BANGKOK: In the wake of the world’s most powerful storm this year, and another destructive typhoon on its heels, climate experts say the Philippines is more vulnerable than ever to the devastating effects of climate change.
Super Typhoon Goni - known locally as Rolly - barrelled across the southern part of Luzon, the country’s largest and most populous island, on Oct 30 leaving at least 25 people dead, nearly one million affected and extensive damage to infrastructure and agricultural land.
Tens of thousands of homes were damaged, their occupants left stranded in evacuation centres. Overall, the bill is estimated to well exceed US$200 million.
As the recovery process continued, Typhoon Vamco hit and caused major flooding in Manila on Thursday (Nov 12). At least 27 lives were lost. Vamco was the 21st typhoon to hit the Philippines this year.
For a population left reeling by COVID-19, it has been another sapping few weeks.
Typhoons in the Philippines are becoming more regular, more intense and unpredictable. While damaging weather patterns are highly complex and multi-faceted, the science is all but settled on the climate-related factors that are contributing to the more frequent emergence of monster typhoons.
About a quarter of the world’s typhoons hit the Philippines, and while their number is not expected to rise in the years to come, because of climate change, they will hit harder and move along paths that are difficult to predict and prepare for.
Between 2006 and 2016, 99 typhoons entered the Philippines; 10 of them were particularly deadly, most notably Typhoon Haiyan which killed at least 6,000 people in 2013.
“Most of the typhoons are intensifying, especially in the last quarter of the year. We are experiencing stronger typhoons than before and we can attribute it to the warming of the sea surface temperature and the warming of the atmosphere,” said Esperanza Cayanan from the Office of the Deputy Administrator for Research and Development at PAGASA, the Philippines’ national meteorological agency.
“Projecting our future is really scary. But we have to prepare. We have to think of ways to protect ourselves knowing we have these projections,” she said.
Warmer water, which is a symptom of climate change, helps give tropical typhoons their energy. The presence of the La Niña atmospheric phenomenon as a result of the cooling of sea surface temperature in the central Pacific Ocean means warmer waters currently persist around the Philippines, accelerating the formation of typhoons.
As global temperatures increase, so too does the ability of the atmosphere to hold water vapour - the air can hold about 7 per cent more for every single degree rise. It means heavier rains being dumped over a typhoon’s path.
“In the next century, tropical cyclones, such as Super Typhoon Haiyan will become the norm,” said Associate Professor William Holden, a field expert from the University of Calgary's Department of Geography and Environmental Science Program.
It presents big problems for highly vulnerable communities, who may have grown accustomed to regular storms but are equally fearful of the big ones. About 80 per cent of the country’s population lives within 50km of the coast, where sea level rise is expected to become a growing issue.
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Higher storm surges, which was the main cause of Typhoon Haiyan’s destruction, will exponentially increase across islands of the archipelago, which are already witnessing higher-than-average sea level rise, making the Philippines one of the places most prone to land loss in the world.
“Sea level rise will see islands removed from the map. Looking at the Philippines, being an archipelago prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, we do not find many safe places anymore,” said Cayanan of PAGASA.
The casualty rate from Goni was relatively low compared to previous disasters, but that should not distract from its pure power and the need to better understand future risk, says Dr Antonio La Viña, environmental policy expert and executive director of the Manila Observatory.
“It’s always a misperception when not too many people die because then we think it’s not really serious when it is in fact,” he said. “The way I describe it is that Rolly destroyed one third of the island of Luzon.”
"WE ARE TIRED OF BEING TOLD WE ARE RESILIENT"
Despite high prevailing levels of poverty across much of the Philippines, the regularity of damaging weather has seen its people gain a reputation for their ability to bounce back. While admirable, La Viña of the Manila Observatory says it has led to apathy among policymakers and authorities.
“We are tired of being told we are resilient. You have to change the situation that allows this to happen,” he said. “Resilience is a good thing if it’s not an excuse for not doing the right things before the storms hit: when resilience is misused to justify negligence.
“You have to fix the systems in place so that people do not have to start all over again every time there’s a storm. People are tired of being told this okay.”
Awareness is growing among the wider community about the havoc climate change is already wreaking. Regular storms on the horizon that were once simply part of life in this part of the world are now a reason to fear.
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“Most people are aware of the 'new normal' especially after Haiyan. Policy makers and ordinary people finally woke up to the perils of climate change,” said Dr Rodel Lasco, executive director of The Oscar M Lopez Center for Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Management Foundation.
“Moving forward, more intense typhoons will expose more of our vulnerabilities,” he said.
PAGASA is playing a leading role in awareness and education campaigns, particularly among young people. But “experience is the best teacher”, according to Cayanan.
“It’s very difficult to educate the public. Their memory of extreme events is only for a short period of time. But we are doing our best,” she said. “If you experience extreme events in your life, you will remember and you should pass that experience to the next generation.”
CHANGES TO CLIMATE ACTION POLICIES
While typhoon mitigation is a work in progress, the Philippines has taken recent steps to be more proactive in a global problem. The country’s climate action policies do not currently align with goals of the Paris Agreement, mainly due to the growth of the coal industry, but changes are afoot.
The Department of Energy last month declared a moratorium on all new planned coal projects, with the aim of modernising the country’s power generation on the back of cleaner and cheaper renewables.
Energy security has been a problem with frequent network-wide outages in recent years, an issue that experts believe renewables can help solve, while also reducing national emissions.
Still, it remains a country highly exposed to climate change, without contributing significantly to the global problem.
“Thus this becomes a discussion of ‘climate justice’,” said Holden of the University of Calgary. Like many developing countries, working out ways to get compensated for climate damage caused by higher polluting nations is an important agenda.
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“We have to document all of this loss and damage. Then we can build better,” La Viña said, while at the same time rejecting the notion that “relatively low emissions” can be an excuse for domestic inaction.
“The Philippines itself has to do its part because we cannot contribute to our own destruction,” he said.
“We are not reducing our emissions considerably and there’s a lot of space to do that in energy, forestry and agriculture without any real burden on us. In fact it could make our economy stronger. It’s just that there’s inaction at that level.
“Inside the Philippines we need to get the science better and eliminate the risks in some places by moving people early and changing our land use patterns," he said, adding that land reclamation actually makes the country more vulnerable.
Many of the natural defences that the country had against disasters have been wiped out by human activity. Mangrove forests have been cleared and large-scale mining allowed to destabilise the earth and poison coral reefs.
Reversing those trends and fast will be key for the Philippines if it wants to withstand the coming storm.