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In the face of this climate crisis, will we continue to be victims, or emerge as victors? Environmental Law advocate Tony Oposa weighs in. Photo by Mari Colinares

Victims or Victors? We Will Rise Again—Stronger and Better

A scientific study conducted by the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as illustrated in the map below reveals the Earth’s sea surface temperatures. Notice the dark red portion on the right side of the map? There lies the hottest sea surface temperature. Notice which country lies right in the middle of it? Isn’t that our precious chain of 7,100 islands known as the Philippines? So what does this map mean?

This means that:

  1. 1. Warm water fuels typhoons. The hotter the sea surface temperature, the greater the fuel for typhoons. This is the cause of the more frequent and more intense typhoons in the Philippines.
  2. 2. The warmer the seawater, the greater is the evaporation. The greater the evaporation, the more water vapor collects in the clouds. This process is called condensation. Since everything that goes up must come down, greater volume of rainfall that leads to severe flooding results in the Philippines and in Asia.
  3. 3. The sea located in the east of the Philippines is also experiencing the highest rate of sea level rise. This was verified by a 15-year study by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

 

This is not rocket science. It is pure and simple common sense—something that seems to escape our so-called leaders. We say ‘so-called’ because save for a handful of them, most of our elected leaders appear to “clueless, spineless, gutless, and heartless.” Not to mention that “their heads and their butts are interchangeable,” with no noticeable difference.

Clear and simple science tells us that this is the new reality. The Typhoon Yolandas, Pablos, Ondoys, and even the inundating habagats (southwest monsoon) are not isolated atmospheric events. They are the new reality and it will only get worse as the atmosphere of the Earth continues to heat up.

It is like having diabetes. When we are diagnosed with it, the first order of business is to accept it, and then commit to reverse it, or live with the least inconvenience to our well-being. Unless we understand and accept this new reality, we will continue to be the victims of these (un)natural calamities. They are all caused by a creature that sees itself as the wisest animal on Earth: humans.

So What Do We Do? 

Rain Gardens as a Measure against Floods1

Why is there flooding? Quite simply, it is because excess water has no place to go. Since flooding is the new ‘state of the world,’ we must find a place for the excess water to go. In the natural state, that is the function of lakes, ponds, and wetlands. But what did the smart humans do? They filled them up and paved them over with concrete. And then they complain of floods.

To reverse this, we must open up lands (even small portions) to put up rainwater catchment ponds, wetlands and rain gardens. These will capture and store excess waters that cause flooding. These will restore the water into an underground water table, also known as the aquifer.

As we know by now, land is subsiding because we have been sucking out too much water from the groundwater table without replenishing it. This is exactly what rain gardens can do. It replenishes the groundwater table.

Filipinizing the Term ‘Storm Surges’

Those of us in the field of environmental studies have long known about storm surge—at least in theory. They are tsunami-like waves caused by powerful winds.

However, the reality of this concept did not dawn upon me until December 2009, when the waves of the sea fronting my little house on the coast of Bantayan Island washed up ashore and went all the way up to the road (about 200 meters inland), as the winds of amihan (northeast monsoon) blew.

Knowing this and seeing the more intense flooding occurring in the island, my family and I decided to rebuild our home with a hundred-meter setback from the shoreline. We also dug a man-made mangrove area/wetland/rainwater catchment pond between the shoreline, now locally known as the Climate Change House.

When PAGASA warned everyone about Yolanda’s “7-meter storm surges,” no one understood what it meant. The people of Tacloban are used to storms and typhoons, but they had no idea they were to face something tsunami-like.

We should coin a word for this new reality of “storm surges.” Perhaps the Tagalogs and the Bisayans can call it “tsu-alon” and “tsu-balod” respectively, to mean a wave (alon/balod) that is like a tsunami. Whatever the term, what is important is that it has a name understood by our minds and hearts—only then can we prepare for it.

Secure Water and Food Source

Our total dependence on piped running water makes us most vulnerable to electrical shutdowns caused by floods or typhoons. We must go back to basics. The old- fashioned atabay (in Bisaya) or balon (in Tagalog) must be a mainstay in all communities,       even in high-end residential communities. In the event of ever-frequent emergencies, they will be the most valuable source of water, a most valuable source of life.

Rice versus Root Crops and Vegetables

One of the greatest myths of human civilization is the myth about rice. It is not only nutritionally useless but it is also very harmful to health. Nutritionists tell us that one cup of rice has the sugar content (technically known as the glycemic index) equivalent to eight spoonfuls of sugar. That is why people who have diabetes are not supposed to eat rice.

The ecological costs of cultivating rice are extremely high. Wetlands, which are supposed to absorb excess waters, are converted into rice paddies that emit methane—a very hot gas that is one of the causes of the ongoing global heating. In addition, there is the intensive need for water to irrigate rice paddies, the constant poisonous chemical inputs from fertilizers and pesticides, and the backbreaking labor needed to grow and process rice. Rice is also very vulnerable to the uncertainties of the weather. If it is too hot, it dries up. If it is too wet and there is flood, it is soaked and the plant dies. If it is hit by strong winds, the grains are blown away. And in the event of an emergency, rice is very difficult to transport and cook.

Look at our brothers and sisters in the Batanes Islands. They are so used to powerful typhoons that they plant root crops as staple. Camote is one of the most nutritious and highly-resilient root crops there is. Its leaves and roots are edible (and can be eaten raw if necessary). As the Spanish say, ‘en tiempo hambre, no hay mal pan.’ In times of hunger, there is no bad food (bread).

Multi-storey/Collective/Climate-Resilient Housing Units

We have a liking for the bahay kubo—that quaint thatched-roof structure made of bamboo or sawali (woven bamboo mat) and other light materials. However, the age for kubos is gone forever, especially in coastal areas. Between the more intense typhoons and storm surges, building flimsy houses is one sure way of getting ourselves killed.

So what do we do? First of all, let us begin to re-engineer our cities and human settlements as far from the coast as possible. In short, let us move away from the shoreline! Second, let us understand that single detached housing, especially for the poor, is neither safe nor cost-effective. It is time to build multi-floor, medium-rise, collective, and climate-resilient housing.

The biggest cost of a building is the land and yes, the government can afford this. The Philippine Government has so much money that it can line the pockets of rotten politicians. To design climate resilient dwellings, we can launch a nationwide competition among architecture students and architects. These designs can then be adapted according to the local climate of a particular region or province.

After Typhoon Frank hit us in Bantayan Island in June 2008 and destroyed the original structure of the School of the SEA (Sea and Earth Advocates), we learned our lesson. We rose to build the Climate Change House (CCH). First, we relocated the house about 100 meters away from the beach line. Between the beach and the house, we put up a man-made brackish-water lagoon (and evolving mangrove forest) as a buffer in the event of a storm surge. The house is also on 10-foot concrete stilts as a measure against the floods and tsu-balods.

The ground floor is kept open. During ordinary times, it can be used for various purposes. But in case of a weather emergency, one can easily abandon it and go up to the second floor or the roof-deck. Around the windows are plant boxes housing vegetables and camote (sweet potato) as an ever-ready source of food in an emergency.

Instead of Galvanized Iron (GI) sheets for a roof, we built a concrete roof. It now serves as the roof-deck edible garden. To ensure constant water supply, there is an old-fashioned well at the bottom that is protected against flooding. We manually pump the water to a tank up on the roof-deck using an old-fashioned hand pump. That tank then supplies the water needs of the Climate Change House.

After doing all this, the ultimate question is: Did it work?

Typhoon Yolanda hit us very hard in Bantayan Island last November 8. It flattened entire villages. Out of the eight structures in the School of the SEA, only two remained standing. Out of the two, only the Climate Change House was relatively unscathed. The camote plants remained intact and ready to eat.

People used to laugh me because I built a structure with seemingly weird features fitting of a ‘Doomsday Prepper.’ But a lawyer is trained to think logically and draw conclusions only when supported by evidence. The clear scientific evidence—the writings on the wall—have been there for a long time and for all of us to see. But then, our so-called leaders—blinded by greed, severe short-sightedness, or the need to boost Yolanda-like egos—have refused to open their eyes.

Now that it has been proven to work, maybe people will begin to listen. The opportunity for us to shine is staring us right in the face. We can use the community spirit of bayanihan to build these low-rise collective (condominium) residences using the model popularized by the Gawad Kalinga movement. Those who can afford can give the materials, the government buys the land, and the people put in their sweat equity.

One such model of the collective poor man’s condo complex already exists in the Baywalk of Puerto Princesa City in Palawan, built by the erstwhile Mayor Ed Hagedorn. Unlike ordinary tenement housing, the design and structure of these ‘condos’ rival even that of a very high-end—but very ugly—condominium complex in the Bonifacio Global City. And how much do the people pay per month? A measly 800 pesos (or about U$19), the equivalent a meal for two in a middle-scale restaurant in Manila.

Emergency Vehicles

Do we need fighter planes that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars? Do we need more helicopters gunships? What for? To fight China? Let us not joke ourselves.

Or do we need more transport helicopters and planes, more amphibian vehicles, and more transport and hospital boats?

Finger-Pointing and Politicking

It was sad to hear that, instead of coming to the rescue the people of Tacloban City, our top leader started to point the finger of blame upon local officials. Has he ever experienced being in the center of a 300-plus kilometer per hour typhoon in a city that was entirely swamped by a tsu-balod?

Sadder even was the piece of news that a Cabinet Secretary allegedly wanted an already-beleaguered Mayor to write a letter to relinquish his powers, or some such silliness. The tiff between Mr. Secretary and the Mayor escalated so badly that it had to be refereed by the President.

I say, boys, boys, boys, please behave! In times of emergency, a power play is the last thing we need. As ordinary citizens, we have no interest in your petty power plays. But let us ask a simple question: If the Mayor were a member of the Liberal Party, would he receive the same poor treatment from the people in power?

As my son Uli says, “Kung ikaw ay hindi dilaw, ang may sala ay ikaw” [If your political color is not yellow (or of the ruling Liberal Party), you are the one at fault].

If there is any place that knows of typhoons, it is Tacloban and the towns of Eastern Visayas and Bicol. They have typhoons for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

But then it was not the typhoon that killed the people and caused so much destruction. It was the tsu-balod (the storm surge). Our people did not understand what a ‘storm surge’ was because it is an English term that does not have a commonly understood local translation. This was compounded with the fact that our people have never before experienced a storm surge of such magnitude. Thus, the warnings of a 7-meter storm surge did not seem real to us. Had our weather bureau better explained what a storm surge is or called it a tsunami-like wave, the people of Tacloban would have ran for their lives and rushed to higher ground.

Besides, how many times have we ever experienced the power of a Typhoon Signal No. 4? Come to think of it, we experience it every day. But it does not come in the form of wind and rain. Rather, it comes in the form of political egos and epals with sustained winds of a typhoon signal number 10.

When we talk about preparedness, is the pot calling the kettle black? Mr. National Government, please answer this: how many cargo helicopters do we have? None. How many C-130 cargo planes do we have? Two. How many satellite phones does the National Disaster Management Council have? None!

Brilliant! Bravo! Congratulations! Mabuhay! I commend you Mr. National Government. That is really disaster-preparedness at its best—Philippine Government style.

Let us thank our lucky stars and the international community for coming to our rescue.

In Closing—Two Things

In summary, there are two things that we need to do:

  1. 1. Understand and accept that the climate crisis is real and is the new normal.
  2. 2. Unleash the native genius of the Filipino resilience to adapt and rise from this crisis.

 

Unless and until we do these two simple things, we will continue to be the victims of this never-ending tragedy, year in and year out.

But if we understand and accept this new reality, we can then unleash the native genius of Filipino resilience and emerge as victors. We can even show the world how we can turn climate adversity into a climate of opportunity. Some call it ‘Climate Capitalism’ (i.e., capitalizing on activities and projects that reduce the causes of, or adapt to, the climate crisis).

What about our political leaders? Where do they come in? Let us not bother with them. In the language of the courtroom, most of them have become irrelevant, immaterial, and impertinent. Also, please do not to kick them in the ass. They might suffer brain hemorrhage.

But we, the People, who hold the real power, must ask ourselves—

In the face of this climate crisis, Will we continue to be the victims? Or will we emerge as the victors?

The choice is ours. Mabuhay ang Filipino! P

 

*Editor’s Note: Antonio “Tony” Oposa Jr. is an Environmental Law advocate, who has won the Ramon Magsaysay Award and the International Environmental Law Award, among many others, for his outstanding and impassioned work in the preservation and protection of the environment. He and his law office represented the minor petitioners in the landmark environmental case, Oposa v. Factoran (224 SCRA 792).

 

  1. A rain garden is a planted depression or a hole that allows rainwater runoff from impervious urban areas, like roofs, driveways, walkways, parking lots, and compacted lawn areas, the opportunity to be absorbed. This reduces rain runoff by allowing storm water to soak into the ground (as opposed to flowing into storm drains and surface waters which causes erosion, water pollution, flooding, and diminished groundwater). Rain Garden, available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rain_garden (last accessed Nov 23, 2013), citing “Rain Gardens: Enhancing your home landscape and protecting water quality,” University of Rhode Island.

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