A Filipino’s fight against climate change

Philippines’ climate commissioner has a personal stake after hometown devastated by Super Typhoon Haiyan.

Tacloban, Philippines – A diminutive man in jeans and sneakers has just finished a presentation to a classroom packed with teachers. Three months have passed and their school is still repairing the damage caused by Super Typhoon Haiyan. The school will re-open in a week but the teachers are still unsure which students will return and which didn’t survive.

The teachers cheer as the presentation ends, some weep, and they all hustle forward to have their photo taken with the presenter. He is Naderev M. Saño, better known as “Yeb”, the Philippine climate commissioner. That evening he is forced to miss a planned vigil for Haiyan victims as another typhoon passes over the eastern Philippines.  

Saño became an icon of the climate movement last November when he made a tearful speech at the UN climate change negotiations in Warsaw, Poland, before beginning a 14-day hunger strike. Saño wanted to pressure rich countries into climate action and his motivations went beyond representing Filippino national interests.

His family comes from Tacloban, the city at the epicentre of the typhoon’s destruction, and his brother was there when Haiyan struck. Saño addressed the UN just days afterwards, still unaware if all his relatives and friends were alive.

Most of my relatives were fortunate not to be affected by the storm surge, they don't have the kind of damage that many others have to deal with.

by - Naderev M Sano, Philippine climate commissioner

“I’ve just visited some of the homes of my relatives, some still have no roofs, just canvas. Most of my relatives were fortunate not to be affected by the storm surge. They don’t have the kind of damage that many others have to deal with,” Saño told Al Jazeera.

Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest recorded typhoon to ever make landfall, has officially claimed more than 6,200 lives while nearly 1,800 people remain missing. Bodies are still being discovered under the rubble as clean-up operations continue. Others are still being washed ashore, while many are unlikely to ever be found.

The geographical impacts are also staggering. The entire coastline of Leyte island, where Tacloban is located, has shifted. In many places 30 to 40 metres of land was dragged into the ocean when the storm surge receded, taking thousands of homes with it.

Sections of the coastal road linking Tacloban with the island’s southern towns have fallen into the sea. Leyte’s coconut trees were decimated, millions snapped in half or ripped from the ground. These changes have had profound effects on the people, many thousands are still searching for somewhere to rebuild their homes and begin new lives.

The Philippines is typhoon-prone, experiencing more than 20 each year. Since Haiyan, two more have hit Leyte, hampering the recovery effort, flooding evacuation centres, damaging tents and newly repaired or rebuilt houses. Some projections indicate typhoons such as Haiyan may not remain anomalies.

Although the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) does not link specific weather events directly to climate change, evidence is mounting that Haiyan-like typhoons should be expected more frequently.

A study by MIT’s Professor Kerry Emmanuel published last year found typhoon intensity in the North West Pacific will increase. Professor Will Steffen, former director of the Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute, has stated warming seas contribute to more intense typhoons. Rising sea levels add to the reach and power of typhoon storm surges. Haiyan’s storm surge reached five metres in height, leading to greater amounts of devastation than the typhoon itself.

The link between Haiyan and climate change is considered certain by most in the typhoon-affected areas.

“Here we are affected, so here it is real, very real,” said Humberto Montes, director of the Institute of Tropical Ecology and Environmental Management at Visayas State University. On Leyte, local government, NGOs and residents are taking the threat seriously, but the challenges of incorporating climate resilience into rebuilding a region characterised by poverty are daunting.



Challenges include establishing small-scale climate adaptation practices and macro-level low-emission development pathways.

But these issues are often neglected while most government and NGO services are still focused on meeting basic needs, and most Filipinos see emission reduction as the responsibility of rich countries.

Despite these problems some positive signs have begun to emerge, with local universities and communities taking the initiative.

“We cannot wait for international help to make the necessary changes,” said Dominador Aguirre, president of the Eastern Visayas State University (EVSU).

Displaced families still live in emergency tents on the EVSU sports oval. EVSU is incorporating climate change into all its courses and plan to open a sustainability institute when funding becomes available. The university is building new student dormitories and an evacuation centre using typhoon-resilient techniques researched in the engineering and architecture departments.

Fifty kilometres south of Tacloban, Bernardita Morilla has begun setting up a communal diversified organic farm. Her coconut trees were devastated by the typhoon, and she said she hopes the new farm will prove more resilient, using a range of different crops and animals.


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is real, very real.”]

It’s also a necessity considering it may take more than six years before her coconut trees bear fruit again. The farm has proved popular and already has more than 90 members. International NGOs such as World Vision are supporting coconut farmers elsewhere to diversify.

Macro-scale change is beyond the control of most on Leyte island, although it is also home to the world’s largest geothermal power plant, regularly producing more than 650 megawatts of clean energy. The plant was put out of service by Haiyan but is now operating at partial capacity.   

On February 1, Saño is at another local school making a presentation to an auditorium full of students.

“I’ve been targeting schools because I believe education is a powerful tool for driving change. Teachers and students will play a critical role in making this happen all over the country,” he said.

He is fasting again, the start of a new campaign in the lead up to climate negotiations in Lima, Peru. He’ll be fasting the first day of every month until the negotiations begin in December.

Saño said he hopes by then he’ll be joined by many others, that the lessons of Haiyan won’t be forgotten, and the international community will finally take action to help prevent super typhoons in the Philippines from becoming the norm.   

Source: Al Jazeera