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Philippines disaster may have been worsened by climate change, deforestation

As the Philippines begins to bury more than a 1,000 disaster victims in mass graves, Philippine President Benigno Aquino has ordered an investigation into last weekend’s flash flood and landslide, including looking at the role of illegal logging. Officials have pointed to both climate change and vast deforestation as likely exacerbating the disaster.

“We have no desire to engage in finger-pointing or to assign blame at a time like this. Yet, we have an obligation to find out exactly what has happened,” Aquino said, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

On Friday, Typhoon Sendong brought 12 hours of continuous rain to Mindanao Island; reports say rivers flooded and villagers were crushed by logs or drowned. The Philippines has declared a national disaster with the storm affecting 338,000 people in 13 provinces. The storm is now the deadliest of 2011.

President Aquino stated that he was concerned a logging ban was violated, worsening the disaster. In February, following flooding that killed around 40 people, Aquino banned logging across the Philippines arguing that deforestation had made much of the country dangerously prone to landslide and flooding.

Tropical cyclone Sendong as seen by NASA's Terra satellite. Photo by: NASA.
Tropical cyclone Sendong as seen by NASA’s Terra satellite. Photo by: NASA.

However, a priest who worked in the area, Sean McDonagh, told The Universe Catholic Weekly that decades of deforestation was to blame for the scale of the disaster. Much of the region was converted from rainforest into pineapple plantations.

“The deforestation was literally criminal,” he said. “If the rainforest in the area had been left intact, even 12 hours of continuous rain would not cause this devastation. The rainforest canopy would stop the torrential rain from hitting the ground directly. Trees would also absorb the water. While you might have local floods, you would not have the disaster which happened the other night.”

Father McDonagh said the deforested mountain-sides were now being sold-off for open-pit mining which would only worsen future flooding impacts.

“Ten or twenty years from now, the disastrous floods will kill hundreds more almost every year and contain mercury, cyanide and other heavy metals. This is the time to stop the madness of the plunder of the Philippines,” Father McDonagh said.

He added there must be a “serious effort” to reforest the mountains.

Officials have also stated that climate change likely exacerbated the intensity of the storm.

Senator Loren Legarda told the Sun Times that in an age of climate change the government must do more to reduce risks in the fact of such disasters.

“With this calamitous flood disaster, now the fourth that has struck our country, and the second in Mindanao just this year, climate change is now a clear and present danger and a national security concern for our country,” Legarda said, calling the reduction of disaster risk a “moral responsibility.”

In fact, according to Jeff Masters with Weather Underground, sea surface temperatures at Mindanao were 1 degree Celsius above average with the warm waters adding around 7 percent more moisture into the atmosphere than usual.

Although researchers have investigated the impact of climate change on tropical cyclones, there is still considerable debate as to whether or not climate change is likely to increase or decrease cyclone activity. However, most scientists agree that climate change is will increase the intensity of such storms, including more rainfall.

“Climate change and global warming are here, no doubt about it,” an editorial by the Business Mirror declares. “And the government should have in place comprehensive plans for identified disaster-prone areas, such as coastal and mountainside communities, to minimize loss of lives and destruction of property, public infrastructure and agricultural crops when disaster strikes.”

The Business Mirror adds that the impact of the tropical cyclone was worsened by the fact that it occurred in the middle of the night and people had little warning. In addition, illegal logging, mining, and urbanization worsened matters.

A report in 2009 by the Philippine Imperative for Climate Change (PICC), World Wide Fund for Nature-Philippines (WWF), and Filipino scientists predicted just such a disaster in Mindanao as happened on Friday. Simulating extreme weather possibilities the group found that the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan, both hit hard by the typhoon, were particularly vulnerable to intense flooding from storm surges and overflowing rivers.

Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan, chief executive of WWF-Philippines, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that the disaster over the weekend “was an exact fit.”

However, the 2009 IPCC report was largely ignored by legislators.

“They said I was being too alarmist,” Nereus Acosta, who headed the IPCC at the time, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

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