The Aurora-Quezon-Nueva Ecija disaster

A statement on the disaster that happened in 2004, costing 2,000 peoples lives. The article discusses the various factors including; climate change, forestry, the nature of landslides and the response to the disaster.

Foreword by Peter Walpole, Director of ESSC

The disaster that swept major areas in Aurora and Quezon provinces last year (2004) from 14 November to 3 December can be defined as a “100-year event,” given its magnitude and the devastating impact on the physical and social landscapes1. There were four tropical cyclones Unding, Violeta, Winnie and Yoyong2 that passed through these areas in the Philippines and unleashed volumes of rainfall3. Everybody agrees the rains were way above normal, intense, and prolonged over two weeks. After a year, the dispute remains as to whether upland logging caused the floods; opinions range from this being the primary cause to that of being of no consequence.

There are three reasons why logging in the area may initially be viewed as the cause of destruction. First, there is the idea of deforestation leading to the loss of the “sponge effect” and the absorption of water. Second, there is the visible reality of large numbers of landslides in degraded areas. Third, there is the implicit feeling of moral outrage against logging for the loss and damage to the environment experienced in so many parts of the country for decades. Logging operators recently used as a basis to initiate further logging the international agency statements ‘that forest cover does not prevent floods;’ this only compounded the outrage.

Mud, flooding, Real, QuezonSimply put, the increasing housing and settlement areas in the valleys, flood plains, and deltas throughout the Philippines are locations that run the grave risk of disaster. Given the volume of rain that fell last year over the east coast of Luzon during the long saturation period of around 20 days and the large amount of loose material swept down by the rivers, this risk turned real. Given the magnitude of the event, we have to review – element by element, along with the combined interrelation of these elements contributing to the floods – our perceptions and understanding of how such disasters occur, as these strategically affect how society responds. It would be hard to find a watershed in the Philippines where the upland area (18 degrees slope and greater) is not at least 50% deforested and with virtually no soil and water conservation strategy in place. We need to understand more specifically what role forests and reforestation plays.

The sponge effect

The theory that forests act as a sponge and absorb all floodwaters is scientifically not viable. It is already relegated to the heap of tried and tested theories that are now debunked. However, the “sponge phenomena” that is better referred to as the “infiltration of water into the soil and on to the water table” does work for small subcatchments with forest. During the rainy season, such infiltration reduces water flooding over the surface (surface flow) and slows down the water as it gravitates through the soil to the river from all sides of a valley. Because the water moves slower, the water reaches the river in a more staggered manner and so the river storm flow is not as high as when the water flows directly over the surface of deforested land in a more concentrated form with eroded soil to reach the river.

Furthermore, a percentage of the rain that is stored in the subsurface and deeper soils finds its way down the slope during the drier months feeding the water table and keeping the river flow higher than in those rivers fed by deforested hills. This is one of the major ecological services that forests provide and its value should never be underestimated. However, such a volume of water is in no way comparable to the total volume of water in a major area storm event that cannot be contained by subsurface storage and delayed flows in the total watershed.

Localized sub-catchment events were assessed for decades as to the impact of logging on storm flows. However, simple extrapolation of small area processes – with relatively delayed delivery of water over a shorter time in forested areas – to large areas is to miss the importance of differences of scale, with respect to both land area and storm size. The differences in land area make irrelevant the relative delay in subsurface water delivery. The differences in storm size and duration necessary to affect an entire major watershed are of magnitudes greater than a small hillside valley of which the land area, even when forested, could not “detain” such a volume of water. The total area rainfall that enters a major river system and the reduction in slope of that river on entering the lowlands allows the water cut through its meandering seasonal path and spread out on the flood plains. Such an event as that which occurred in Quezon Province is one of a very different frequency and composition to that of sub-catchment infiltration during seasonal events.

Landslides and rivers

The prevailing logic is that landslides occurred due to logging. Logged-over areas and areas of illegal logging did slide on an extensive scale during the disaster. Often, these landslides were not very deep as the soils were already eroded and had limited vegetation to contribute as dangerous debris. These areas slid down and added to the devastation, along with hidden logs from illegal activities just waiting for the ride down river. During the two weeks of near continuous and heavy rain, hundreds of landslides occurred, and surprisingly perhaps for some, in areas of full forest cover (primary forest). All the soil between the forest roots and the bedrock liquefied, and with the final downpour, not even the forest roots could withstand the “meltdown” or liquefaction. Liquefaction occurs in saturated soils, that is, soils in which the space between individual particles is filled with water and physical stability is lost to the power of gravity. The liquefied mass, drawn by gravity to a downward position, puts pressure on the surface cover that is holding it in place, and then breaks out taking with it the materials no longer held in place above the break, as well as what is movable in its path. All the soil and forest vegetation that become debris are flushed down the slope until they reach a river.

LandslipWhere there is enough material, this can create a temporary dam that then breaks, causing a surge in the river and making for an even more dangerous flood event. Landslides add to the flood volume with soil and debris that ram into bridges or housing, and create surges in the flood flows.

The earth’s landscape is not as it was formed in ‘Genesis’ times.’ The geology of an area is not only active when there are earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. Geological activity is ongoing and the landscape continuously evolves. Rivers take the path formed by the geology: the faults and fractures, the slopes and depressions that extenuate the form. Where rocks are exposed to the sun, the air, and water, they weaken, crack, loosen, and lay there for centuries. In the unseen part of the river below the surface of the riverbed, active change occurs through the presence and movement of water. The material washed out in a storm not only comes from landslides and existing sediments carried by the river, but also from the riverbed itself that gives up rock material as it cuts itself deeper in the underlying geology.

There are many scenes along the Sierra Madre where primary and degraded forest areas were dislodged and washed out by the heavy rains. The deep soils below having liquefied and the weathered and well-fractured rock materials now loosened were ready to move. Entire valley beds cascaded down to spread out and smother all activity – agricultural lands and coastal bays. The debris is disgorged from the mountains as metres-deep alluvial fans and contributes to silting up riverbeds in the floodplains and deltas. When standing in the post-flood riverbed, one stands in awe of the height from where vegetation was ripped off both sides showing how high the torrent was, with the water level being even higher. Looking from the silted-up riverbed in a coastal town up towards the mountain sources, one can see literally square kilometres of boulders and gravel excavated and spewed out by the river from top to bottom.

Clearings and logged-out forests show a high percentage of soil loss and generally small landslides, apart from those near sheer slopes. These landslides though have not yet been comprehensively analyzed and are the aspects of logging that need further analysis in relation to flooding. Though forest cover is no longer considered scientifically as significant in reducing the flood waters by the effect of infiltration, analysis may well show in the future that there are significantly more landslides in logged areas. These landslides may be, on average, shallower than those in undisturbed forest as erosion has occurred but may be shown to be more widespread. If that is the case, the argument for the value of forests (and I emphasise natural forests over any plantation form) during large-scale events is very strong. Landslides contribute significant material during a flood event, through temporary damming create surges and leave behind a level of sediment with extensive costs for clean-up and reconstruction.

Outrage, forest cover and people

Logging is a can of worms, not unlike mining, in the Philippines. Where logging is concerned, society holds a general attitude of pity for the poor not well focused nor directed. The need for the poor to have a livelihood in the uplands is put forth as an acceptable justification for the continued mismanagement. The poor are exploited in this process without gaining responsible access to neither upland resources nor the basic service to improve their situation. Where these people are migrants from the lowlands, it cannot be assumed they are knowledgeable of forest management.

All the while, urban life continues, ignorant and clueless of a trading system that is of its own making. The poor do not need pity; they need help to face the changes in their lives, in their livelihoods, in their landscapes.

Officials who violate the law need to be charged and removed without offhandedly condemning all officials of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Philippine National Police, whose staff do put their lives at risk while others on “tseke”- points and up the line make unscrupulous profit. It was most demoralizing to hear in Infanta of recent reports that while some make legitimate livelihood out of turning debris in the rivers into charcoal, others up the slope with financial and local government official backers are cutting fresh trees in the Agos River.

Regeneration is very slow in areas exposed to forest extraction and where grasses like Imperata have a hold. Such grass slopes, like the area from Gabaldon down to Dingalan, were cleared a long time ago and lost all soil. As a result, these areas showed no landslides during the disaster but only ‘slumpage’ of decades gone by. There is limited loss of forest cover in the last 15 years as shown by remote sensing analysis but the data sets cannot be critical compared as are from different sources. There are both areas of regeneration and extraction, while overall loss is estimated to be 1 to 3% primary cover and 3 to 5% secondary cover between 1987 and 2002.

Coastal damage and debrisIt is one thing to say that stopping logging will stop flooding like the disaster in Infanta – because it will not! The primary actions to be taken are the relocation of those in high-risk areas; a serious review of what infrastructure will withstand a hundred-year event and a critical review of land allocation in the lowlands and uplands. However, it is another thing to excuse or ignore such logging as “it does not matter anyway.” There is no area along the eastern Sierra Madre where logging occurred without severe erosion and landslides. The chances of these areas regenerating with natural forest even in 100 years are very limited unless actively engaged upon. Sustainable forest management can in no way support logging in such areas. If we have not learnt that logging should be stopped in the Sierra Madre, and this includes licensed logging, in the face of direct hits by typhoons in this area, then there are no lessons we can learn.

The logic of logging today in Samar Island to the south, already acknowledged nationally and internationally as a natural park with extremely high biodiversity, seems also to lose sight of the Pacific Ocean, which the island faces in the same way as Aurora and Quezon. This ocean is not pacific toward the Philippines. Given the unstable rock formation in Samar of limestone and underlying rock layers that easily give way, who will take responsibility for the towns of Can-avid, Dolores, Oris and towns along Catubig River that in 1989 were washed out by heavy rains and debris? The fact that the forest cannot retain the rains does not justify logging; neither does it justify ignoring the needed risk reduction in these towns where the riverbanks, if not beds, are occupied by poor people. Is the wealth of knowledge only to be used for argumentation and discourse, and not for action that focuses clearly on the needed responses?

Current national discussions on Samar and other forest and biodiversity-rich areas similarly situated highlight the problem. Policy integration is poor, policy interpretation is abused by sticking to the letter while the spirit of our laws does not allow for the present interpretation and implementation of logging rights. Policy consistency and political will are at the core of the problem and the leadership must bring us through this.

Internationally, research institutions and corporations are seeking for more sustainable resource extraction and the development of accompanying comprehensive policies with governments. However, the Philippines continues to prove that resource extraction industries, even when given rights under the most difficult times, likewise continue to fail to deliver the proper management and application of stringent technical overseeing. Equally, the policies developed do not result in a rational implementation and interpretation as shown by the Samar situation. The political framework becomes too accommodating to the economic demands, diluting and weakening the social development basis by which these investments in extractive industries were negotiated. The credibility of the entire natural resource business world and the stability of the environment are put at risk when resource mismanagement continues to the point of legal or illegal extraction of all commercially useable forest in a country that is over 50% sloping forestland. Increasingly, we are creating disasters that are avoidable.

The strength of what can be done is in capacitating local government to work with and serve its people, in engaging with national government where it shows a level of accountability, and doing this with the support of responsible business.

This also calls for an experiential shift where we all view the problem from the local geographic perspective of sitting in the valley bottom or delta where “we as a family have, with or without other options, built our house and government has assisted us indirectly with an infrastructure that is not designed to respond to the impact of long term rainfall events. But for those of us who survived, everything has been washed away, so where do we go?”

If the arguments and the present discourse persist on focusing on the problem of logging in the country (which is by itself a problem and another form of disaster), and not see the primary cause in the Aurora-Quezon-Nueva Ecija tragedy, our attention is diverted to the wrong response. In these areas the immediate, mid- and long-term problem revolves around settlement security and adapted infrastructure design and implementation. With this as the premise and guiding reality for change, it can be acknowledged that forest management does have a role, as does the impact of the social irresponsibility and abuses of logging in addressing the problems of flood zones.

Letting the river flow

The magnitude of the flood problems in major watersheds was brought home to much of Europe over the last decade. In rivers such as the Rhine and the Thames, occasional rainfall events may cover much of the total watershed resulting in major flooding.

Many European cities and rural areas now recognize and accept that it is impossible and highly dangerous to try to control or determine the flow of a river in flood. Many of these cities are learning, through painful lessons of tragic losses of lives and properties, to move back from the floodplains and from the natural banks of these rivers. They are learning to respect the flood lands (meadows and marshes) for what they are and to truly value the ecological services they provide. These areas are still used for agriculture, but only seasonally, and are not built upon. Along with this is the effort to build levees that have a more gradual incline, not so restricting, and guiding the flow with a very broad backfill to prevent collapse when overtopped.

The reality of forests is that they are much more complex in their interdependent relations and vulnerabilities. Where forests cannot survive many human activities, forests also cannot withstand the fury of long heavy rains. Many areas of tropical forest along the Sierra Madre suffered from landslides during the series of typhoons. What are called for are a measurement, a management, and a movement that work with, not against, the pressures of floodwaters. Any attempt to be stronger than the river is a set-up for failure.

River with burst banksThe other ecological services of continuous forest cover are: maintaining the high level of biodiversity, locking up a significant level of carbon, cooling the microclimate within the forest that reduces many of the temperature fluxes, providing for the collection and utilization of non-timber forest products, and for ecotourism. Sub-catchment deforestation results in soil loss and increased sediment loading in river sources that, through displacement of water and channel blockage with the development of sand banks, increase the opportunity for localized flooding. Such soil loss from deforested uplands turned to agriculture with little effective soil and water conservation, results in major plumes of clay and deposition of sediment particularly in coastal bays and inlets, is detrimental to reefs and coastal habitats. There are also the ecological services of swamp and estuary ecosystems that serve as the natural systems for managing floodwaters. Land reclamation runs the risk of major defeat where such areas are seen as waste lands and not valued for this further ecological service.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in the United States this year (2005), what we witnessed was an environmental disaster compounded by engineering hubris, a lack of governance, and a denial of widespread social poverty. Hurricane Katrina shows the blind spot in US national management and accountability, both in the lack of preparedness for disaster management, and the long term denial and neglect of people. The impact was a national disaster (many said ‘waiting to happen’) that raised major questions about the gap between local people and national and even local government; and why local people were not participating in the welfare and governance of the area. Generally, local poverty is only raised to the level of a national disaster when a climatic or geological event brings the vulnerability of the poor to the fore.

Such disasters in developed countries show the fundamental importance of paying attention to local communities, having effective local governance, and working internationally to overcome the sufferings of others while learning to reduce risks on a global level. Too often, global is understood as that which operates at the highest international level and is furthest from people. But global here is taken for the universality and commonality of people’s experience throughout the world. Hurricane Katrina’s impact has international consequences and strengthens the argument against
purely national control that can lead to neglect and the need for global focus on vulnerability and eradication of world poverty – from the top and from the bottom.

Flooding and lives put at risk

Given the pattern of tropical rainfall in the country, we will always have floods in certain areas. These seasonal flood lands are the natural geomorphology: broad shifting meanders in the valley floor, marshlands and mangroves. When we restrict the natural flows of these areas as flood lands, we too create disaster. The engineering of society to live away from the rivers and floodlands and maintaining this is a major feat and requires developing the infrastructure “in sympathy with” the river flood system.

The floods in Aurora and Quezon directly relate to what must be expected from torrential rains, not from ‘an act of God,’ and the lack of land available most especially for the poor. If the plan is total safety, nobody should be living in Infanta, General Nakar, and Real. Infanta and General Nakar are towns on a major east coast delta, while Real is at the delta edge and next to steep slopes that suffered from slope failure and liquefaction that were washed into town by several streams. The spirit of people in Gabaldon in Nueva Ecija seemed equally hit, for all around the valley town the risk is everpresent. Every 10 years or so, events in the valley cause damage if not loss of life. When the Santor-Coronel River floods the waters rise from the south of Gabaldon. But when the floods hit this time the rains concentrated in the northern mountain streams and hit out in multiple directions across the alluvial area behind the town.

In the Philippines, it is not expected that everyone can be immediately and permanently relocated, so the effort must be gradual and strategic with a focus on reducing the highest risks. We have to address the proper relocation of people, primarily the poor who live in plywood and corrugated iron housing in flood lands. This was only partially done after the November 1991 Ormoc disaster. People still live today in the riverbed just upstream of the new flood dikes, wondering if the next flood will come in their lifetime. With proper attention and action given to this primary response of secure relocation of people and disaster awareness, then logging needs to be dealt with – seriously.

What all this calls for is a review of the comprehensiveness of our policy, the effectiveness of our implementation, and the commitment to help communities re-orient to a better understood reality, and so structure their impact on land use and settlements. Again, this reinforces the importance of local governments because they are the first actors on the scene. The real argument for action in the case of this disaster is the preparedness for such events and the relocation by government of people in high-risk areas. While we may be thankful for such deluges being so infrequent, waiting only to be caught off guard again can no longer be a tenable response. Much greater international focus needs to be given to this work.

Nationally, over the last few years there is increasing discussion and efforts to coordinate in building greater risk assessments for the whole country. The need to monitor heavy rains and not just typhoon winds has been a problem of resource availability and systems of communication. Reviewing existing levees, their maintenance and improvement, along with new sites needing development are critical and the necessary simultaneous social engagement to improve pre-, during, and post-disaster preparedness at the community and local government levels.

Review strategy

With this disaster experience and the multiple reviews ongoing in different parts of society, several initiatives need to develop momentum and feed into the process of strategic change. There are three basic areas of activities:

  • those focused on disaster preparedness;
  • those focused on what might be called the “social contract”; and
  • those seeking greater integration and development of the “water agenda.”

All have a fundamental engagement with people affected by disasters and with government agencies, the difference being in the time frames and roles.

The first is centred in the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) and deals with the immediacy of identifying a potential disaster as early as possible, coordinating and responding for, with, and through the people in the disaster area. There is also the building of awareness, capacity, and partnerships to respond to different sectors of society in dealing with preparedness, relief, and rehabilitation. The NDCC is increasingly seeking to establish active bases in local government (through regional, provincial, and municipal) to support communities as affected.

The second may be championed by a few organizations but basically needs civil society and government to change attitudes, integrate policies, and effectively implement regulations so as to reduce the “contribution” society has in heightening the extent of disasters. If nature sets the terms of volcanic, seismic, and climatic events, then society has to clarify the terms which it has under its potential control. Together, in recognizing what we cannot control of the physical landscape and climate we can strategise and develop a “contract” reducing the exposure of people to disaster events. Society has to should set the non-negotiables in the social landscape. If we know that greatest loss of life is due to land allocation for the poor, then policies and resource allocation should affirm that society will not negotiate or compromise on land access and security for the poor.

The third is the ongoing requirement in all societies for greater integration and planning that supports a coherent water agenda. Parallel to disaster preparedness is the utilization of water resources and the care for the water environment, though working on a different time frame and structure and needs to be better related in a national overview.

Disaster coordination

The NDCC traces its roots back to the early years of civil emergency in 1941 and with the nuclear arms race in the 1960s, other policies emerged. Only with Typhoon Sening that hit Bicol in October 1970 and left Manila flooded for three months did a new chapter in rescue and recovery begin. From then until 1978 there was much reorganization and formulation of the NDCC and programming of community disaster preparedness.

Since January 2004, the NDCC’s “Four Point Action Plan for Disaster Preparedness” did not have the resources and the time to get off of the ground before the major disaster in November of that year. The action plan focuses on the:

  • Upgrading of PAGASA and PHIVOLCS4 forecasting capabilities
  • Public information campaign on disaster preparedness
  • Capacity building for local government units in identified vulnerable areas
  • Mechanisms for government and private sector partnership in relief and rehabilitation.

There is an unqualified need to build capacity at all levels and to increase the coordination. There is also a critical need for comprehensive area studies to understand the geological, hydrological and fluvial geomorphologic impact of such disasters before major engineering responses are made. Serious revisions of infrastructure need to be undertaken in many areas of the country where construction clearly does not meet the standards set by 100-year events. These responses with the inclusion of other related government departments and international technical and financial assistance are essential in these major and specific undertakings.

Call for a Social Contract

Subsidence caused by floodingThe social contract is an effort to address the human insecurity in its totality. The future of towns such as Infanta, Real, General Nakar, Gabaldon, Dingalan, and other Philippine towns that experienced flooding and landslide disasters – and still will – depends upon the social contract struck. The now understood level of scientific and social awareness of the problems must incorporate the knowledge that nature sets her terms and limits. This recognition and acceptance of nature’s terms must be the basis for all stakeholders to work out a social contract and develop the needed partnerships.

The present social contract is focusing on five areas:

  • Getting people out of high risk areas
  • Cleaning up waterways, the access to these waterways, and dealing with the new contours of the land and drainage
  • Creating livelihood for the poor in ways that do not degrade the environment
  • Taking legal action where necessary against those who wilfully transgress present laws for their own personal benefit
  • Giving greater support to local government from the national, and to the participation by local people and organizations in governance.

All of these responses beckon a greater need for changes in attitudes and behaviour towards the environment that is better informed by an understanding that nature sets its terms and limits. We interact and negotiate by studying environmental forces over time and measure the risks so as to gain greater security with nature in how we live and work. This applies to the most marginal of people and local economies where national society has the responsibility to at least secure the basic needs of housing and access to livelihood for its people. These terms and limits form the basis of the social contract we need to work out. It is a social contract that will embody the lessons learnt from previous disasters and the needed changes in attitude and behaviour towards cutting of forests, livelihood identification, allocation of land for housing especially for the poor, and in the clearing up of waterways and the maintenance required.

With the recent disaster, many of the responses are drawn from the participation of local people by local government during the post disaster period. The response of many housing efforts is getting people out of high-risk areas to new housing. the de-silting of riverbeds is getting attention. There are current efforts in instituting community-based early warning systems, securing path networks for evacuation to higher-ground and refuge areas. There are programs to reconstruct and support fishing, farming and forest use based livelihoods. Infrastructure re-development is under way, stabilization of slopes and replanting, using the knowledge obtained from on-going studies of the physical landscape and waterways, discussed and well-formulated hazard mapping, and rationalizing land re-allocation in land use planning and management. To ensure accomplishments and success in these efforts, there is also the recognition of needed partnerships with those stakeholders who will benefit from a safe and maintained environment to live in and work on, and not just the local government and responsible line agencies in national government.

The high-risk settlements mostly involve poor people who have no other places to live; many people are just being relocated on dry riverbeds are areas that suffered during previous folds. Until we deal with this poor population and stop leaving them in flood lands, we will always have the problem.

Property damage and floodwatersEverything must be done to keep waterways clear, not only for the development of the drainage system, but also the access to that drainage system. Efforts are to clear not just the sandbars and flood zones of settlements, but the banks (pampang) as well. There is a need for settlements to be moved away from the banks and to face the reality of keeping the banks clear for maintenance access. It is unrealistic to expect to have significantly large human settlements, of mainly the poor, in areas adjoining slope lands without having the forests destroyed or degraded. The increases in the price of bottled kerosene (ga-as) particularly in 2004 saw the resurgence in the production of charcoal for local consumption, as well as the Manila barbecue (inihaw) market. Very few societies in Asia have learnt to sustain poor populations so that their basic needs are met without infringing on the forest cover and having first lost it. Most governments are not willing either to trust or to endow communities with rights over good forest cover and effectively engage in markets. Where communities are granted access to forest lands, these are usually of no commercial value and these communities are only able to meet subsistence needs with little greater security in life, and so the forest may continue to degrade. There is limited successful management that can clearly show the sustainability of the forest by communities unless there is alleviation of critical poverty by securing basic services and or an actual pattern of out-migration.

Social trust and commitment are seriously undermined by the continuing reports that cutting of trees, not debris, is ongoing in the watersheds. That some business interests and local government officials facilitate the movement of such wood through checks and roadblocks is a sad reflection on the degradation of local society. It involves local people who “everybody knows” and who have protection or power yet refuse to find a new way to do legitimate business.

Given that the Philippines is an island complex with mountains that we know at this stage are not well-managed, the argument does hold sway as to whether there should be logging, because no matter how effective we are in creating policies, we have lost the capacity in implementing these policies. Traditional politics does not allow the country to sustainably utilize its resources. There is also a problem of not being able to locate a growing population to where there are the needed advantages allowing for a change of circumstance. Where there is improvement, the migrants will follow who quickly fill in the poverty ranks and human insecurity is “re-lived.” Resource area management in the Philippines always has the problem of an ever-present scavenging class.

The challenges are enormous and require immense social changes in all of Philippine society. We have many tragic experiences and painful lessons to determine the non-negotiables and move forward knowing there is much that we can do.

Broader Water Agenda

Critical in dealing with the social contract needed to address flooding is a more pragmatic integration of laws regarding water management. There is the need for much better assessment of area geography, flood and erosion mitigation, water resource utilization and rehabilitation. The proper implementation of existing laws would go a long way in making significant changes. The present integration of the CLUP and FLUP5 by local government for the first time can lay the basis for better sustainable utilization of resources and attention to livelihood and greater human security of the local population.

Society needs to review the laws already in the books and those in process while others look at present and possible integration. There are various laws in the Philippines that can be consolidated. Starting in the uplands and whatever the forestland use prevailing, there is a 200-metre restriction on bank activities and management requirements. Where these areas are declared as critical watersheds, the management mandate is held by PAMB with a PASU6 but generally with inadequate or no finances available. In areas declared as critical watersheds due to downstream infrastructure, the response is often reforestation efforts, poorly managed and the understanding of which is often misplaced. Water resources are covered by over 40 government and semi-government institutions and under discussion for the last decade with the efforts to pass a National Land and Water Act to integrate responsibilities. However, avoiding these pitfalls and Congress as it stands, there are the more productive routes to go with the Local Government Code and what authority it has to intervene, relocate, and develop disaster preparedness. Reinvigoration of the local disaster coordinating councils and some river councils may bring in better ordinances and provisions for town planning and land utilization.

There is a need for well-focused policy addressing the environmental and social issues of concern to those most likely to bear the impact of such disasters. Such a policy should reflect the need for access of poorer communities to non-threatened high land, sustainable management of forests, maintenance of river courses to minimise potential for blockage, planned flood relief to wetland areas, requirements of flood control mechanisms, and emergency response planning as key components in mitigating disaster management.

A study of geographical characteristics helps local authorities review their increasing knowledge and responsibility of risk management. The identification of present projects that conserve land and water under different levels of government, traditional and corporate land use, can aid greater local awareness and participation. Local governments need to develop the data and information to compare, across islands and regions, the rivers in terms of elevation to shore ratios, catchment area and precipitation, discharge and flood duration. Local government can help people and focus planning to consider where the greatest flood damage occurs and to better inform national planning of the extent of the problem. Knowledge of the area pattern and frequency of disaster, debris, landslides, slope failure, major disasters allows for a more proactive response and setting of priorities. Attention must be given to identifying and understanding the social and environmental context of the current situation. Social and environmental mapping can be used to identify vulnerable communities and economic resources. This approach should be underpinned by simple, effective, and well-planned monitoring to allow responsive decision-making. This should include some understanding of the potential future impacts of climate change. The development of appropriate local/regional/national policies needs to be based on up-to-date information and with appropriate consultation.

Flood and erosion mitigation measures require better river information systems. The impact of urbanization can be better related to flooding and elements of a more comprehensive flood management can be drawn up. Super levees, dam control, sediment retention, schematic controls, slope failure stabilization, coastal works, interactive systems and emergency response can all become part of a consistent and focused response.

Water resource use and development can benefit from being integrated so that there is greater complementarity in the work. Planning in terms of per capita precipitation and per capita storage helps better manage water consumption growth. Drought lessons and vulnerability concerns are better addressed and there is a basis for drought conciliation and clarifying water rights and priorities. Water resource development in terms of inter-basin transfer, weirs, irrigation systems, small domestic dams, lake utilization can be more smoothly undertaken. In this way the quality of the water environment can be improved, lakes and streams restored, traditional river culture and celebration enhanced, and development efforts can be made more naturally responsive to sustain the environment.

Where we hope to be going is along a path of greater coordination in response to disasters and the development of a social contract by which society will seek to live more considerate of the risks to all and the more immediate human security of others and sustainability of our environment.

1 There are oral records of a previous major flood in 1929; subsequent maps of the delta area confirm that an event of some magnitude did occur around this time.

2 The international names of these typhoons or storms are: Muifa, Merbok, Winnie, Nanmadol

3 There is incomplete rainfall data but the first three events registered 685mm in Infanta; for the final event the nearest record was Munoz at 1,790mm, 70km due east of the coastline.

4 Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration and Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology under the Department of Science and Technology

5 Comprehensive Land Use Plan and Forest Land Use Plan

6 Protected Area Management Board with a Protected Area Supervisor


The Foreword to this article has been prepared by Peter Walpole director of ESSC.

These are the other articles referenced in the text.

Appendix I – Land slides

Appendix II – Samar Island

Appendix III – Area engagement

Appendix IV – Reforestation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *