I saw a serious examination of the issue of illegal logging and mining causing more severe floods was more than a decade ago with respect to Ormoc City and the Typhoon Uring flooding tragedy that happened down in the Visayas in 1991 (in a JICA-funded flood mitigation control study). The data were clear — there was simply too much rain for any ecosystem to absorb, and too many people living along the river banks in danger zones. That there were logs washed down is undeniable, but this had nothing to do with the extent of the flood and little to do with the damages.”
According to IPCC, as average global temperatures rise, the warmer atmosphere can also hold more moisture, about 4 percent more per degree Fahrenheit temperature increase. The atmosphere’s water vapor content has increased by about 0.41 kilograms per square meter (kg/m²) per decade since 1988. A warmer atmosphere leads to more evaporation of ocean water, meaning that each tropical storm that forms has more potential water to pull from and therefore drench in its wake. The citizens of the communities in southern Mindanao, especially along the coastal towns of Compostela Valley and Davao de Sur provinces who were the first to be hit by Pablo, had never before experienced that kind of typhoon.
Storms are becoming stronger, weather patterns are changing, and, frighteningly, this is becoming the “new normal.” Given the fact that Manila was recently rated the second most vulnerable city in the world to climate change for 2013 (only behind Dhaka, Bangladesh), more attention is being given to building up the resiliency of communities to withstand such extreme weather events in the future. In the aftermath of Typhoon Ondoy in 2009, both local and international NGOs began lobbying for a national disaster management plan, which was eventually passed the following year and known as the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction Management Act of 2010. The new law illustrates a shift in the response of local authorities toward disaster risk reduction, rather than solely relying on response and relief.
Technical assistance is available, such as AusAID’s support to an aerial survey of metro Manila to generate a three-dimensional, geo-hazard map of the metropolis. In 2012, USAID/OFDA provided over $4.1 million for disaster risk reduction activities, mainly in the areas of food security and efforts to strengthen local humanitarian coordination in the Philippines. These kinds of climate change adaptation strategies are working. After Pablo, engineer Armen A Cuenca, the deputy in charge of Cagayan de Oro’s disaster risk reduction management office, said that “early warning alert systems and pre-planned shelters this year were one of the reasons there were zero casualties in the city, which has a population of around 700,000.” Preparedness remains the key to resilience.
Kourtnii S. Brown is a program associate for The Asia Foundation’s Environment Programs in San Francisco. This piece initially appeared on “In Asia,” a blog of The Asia Foundation. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.