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At Large

A new disaster in the making

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The bad news, according to Kelvin Rodolfo (he who made “lahar” a household term after the eruptions of Mount Pinatubo), is that Supertyphoon “Yolanda” was neither the first nor the last of such weather disturbances to cross our borders.

Indeed, he says, citing an international study, tempests emanating from the Pacific are expected to come more frequently and to be of increasing ferocity. “The study says that while Level 1, 2 or 3 typhoons will come with more or less the same frequency in the future, it’s the level 4 and 5 typhoons (the stronger, more powerful ones like Yolanda) that will become more frequent.”

And what can the Philippines do about them?

Note that before Yolanda struck, the government had issued warnings days earlier, with President Aquino even issuing a televised warning. Relief agencies “prepositioned” their supplies in the areas lying in the path of the typhoon, while local governments warned their populations and moved a number of families living along the coast to higher ground.

But it seems we didn’t anticipate the full power of Yolanda or the full impact of the storm surge it generated. Residents didn’t move high enough or far enough from the rampaging waters. Buildings thought strong enough to withstand the fiercest winds lost roofs and windows or sank into sodden ground. Trees collapsed, and their trunks (including coconuts) served as destructive missiles. Worse, warehouses and buildings containing the prepositioned goods were flooded, while places usually considered shelters, such as gyms, schools and churches, trapped the people, many of whom drowned.

We knew what was coming, but we didn’t have the imagination to conjure the scenario of devastation that followed.

* * *

SO WHY, asks Rodolfo, his sharp gray eyes never losing the gleam of the biblical prophet he so reminds me of, are some people deluding themselves into believing that we will somehow win immunity from the severest effects of our changing weather?

More specifically, testifying at a public hearing on the proposed projects of the Philippine Reclamation Authority and private entities, Rodolfo says the planned reclamation project on Manila Bay faces three indomitable obstacles that will put the entire metropolis under threat of a “Yolanda-like” catastrophe, if not worse.

Rodolfo cites three specific threats: the danger of land subsidence or collapse; the threats of storm surge (such as what overwhelmed Leyte, Samar and other areas) and high storm waves caused by typhoons; and “seismically induced liquefaction,” or the tendency of firm soil to turn into soft mud during an earthquake.

Of the last phenomenon, he says areas on reclaimed land, whether reclaimed from Manila Bay or the mouth of the Pasig River, “would not require an earthquake to occur nearby to suffer serious damage.” Case in point: In 1969, a 7.3-magnitude earthquake hit Casiguran, Quezon, 225 kilometers away from Manila, and many structures built on reclaimed land were damaged. Most tragic of all was the collapse of the six-story Ruby Tower in Binondo, where 260 people died.

* * *

“PHILIPPINE authorities now generally accept that global warming is raising sea levels by about three millimeters per year,” says a statement issued by the coalition opposing the reclamation projects. “Even without reclamation, continuing rapid and accelerating subsidence of the coast lands bordering Manila Bay is worsening both floods and high tide invasions,” it says. Thus, authorities worry about “how this rise must be aggravating Metro Manila flooding, which is one and a half inches per year. However, what is alarming is that the land is subsiding 30 times faster, mainly from over-pumping of ground water.”

The coalition warns that reclamation will speed up the sinking of the land, “from the withdrawal of groundwater or from the added weight of buildings, or both.”

Neither are Metro Manilans strangers to storm surges. In 2011, during Typhoon “Pedring,” the waters of Manila Bay overflowed all along the coastline, with floodwaters reaching all the way to Taft Avenue and even breaking the glass windows of the restaurant Spiral at the bayside Sofitel hotel and flooding the entire ground floor and basement.

“Powerful but still poorly recognized and understood hazards, storm surges are increasing in strength and frequency,” says the statement. Rodolfo warns that unlike a tsunami, which can occur suddenly but subsides soon after, a storm surge, depending on how long the typhoon winds last and on the height of the tides, can last for days.

* * *

NOTE that the Philippine Reclamation Authority has plans for reclamation in other parts of the country, but it is working most furiously on the Manila Bay project.

But the groups opposing the plan (a public hearing was held a few days ago, though the media were mostly kept out of it by deceit and subterfuge) say the plan is not only NOT environmentally sound, it also threatens the livelihood and heritage of all Manilans.

For starters, reclamation will be at the expense of the livelihoods of fisherfolk and urban poor, who rely on the bay for fishing and livelihoods. But it isn’t just the “small people” who will be affected. What about the hotels, businesses, residents and establishments in Ermita, Malate, the CCP Complex, and Asia World in the original reclamation area?

Then there’s the cultural, historical and tourism significance of many institutions in the area. The area covering Manila Bay and the waterfront from Del Pan Bridge to the Cultural Center of the Philippines has been declared a National Historical Landmark, while Intramuros and nearby areas should be protected and improved, not destroyed.

More questions remain, and these shall be tackled in a later column.


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