Philippines : Scorched Earth

pic Imelda Abano

Imelda Abano, Filipino Media21 journalist

For years, climate change has been the subject of heated debate among governments, scientists, environmentalists and researchers. But we may not be aware that those living on the frontline of climate disasters are by far the most vulnerable. People in the coastal communities in the Philippines, for instance, have no concept of global warming—but are faced with repeated floods, storms and rising waters that threaten their daily lives. How much does the average Filipino know about climate change? The story of people in the coastal communities gives an indication.

The words “climate change” are unheard of to many people in coastal communities—most of them having lived without electricity or television, and can’t read. “It gets warmer every year, there are more storms and the monsoon doesn’t come on time,”observes 39-year-old Joseph Lalata, a fisherman from the coastal community of Barangay Bolasi in San Fabian, Pangasinan. “I don’t know what is happening but the fish catch are dwindling and the water level in front of the houses in our village rises a little every year.” Even without television and newspapers, Lalata told theBusinessMirror he can sense that something just isn’t right about the weather. He recalled that two years ago, huge waves swamped coastal areas on the entire western coast of Luzon, including their villages. Almost 5,400 people fled to safety after water from the Lingayen Gulf began to rise and flooded their houses.
At the height of the recent Typhoon Emong, more than 27,000 families were affected by flooding and rising seawater in Pangasinan alone, and 21 casualties were reported. “The water has always been our enemy but also a source of life. When that whole ocean comes and rises up, we don’t know where we are supposed to go,” Lalata adds. “Every year it [the tide] comes in, it goes a bit further up…once it hits our villages, most of us suffer.” Now, just 20 meters from his house, a glittering mass of water moves peacefully in the direction of the nearby ocean. Any rise in global ocean levels will hit Lalata’s home again. “Serious flooding and storm surges are becoming more frequent,”  says another fisherman. “This year, there was a severe typhoon even before the monsoon season began. My only option is to pray that no storm will roll in the following days,” he said.

Experts count more severe storms

Weather experts have, in fact, registered an increase in such storms in recent years.  The fishermen are not familiar with this research, but in their view they cannot say who is responsible for such change. The Philippines is one big coastal community of more than 80 million people. The country’s coastline stretches to more than 32,000 kilometers. About 70 percent of the country’s 1,500 municipalities are coastal areas, and home to millions of Filipino people. The natural systems support major economic activities such as coastal lowland farming, fishing and tourism.
Climate experts say that if average sea levels rise by only a few centimeters, some coastal communities will cease to exist—and a rise of this magnitude is already regarded as a certainty. Indeed, the coastal community where Lalata lives is one of the places on Earth most vulnerable to creeping sea levels. “Even if people stopped emitting carbon dioxide tomorrow, large regions in the Philippines would soon be under water,”   says climate expert Dr. Rosa Perez, one of the country’s leading independent researchers on the environment, climate change and disaster risk reduction and former chief of the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration. Perez explained that in their study, guidelines and legislation for the implementation of an integrated coastal-zone management for all coastal zones in the Philippines should be formulated. She added that land-use planning in coastal zones will help reduce vulnerability to a rise in sea level. Any mechanism for coastal-zone management must include a requirement of setbacks, allocation of low-lying vulnerable land to lower-value use such as parks rather than housing, requirement of compliance with construction standards or poststorm reconstruction standards. “These policies reduce the risk of living in coastal areas from current climatic variability and protection against potential sea-level rise,” Perez said.

Poor coastal areas now suffering

These tidal changes are not unique to the Philippines. Coastal communities worldwide will likewise face or are now facing more flooding and storms due to rising sea levels. For instance, floods and Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh killed over 3,000 people and affected over 900,000 families in 2007. The last floods in Sri Lanka affected over 200,000 people and killed a few. Last year’s Cyclone Nargis killed over 100,000 Burmese and affected more than 2.5 million people. According to the new Greenpeace report “Blue Alert, Climate Migrants in South Asia,” more than 120 million people from India and Bangladesh alone will become homeless by the end of this century. It estimates that 75 million people from Bangladesh will lose their homes. It also predicts that about 45 million people in India will also become “climate migrants.”
Around 130 million people now live in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in which are called low-elevation coastal zones, which comprise coastal regions that are less than 10 meters above the average sea level. A nation consisting of around 1,190 individual islands, the Maldives is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change as most of the islands are only one to two meters above sea level. Like the Maldives, low-lying island-states and atolls are especially vulnerable to climate change and associated sea-level rise because in many cases, such as Bahamas, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands, much of the land area rarely exceeds three to four meters above present mean sea level.
Rising sea levels already have reached the doorstep of the people of Tuvalu, a nation of small islands in the Pacific midway between Hawaii and Australia. There, 11,000 citizens are similarly contemplating their future. The islands’ low-lying area means that Tuvaluans are likely to become the world’s first climate-change refugees. Typically, according to Herminia Francisco, director of the Singapore-based Economy and Environment Program for Southeast Asia (Eepsea), the poorest people and the most vulnerable communities who may have little information about impending hazards are often the least able to rebuild their lives and livelihoods after having suffered a setback.
“The threats posed by climate change are real, and it is widely recognized that developing countries need help to prepare for the disasters that climate change is likely to bring. Some countries are already experiencing climate change-related catastrophes,” Francisco said. In Southeast Asia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Indonesia are among the countries identified as climate-change “hot spots”—countries particularly vulnerable to some of the worst manifestations of climate change, such as the increase in extreme drought flooding, sea-level rise, landslides and cyclones expected in the coming decades. This, according to a new report released early this year by Eepsea funded by Canada’s International Development Research  Center, an international organization/ public corporation created in 1970 to support research in developing countries.

The alarming rising tide

Stefan Rahmstorf, a scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, explained that by 2100 we can expect sea-level rise between about 50 centimeters and over a meter. He adds that meters of sea-level rise would spell the end of many major coastal communities.
“That just shows that we have still a very large uncertainty about the future sea-level rise, although we know for sure it is rising, that is a measured fact, and we know this is due to global warming,” he told the BusinessMirror. The last assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)  from 2007 projected a sea-level rise of 18-59 centimeters. However, the report also clearly stated that not all factors contributing to sea-level rise could be calculated at that time. Rahmstorf explained that there are some reasons for the rising sea levels: The oceans are heating up, and warm water takes more space. Ice on continents is melting; extra water flows into the sea. Mountain glaciers and the huge ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica are all shrinking.
“Approximately 10 percent of the world’s population—600 million people—live in low-lying areas in danger of being flooded,” he said. “This means that if emissions of greenhouse gases is not reduced quickly and substantially, even the best-case scenario will hit hard low-lying coastal areas housing one in 100 humans on the planet.”Rahmstorf told the BusinessMirror that at the moment, policymakers are not aware of the full risks of global warming. They are still not fully appreciating how serious the issue is, he adds. He stressed that while one cannot predict for certain now the extent of  a sea-level rise, “we certainly need to respond to risks, even if there’s just a [little] percent chance of sea-level rising by several meters.” That, he adds, “would drown some big coastal cities, that would be extremely serious.”
“We have a much larger uncertainty than we previously thought about the sea level,” Rahmstorf said. “If sea
level keeps rising at a constant pace, we will end up in the middle of that 18-cm to 59-cm IPCC range by 2100,” says Rahmstorf. “But based on past experience I expect that sea-level rise will accelerate as the planet gets hotter.” In 2007 the IPCC released a report on global warming. In it, scientists made some dire predictions about how climate changes will affect life.
By 2080, scientists estimate, the number of people going hungry in the world could increase by between 140 million and 1 billion, depending on the amount of greenhouse gases emitted over the coming years. Outbreaks of diseases such as dengue fever, malaria and diarrhea, plus heat-related deaths, are likely to increase dramatically. By 2020, up to 250 million people could face water shortages in Africa. If average temperatures rise by 2.7°F to 4.5°F, about 20 percent to 50 percent of plant and animal species face increased risk of extinction.

Cost of inaction

Countries expected to weather the coming days are the economically better-off ones, and the impoverished Philippines is not one of them, according to Climate Change Presidential Adviser Heherson Alvarez. “Poverty will be the tunnel through which global warming will attack, and in the country that translates into condemning millions of lives,” Alvarez said. “We do need to look into solutions, options and alternatives and widely disseminate to the communities.”
Early last month in a climate conference in Bonn, Germany, Alvarez cited the need to “moderate the destructive impacts of escalating typhoons with deep, early and significant emission cuts. In this, developed countries must take the lead.” He thinks rich nations must cut greenhouse-gas emissions by more than 30 percent to 40 percent from 2013 to 2017, and more than 50 percent from 2018 to 2022 from 1990 levels.
Lord Nicholas Stern, a British economist and author of the trailblazing report on climate change, said rich and poor countries must start working together to find low-carbon pathways for future human development. “Now is the time to invest in technology and make deep cuts in carbon emissions, amid a growing body of scientific evidence pointing to dire consequences without urgent action,” Lord Stern told journalists in a meeting in Copenhagen in March. Lord Stern, a former chief of the World Bank, said that if the world was to warm by 5°C over the next century, there would be dramatic consequences for millions of people. Rising seas would make many areas uninhabitable, leading to mass migrations and inevitably sparking violent conflict. “You’d see hundreds of millions of people, probably billions of people who would have to move, and we know that would cause conflict, so we would see a very extended period of conflict around the world, decades or centuries as hundreds of millions of people move,” said Lord Stern.
He compiled the Stern Review into the Economics of Climate Change for the UK government in 2006, warning the world of the devastating economic consequences of failing to act immediately. Adapting to the impact of climate change will be a painful process for people around the world, said Saleemul Huq from the International Institute for Environment and Development in London. “Adapting our homes and habits to the floods, storms and rising sea levels will mean giving up things we care about and the places we love,” he adds. Huq said residents are concerned about the uncertain future for their families and villages. “Where will people live, where will their children go to school, and what is the future of their communities?” he repeated their questions.
Climate change, according to Huq, is forcing vulnerable communities in poor countries to adapt to extreme and unpredictable weather. “Rich countries, primarily responsible for creating the problem, must stop harming, by leading in cutting greenhouse-gas pollution, and start helping with adaptation,” he told the BusinessMirror.
According to Oxfam International, communities must build their resilience by adopting appropriate technologies and diversifying their livelihoods to cope with the coming climate stress that lies outside the realm of human experience. Ministries must learn to plan and budget around climate uncertainty. New and old national infrastructure, such as hospitals, reservoirs and roads, must be climate-proofed.
Oxfam International estimates the costs for developing countries of adapting to climate change will be well above the World Bank’s widely cited estimate of $10 billion to $40 billion annually. “Based on new approaches to scaling up costs, we estimate the cost will be at least $50 billion each year, and far higher if greenhouse-gas emissions are not cut rapidly,” Oxfam stressed.

The road to Copenhagen

Much of the current focus of climate-change work is on the steps required on the road to the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in December this year. In this meeting, around 15,000 officials from 200 countries will gather in the Danish capital with one goal: to find a solution to global warming. The first round of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming ends in 2012, and a new global deal must be struck. The Kyoto Protocol, which sets binding targets for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, has been signed and ratified by 184 parties of the UN Climate Convention. The new climate treaty will replace the Kyoto Protocol that was adopted in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997, and entered into force on February 16, 2005.
What are the key elements of a new global deal? What needs to be newly agreed, re-agreed or altered in Copenhagen to secure an ambitious post-2012 global climate agreement? UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon says 2009 must be the year of climate change. With US leadership—in partnership with the UN—the UN climate conference in Copenhagen in December could yield a new climate agreement binding every country. He says 2009 represents the last chance to achieve an agreement that could be ratified and approved in time to come into force after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. Known officially in UN-speak as COP 15—in reference to the 15th meeting of the parties of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—the meeting will try to work out a way for the world to act together to preserve the thin envelope of atmosphere, soil and sea which surrounds our planet and enables us to live, in the face of rising temperatures which threaten to destroy its habitability.
Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, had said that in order to enter into force around the world before 2013, the Copenhagen agreement must meet the political requirements of all participating countries. For this to happen, clarity on four key political points is needed this year, he said.
First, clarity is needed on ambitious, legally binding emission-reduction targets for industrialized countries. Without such targets, the international community will not take the necessary action to address climate change, and developing countries will not have confidence that industrialized countries are willing to take the lead in solving a problem that they caused. Second, clarity is essential on the extent to which major developing countries can undertake nationally appropriate mitigation actions beyond what they are already doing.
Third, clarity is essential on financing. The magnitude of action by developing countries will largely depend on the effective delivery of finance and clean technology through international cooperative action. Finally, clarity is essential on the governance structure under the convention. If significant financial resources are to be generated for mitigation and adaptation, developing countries will want a representative say in how that money is to be allocated and spent. The governance structures have to function according to democratic principles, founded on equity.“If Copenhagen can deliver on those four points I’d be happy,” de Boer told journalists, addingthat emissions must be stabilized by 2015 and be in decline by 2020.
According to the Philippine delegation to the climate-change meetings that Alvarez led, three conditions are necessary for Copenhagen to be regarded as a success. First, the wealthy industrialized countries must agree on tough new targets for cutting their carbon-dioxide emissions. Second, the developing countries, led by China, even if they do not take on the same sort of numerical targets, have to move away from “business as usual.” And third, the rich nations have to agree on a way of financing the developing countries. “Securing such an ambitious deal will be a matter of political will, so in this case, a global political consensus will have to be hammered out,” Alvarez said.
Indeed, people living in the coastal communities in the Philippines like Lalata, for the meantime have no choice but to wait for the coming climate crisis, as well. He would like for his children have the opportunity to live elsewhere someday, if there’s no other way to stop the rising tide. “We are adapting in the changing times. We can only hope for better times,” says Lalata.

Written by Imelda Abaño, she has extensively covered the UNFCCC climate-change negotiations since 2007 from Bali, Indonesia, to Poznan, Poland, to Bonn, Germany; she will cover the upcoming series of UN-backed climate-change talks until the Copenhagen summit in December. She is sponsored by the UNFCCC media fellowship for developing countries and Media21.

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