Beyond handwringing

Beyond handwringing

In the first week of November 1991, Typhoon Uring dumped torrential rains in Ormoc, Leyte. On Nov. 5, floodwaters rampaged down the mountains, washing away fallen trees and mud that smashed into houses. In some areas, the deluge rose to over two meters within just 15 minutes. Over 5,000 people were killed.

The freak flood was blamed on denuded watersheds near the city, and it led to calls for greater resolve to stop illegal logging. Many more massive floods have struck in the next three decades, a number of which were also blamed on forest denudation.

Today illegal logging is again being blamed, together with illegal mining, for the catastrophic deluge that has submerged vast swathes of Cagayan Valley in the wake of a succession of typhoons. Yesterday, during a visit to typhoon-devastated Cagayan province, President Duterte ordered a probe into illegal logging and illegal mining activities in the area.

Local government officials are also seeking better coordination in the release of dam water, which has been partly blamed for the massive flooding spawned by Typhoon Ulysses not only in Cagayan but also in Marikina. Dam floodgates must be opened when the water becomes swollen to the spillover level. This is to allow the regulated release of water and prevent the gates from bursting, which could cause greater catastrophe.

Weather forecasters also emphasized that they issued timely warnings on the amount of rainfall expected from Ulysses, which should have triggered evacuation from flood-prone areas. The scenes of disaster in Marikina and Cagayan, however, clearly show that the warning system and coordination for timely evacuation can still use significant improvement.

Evacuation will save lives but cannot prevent the inundation of property, crops and public infrastructure. Considering the state of watersheds, nothing could have stopped the torrential rains from swelling rivers and dams and submerging surrounding areas. Long-term and sustained interventions, however, will minimize the loss of lives and property as the country continues to be hit regularly by natural calamities.

President Duterte has ordered the dredging of the Cagayan River.

Environment experts have suggested the permanent relocation of communities located along riverbanks and other high-risk areas, and the development of floodplains. The massive flooding should also prompt a review of development projects near waterways as well as reclamation projects and the proliferation of fish pens including in Mega Manila, where floodplains and natural water catchments have disappeared. It’s time to go beyond handwringing and rhetoric each time a killer flood comes along.