Saving our mountains | Inquirer Opinion
Editorial

Saving our mountains

/ 05:03 AM October 02, 2022

Last week, as Supertyphoon “Karding” battered Luzon, a screen capture of a satellite feed tracking its wind pattern captioned “The Sierra Madre mountain range doing her thing” went viral on Twitter. The range, which starts in Cagayan and ends in Quezon just east of Laguna Bay, is believed to shield Luzon from storms raging from the Pacific Ocean. And indeed, on Sept. 25, the country’s longest mountain range with an elevation of 1,266 meters above sea level served as an effective barrier, standing in the way of the typhoon and blocking 185 to 195 kph winds, eventually weakening its strength just before it made its second landfall.

While many areas suffered the wrath of Karding, the strongest tropical cyclone to hit the Philippines so far this year, the aftermath could have been much worse without the defense that Sierra Madre provided.

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Yet, despite the protection that this natural barrier offers across 500 kilometers covering 10 provinces, human activities such as logging, mining, land conversion, and the construction of roads and dams, specifically the China-backed Kaliwa Dam, have threatened its natural habitat. Experts have warned that these threats would leave permanent damage on Sierra Madre if nothing is done to stop them—and the country, which is hit by an average of 20 typhoons a year, worsened by the devastating impact of climate change, would pay the price, especially the poor who are often the ones in the direct path of disasters.

Data from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) show that the Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park, the largest protected area in the Philippines that spans 359,486 hectares, loses an average of 1,400 hectares of forest annually. Even more alarming, over a 12-year period from 1998 to 2010, the mountain range has lost 161,240 hectares of its forest, which is more than twice the size of Metro Manila. DENR cited illegal logging, slash and burn farming, fuel-wood collection, illegal hunting, and expansion of human settlements as among the primary contributors to the forest cover loss. These problems are not unique to Sierra Madre but also affect other mountains and protected areas, like Masungi.

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In 2009, Tropical Storm “Ondoy” poured a month’s worth of rain — surpassing the country’s 40-year record for rain over one day — and flooded Metro Manila. Ondoy affected almost five million people, placed Metro Manila and 23 provinces under a state of calamity, and caused a leptospirosis outbreak. Ondoy’s devastating floods — reaching a record 20 feet in some areas — were attributed to the deforestation, degradation, and destruction of the Sierra Madre mountain range. This prompted then President Benigno Aquino III to issue, three years after the disaster, Proclamation No. 413, s. 2012, declaring Sept. 26 — the anniversary of Ondoy — as Save Sierra Madre Day.

The proclamation was to raise awareness about the importance of preserving and protecting the country’s natural resources and encourage participation in the rehabilitation, reforestation, protection, and conservation of Sierra Madre.

The lessons brought by Ondoy have not stopped the government, however, from greenlighting projects deemed ruinous to the environment. For one, the construction of Kaliwa Dam has gone ahead. Last year, the Commission on Audit flagged the $283.2-million project whose construction under the previous administration’s “Build, Build, Build” program, it said, proceeded despite lacking necessary permits. Advocates have urged the government to look into other options to address water security for Metro Manila—solutions that will not cause an adverse impact on the environment, such as rehabilitating existing water reservoirs and ensuring efficient water distribution systems and facilities.

It remains to be seen what the Marcos administration will do, but DENR Secretary Antonia Yulo Loyzaga’s statement sounded promising, particularly on the fate of the controversial dam. She said the government must undertake a “very accurate cost-benefit analysis” on the project, and that the concerns of the affected population must be “ventilated quite well” in the decision-making process.

A lot rests on the stewardship of Loyzaga, whose track record as the chair of the international advisory board of the Manila Observatory shows her advocacy for more scientific research on climate and disaster resilience. She has vowed to steer the DENR under an “ethical, science-informed, risk-based” leadership that seeks to be inclusive, consultative, and transparent. This bodes well at this crucial time when the threat of climate change is ever-increasing, especially for countries like the Philippines vulnerable to weather disturbances.

Protecting our natural resources is crucial in ensuring the security of future generations; neglecting and destroying the environment will be a great undoing. God forbid that a typhoon stronger than Karding and Ondoy hits the Philippines, and natural barriers like the Sierra Madre will no longer be there to stand in their way and prevent catastrophic damage and deaths.

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TAGS: Editorial, mountain conservation, mountains, Save Sierra Madre Day, Sierra Madre, typhoons
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