Philippines: The ‘new normal’

Environmental degradation and climate change are concepts many in the flood-ravaged cities of Illigan and Cagayan de Oro still might not comprehend, but there is no denying the world is changing.

File 58501
Al Jazeera/Marga Ortigas

The nightmare hadn’t changed much in a month. 

The main roads had been cleared as much as they could be, but everything else was still drenched in mud, dusted in debris, and dotted by mangled logs.

Everywhere you looked people were shovelling dislocated earth and salvaging what they could from the wreckage around them.

The above photo is of Iligan city after flash floods triggered by a tropical storm in December cascaded down denuded mountains and swelled silted rivers.
Thousands of homes were swept away in the middle of the night – and countless lives were destroyed.

File 58296
Al Jazeera/Marga Ortigas 

By the treacherous river now bubbling peacefully, she squatted amid the ruins. Draped in a make-shift dress, Cristina Bahian washed herself clean with unclean water from a nearby deep-well.

Her smile when she saw us was almost as bright as the mid-morning sun. It was the one accessory survivors like her had saved and managed to put on after such a calamity. A smile as bright as the tropical sun.  

You would never have guessed the trauma they had been through, and are still navigating.

All nine members of her family were saved, but they lost their house and everything in it. As one of her neighbours put it: “We had very little as it was – and now it’s back to zero…”
Finding the evacuation centre too crowded and too hot, the Bahians set up a make-shift shelter of their own by the bridge near their old house.  
“We just collected scrap wood to make walls, then a few days later, we received some donated clothes, “ Cristina said.  “It’s fine as long as the family is complete.”
Al Jazeera/Marga Ortigas  
The Bahians, like thousands of other families, are waiting to be relocated. But they have no idea when that might happen. So for now, they take each day as it comes, and just try to get through each evening.    
“We can’t sleep… We are afraid now. It’s ok when it’s sunny… But when it starts to rain – we panic,” she told us.  
And it rains here now almost every night. But it didn’t used to. Typhoons didn’t pass across Mindanao, but things have changed. 

“It’s the new ‘normal’”, Secretary Nereus Acosta, the presidential adviser for the environment, said. 

“The erratic weather patterns, with an increasing human footprint, that just has upset the balance in areas as sensitive for ecosystems like the northern Mindanao region… “ 

A dangerous combination of environmental degradation over the years, climate change, and what Acosta called “poor governance” – a lack of preparedness by local authorities to manage or reduce the risks. 

In terms of disasters waiting to happen, Acosta said “Washi was just “the perfect storm for all these elements…” 

Not natural
The areas most devastated by Washi are at the base of north central Mindanao’s last remaining watershed.

Sitting on the intersection of four different provinces, the once thickly forested mountains feed some six major rivers and the source of hydroelectric power that provides more than half of the island’s energy needs. An island that has almost 30 million people. 

But there are less than 10 per cent of those forests left. 

“When we talk about security, defence, there is nothing more pressing now than ecological security because that’s really where food security comes in – that’s where energy security comes from…,” Acosta stressed.  

“We always say no forest, no watershed.  No watershed, no water.  No water, no energy, no food, no rice therefore no economy… How could we allow such devastation?” 

“It’s a failure of governance,” he said again. “A failure of politics.” 

For the people who live around these mountains and share this vital, yet vulnerable ecosystem – four different provincial borders means four different local governments.  

One of these provinces is part of an autonomous Muslim region whose charter gave it its own power to issue logging and mining permits.

So when the last few presidents took steps towards a logging moratorium, officials in the resource-rich autonomous region carried on as they always did regardless: granting logging certificates and allowing both local and foreign companies to carry on mining even in areas the national government had deemed “protected”.  

It was “in [their] charter” after all. 

File 58136Al Jazeera/Marga Ortigas
A year ago – a newly-elected president decreed a nationwide logging ban. Again, the acting governor of the autonomous region then didn’t think this applied to him. And no one did much of anything to tell him otherwise. To reiterate that a presidential order took precedence…
In that one year alone, a hectare of trees was cut down daily. And it was eroded soil and foliage from that side of the mountain that did the most damage when the tropical storm struck.

Needless to say – not only was there a lack of a unified national vision when it came to foreseeing long-term effects on the environment, but also poor enforcement of the log ban. And not just in the autonomous region.  

Illegal logging carried on elsewhere too, and residents said it didn’t take much for local authorities to look the other way as the now black market industry continued to thrive.
Al Jazeera/Marga Ortigas

Cutting down the trees was one thing – but exacerbating that was that thousands of people were “irresponsibly put” in harm’s way.  
In Cagayan de Oro, thousands of the less-economically-fortunate were allowed to settle on sandbanks along the river. Land that was identified as vulnerable as early as the 1990s.

The local mayor, Vicente Emano, says they’d been there for as long as he can remember…and that relocating them when he became a government authority wasn’t really a viable option.  

So he did what he could to make the “informal settlers’” lives “a little easier” – he “formalised” them. Giving them permits or titles that authorised them to live where they did, in exchange for a nominal one peso fee. (That’s less than five US cents).  

Emano’s critics point out that “legitimising” the settlers’ status also meant they could now register to vote – which presumably translated into more votes for the decades-long, career politician.

“I am being blamed for the deaths of more than a thousand people here,” Emano told us.  

“But I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong…It became most unfortunate that when [Washi] hit us, they became victims, and very precisely because they became victims, politics started to rear its ugly head.”

Complaints have been filed against Emano, and his opponents are asking for his removal from his post. He has also been accused of being involved in illegal logging – an accusation he denies.

Emano stresses that this is not the time to point fingers and look for someone to blame.  He does accept, though, that he was unprepared for the devastation that Washi caused.

“There is no point in telling the world that I was prepared, as I would’ve wanted to be more prepared… but that’s because we never had anything like this before we weren’t prepared for what hit us…” 
For many Cagayan residents, that admission now means little.

Emano’s critics say a man in his position, with access to a wide scope of information, should’ve known better, and should’ve done more.  

“The city was devastated by Washi – and I become a politically ravaged mayor…”, he says, wanting to sound light-hearted.
Mayor Emano is right though – it isn’t the time to point fingers… But it is the time to look over what went wrong and what could’ve been done differently.  

To hold people accountable where they could have prevented things from escalating to this point.  

Mayor Emano wasn’t the only one who was “too complacent”, or too secure in the way things were. But as Acosta said – things aren’t working like they used to anymore.  

Environmental degradation and climate change are concepts many here still might not comprehend, but there’s no denying the world is changing, and there’s a “new normal”.

Click to browse through more photographs of the Washi-affected areas in Mindanao:

More from Features
Most Read