Climate change poses major risks to unprepared Philippine cities


Report by Irma Faith Pal

DUMAGUETE CITY – As the climate shifts, are the key cities in the Philippines ready?

A study by the World Wildlife Fund and the BPI Foundation assessing 16 of the country’s major cities showed that the level of preparedness of local governments, businesses, and residents “Needs Improvement”.

The Business Risk-Assessment & the Management of Climate Impacts, conducted from 2011 to 2014, found that local initiatives were mainly reactive, rather than proactive.

The study, which measured and analyzed how the largest Philippine cities can prepare for the escalating effects of climate change, confirmed that things will get worse before they get better.

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“Climate change will aggravate matters. All trends point to the likelihood of accelerated extreme weather events, emerging in a dynamic and non-linear manner, with site-specific manifestations, spawning shifts in population density, and, therefore, in the consumption of natural capital,” said Jose Maria Lorenzo Tan, vice chair and CEO of the WWF National Advisory Council.

The four-year study was based on a multi-vector analysis that used layers of historical data: climate exposure, socio-economic sensitivity, adaptive capacity.

He said they focused on cities since urbanization is a clear trend. “By mid-century, it is estimated that 60 to 70 percent of Filipinos will live in cities.”

The cities assessed in the study were Baguio, Cebu, Davao and Iloilo, Cagayan de Oro, Dagupan, Laoag, Zamboanga, Angeles, Batangas, Naga, Tacloban, Butuan, General Santos, Puerto Princesa, and Santiago in Isabela province.

Some of the findings that Tan presented in a Forum on Climate Change, Poverty & Development:

• Although El Nino will persist as the determinant of inter-annual variability, extreme weather impacts will be site-specific, variable from year to year, taking place in sharp spikes and troughs.

• For temperature shifts, it is important to keep an eye on the Pacific Ocean. It is the sea surface temperatures that enhance hydrologic cycles, and create conditions of heightened rain on the eastern seaboard. Temperature data over the last 60 years reveal an ever-increasing skew toward heightened warming. Last year was the earth’s warmest year since 1880. Except for El Nino in 1998, the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2000.

• Increased warming will spawn extreme weather. Historical data shows a geographical triangle where most typhoons impact on the Philippines. Direct typhoon impacts will be site-specific. A 2005 study by Webster pointed to a higher percent of Category 4 and 5 storms worldwide. The WWF project looked at more current data on typhoons in the northwest Pacific Ocean, validating the 2005 Webster study, and showing an increase in the number of typhoons with maximum sustainable winds in excess of 185 kph. “There is little doubt that more powerful storms will be part of our future.”

• For 13 of the 16 cities assessed, historical rainfall data seems to point to an increasing trend. For at least eight of the 16 cities, their geographical location within coastal flood zones or river deltas point to the need for an ecosystem approach, anchored on an integrated river basin management.

• Beyond ice melt, sea level rise is worsened by thermal expansion. Data from the US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration from 1993 to 2013 confirms that the Philippines, and many other portions of the Coral Triangle, sit within ground zero for sea level rise in the northwest Pacific. At least 11 of the 16 cities assessed are likely to experience retreating coastlines, and increased salinity of deltas. Access and transport should be viable. None of the 16 cities assessed have retrofitted their seaports, coastal airports, major arteries, commercial and residential developments to cope with sea level rise.

• Ocean acidification, caused by elevated levels of anthropogenic carbon dioxide, is an obvious risk that is being ignored. “What do our coastal communities do if shrimp cannot grow skins, clams cannot develop shells, and zooplankton is unable to thrive? Will there be an impact on fish larvae?”

• As urbanization advances, agriculture retreats, underscoring urban-rural linkages especially for cities dependent on external sources for supplies of food, water, energy, and work force.

• There is a need to balance urban development and agricultural self-sufficiency, while investing in a multi-sourced supply of resources. The collective challenge is to figure out how to sustainably produce more with less.

“Even if the entire planet halts carbon emissions today, it will probably take a thousand years for the climate to calm down,” Tan noted.

He said that although mitigation (the reduction of carbon) may be a key root cause solution, “adaptation (the management of risks) is clearly the more urgent challenge” for the Philippines.

He told the environment advocates, local government units, and the academe that we are not going to lose all our biodiversity to climate change because we are a “center of mega-diversity, sitting at the apex of the Coral Triangle”.

He was quick to add, however: “All that is certainly changing, likely to be shrinking, and will continue to do so. This is evolution, which has characterized planetary change for millions of years.” He said that the expanding human population, and consumption patterns will guarantee that.

Tan pointed to two socio-economic indicators that will define climate resilience in the country. Of the country’s 30 million hectares of land, only 14.2 million is classified as alienable and disposable. The number translates to 1,400 square meters per Filipino. By 2050, the number will drop to barely 1,000 square meters per Filipino.

Population, on the other hand, stands at 100 million. By 2050, government projections indicate we will hit 142 million.

“A juxtaposition of regional population density versus alienable/disposable land confirms that populations tend to move toward regions with higher percentages of land,” Tan noted. This, he said, creates migratory sinks, or hubs that attract population, including refugees displaced by climate change impacts and conflict.

He cautioned that cities showing abnormally-high rates of in-migration should begin in-depth reviews of their land use plans.

“Cities are migratory magnets. They offer efficiencies, convenience, opportunity, and a host of services that attract populations. Today, 15 of the 16 cities we assessed show population densities in excess of the national average,” Tan lamented.

He cited Manila, with a population density close to 10 times higher than the largest second-tier city, which continues to attract migrants tolerating the high risks in exchange for the promise of higher returns.

“Manila’s geological, meteorological situation, as well as its dire lack of proper urban planning, point to the likelihood that the future of the country’s capital will involve catastrophic events. When this happens, it will give rise to forced migration — a phenomenon singled out as the largest impact of climate change,” he warned.

The Stern Review (on the Economics of Climate Change) says that by mid-century, one of every 45 people in the world will be displaced by climate change. Tan said that translates to three million people in the Philippines over the next 35 years.

Tan challenged the local governments to update their comprehensive land use plans, to look at the future through a climate lens, to factor-in the likelihood of in-migration, and to involve the private sector in their solutions.

“Diversification of development will diffuse climate risks. It will also spread out the impact of the human footprint,” he said.

“Dis-integrated initiatives that do not account for front-line reality will be wasteful, inefficient, and will slow down meaningful interventions.” He said an integrated approach provides platforms to sustainably produce more with less.

The forum held in Dumaguete City was sponsored by Silliman University and the Oscar M. Lopez Center for for Climate Change Adaptation & Disaster Risk-Management Foundation Inc. (Irma Faith Pal)

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