VERDE ISLAND PASSAGE
When the Carpenter’s and Springer ‘s study The Philippine Islands: Environmental Biology of Fishes came out in 2005, the media announced with great pride that the study designated the Verde Island Passage as “The center of the center of marine shore fish biodiversity”.
Carpenter and Springer confirmed that the Verde Island Passage has the highest species richness per unit area — 1,736 species within a 10 km x 10 km grid.
But Carpenter has warned that the Verde Island Passage is also one of the most threatened marine areas in the world. Ships carrying oil and chemicals ply the passage. On the Batangas shore, one could find shipyards, chemical, petrochemical and power plants and oil refineries.
The Passage contains many threatened species including sea turtles like hawkbills, olive ridleys, and green turtles; humphead wrasses, giant groupers and giant clams.
Indeed, the Philippine is considered as one of the world’s richest countries in biological resources. There are around 9,250 vascular plants species in the Philippines, one-third of which is endemic. There are more than 1,000 species of orchids, 70% of which are endemic; more than 100 endemic mammal species, 160 endemic reptile species and some 21,000 insect species, 70% of which are endemic.
But this rich biodiversity is in danger. Only 7% of the country’s original forest is left. Air and water pollution is also threatening biodiversity loss, especially on the corals. There are more than 300 species of corals in the Verde Island Passage alone.
In the Philippines, there are at least around 47 endemic mammal species that are threatened as well as 48 endemic amphibian species and 56 endemic bird species.
And then there is Climate Change which can only hasten the loss of our corals and other biological resources, including human lives.
In 2007, the global scientific community through the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) declared that “Climate Change is unequivocal.” The scientists confirmed that Climate Change is anthropogenic; i.e., caused by human activity. In March of last year, 2,500 scientists at the International Scientists Congress warned: “with unabated emissions, many trends in climate will likely accelerate” towards irreversible climate change.
There is no more denying Climate Change. Scientific observations of the past decade have confirmed it. And since the 13th Conference of Parties in Bali in 2007, representatives from all nations have been discussing and negotiating a new climate change agreement.
While the Copenhagen Summit turned out to be a disappointment, the representatives from 170 countries who met in Denmark for the 15th Conference of Parties acknowledged the very grave danger Climate Change poses and urged a “strong political will to urgently combat climate change in accordance with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities”.
Climate Change must be tackled on international, national and local levels. As a global phenomenon, Climate Change needs a global solution.
The Philippines should initiate synergistic alliances with our neighbors in the ASEAN and other developing countries so it could convince the developed economies to commit to deep and early cuts in their greenhouse gas emissions.
The government should continue to seek adequate financing for adaptation measures and technology transfer.
Like the Philippines, the ASEAN countries are also most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
The Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration reportedly pursued a series of activities under a Conservation, Protection and Restoration program in waste management, energy efficiency, agriculture, watershed protection and water conservation.
The Arroyo administration also passed two important laws – the Renewable Energy Act of 2008 and the Climate Change Act of 2009 – that could give great impetus to the fight against Climate Change.
However, the present Aquino administration is not perceived to be a great supporter for actions against climate change.
President Aquino in his speech before the 65th U.N. General Assembly said:
The concept of vulnerability and inequality is all too clear in the global effort to address climate change. Those who stand to lose much, if not everything, from the effects of man-induced climatic conditions are those who did little to cause it. There is an enormous need to ensure, as a matter of justice, that countries, particularly the vulnerable, are assisted in their adaptation and disaster risk-reduction efforts and are provided the necessary resources to build climate-resilient communities. This should go hand-in-hand with ambitious commitments by major economies to significantly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.
For the Aquino administration, the developed economies caused Climate Change; therefore, they should reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and help the developing economies adapt and reduce risks from Climate Change- induced disasters, i.e., by giving grants and aid. In other words, developed or Annex 1 countries should “pay” developing ones (as penalty) for the “crime” of causing Climate Change. This was also the mindset during the Ramos and Erap administrations.
The Aquino government has declared that there will be no reduction of greenhouse gas emissions for the country; thus making the Climate Change Commission Vice Chair and Executive Director Heherson Alvarez look ridiculous. Alvarez called on all nations to make deep and early cuts in global emissions by 2020. He also committed the Philippines to make such deep and early cuts. He declared the country’s commitments in so many international and UN fora, including at the Copenhagen Summit.
Perhaps it was inevitable that Aquino would fire Sec. Alvarez, a former two-term Senator and Secretary of the Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), and replaced him with Mary Ann Sering, a former DENR undersecretary and former aide of Gloria Macapagpal-Arroyo when she was still a senator. Alvarez, forgetting all about delicadeza, will stay on as Commissioner — an underling of his former subordinate. Sering is now the Commission’s Vice Chair and Executive Director. And Alvarez will now be demoted to the rank of Undersecretary, the same rank held by his chief of staff! (Oh well, that’s Philippine politics!)
Anyway, coal-fired power plants are in the pipeline for this administration.
It is quite unfortunate that sometimes, all these talks on climate change stay in the international and national level. There is not much action on the ground. Except for some leaders of local provinces that are traditionally hit by natural disasters, many local government leaders still do not fully appreciate the dangers of Climate Change and the adaptation programs needed to be taken. Many local leaders still see Climate Change as a “long-term” problem. Thus, Climate Change takes a back seat in many local government units’ agenda.
On the contrary, in the fight against Climate Change, the local government units (LGUs) should be in the front lines. The LGUs are the first line of defense because the first victims of climate-related disasters are their constituents.
LGUs, local communities and NGOs must be regarded as having very important roles to play in mitigating and adapting to climate change. Local institutions must show ability to increasingly adapt to climate change scenarios like increased rainfall, stronger typhoons, etc. They have to claim ownership to their resource base like water and forests and must help build the capacity to face the effects of Climate Change.
Local government leaders should develop a synergistic approach to Climate Change adaptation measures with the goal of having better outcome for the local communities.
It is important to mainstream climate change policies so it will be properly institutionalized. It is recommended that adaptation policies be integrated with disaster management and economic development policy. This would be like hitting three birds with one stone.
LGUs must promote the awareness of Climate Change issues and the hazards brought about by Climate Change. They must build a database on weather, water resource and other important facts pertinent to Climate Change adaptation programs.
And they must always prepare for worse disasters to come.
Climate Change is constantly creating new challenges and has different impacts on different communities. LGUs must work hand in hand with national partners as well as NGOs and the private sector. LGUs must also convince the financial sector to be part of the climate change adaptation programs. It must empower its constituents – the ordinary citizens – to work with the authorities as well as to expect better services and protection from them.
The national and local governments must realize that the local communities are aware of the need to do something to adapt to Climate Change in order to protect and preserve their meager resources. However, the local people are not really certain about what they can do to be of help. They think that the Climate Change issue is too big for them.
The challenge for local government leaders is to empower their people so that together, they can make changes, learn from each other and start making real and sustainable impact in mitigating and adapting to the effects of Climate Change.
Climate Change risks are highest in coastal communities. The ADB study on the Economics of Climate Change pointed out that Southeast Asia is “most vulnerable to Climate Change”. This is so because half a billion of its people live by or near the coastline. With 7,107 islands, the Philippines has one of the longest coastlines in the world –32,400 kms. long. With rising sea levels and stronger typhoons, people living by or near the coastline are highly at risk.
The ADB study says the region is already suffering from Climate Change with an average temperature increase of 0.1 to 0.3 degrees Celsius in the last 50 years. The sea level is also rising by 1 to 3 millimeters annually and there is a rash of extreme weather phenomena like El Niño and very strong typhoons.
The study further predicted that the Philippines will have more rainy days and more amount of rainfall; the country’s rice yields will go down by as much as 75% by the year 2100; and, the country will experience more destructive typhoons due to Climate Change.
The ADB report further says: “During the past 15 years, the country was hit by the strongest typhoon ever recorded, the most destructive typhoon, the deadliest storm, and the typhoon that registered the highest recorded 24-hour rainfall.” It also says that the data support scientific observations linking rising sea surface temperatures to the increasing destructiveness of tropical cyclones.
The Philippines lie on the path of an average of twenty (20) typhoons every year, around half of which makes landfall. Monsoon rains and typhoons cause floods and landslides which destroy farmlands, roads and other infrastructure. These rains and typhoons endanger the ecosystems and the lives of the people in the communities.
According to reports, some 34,000 people have died due to natural disasters from 1971-2000. In the 1990s alone, these natural catastrophes have terribly affected 35 million Filipinos.
Many studies, including World Bank’s, considered the Philippines as one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. A new Mortality Risk Index (MRI) released by the United Nations’ International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) on 15 June 2009 ranked the Philippines as No. 12 among 200 countries and territories whose populations are most at risk from earthquakes, floods, tropical cyclones and landslides.
In addition, Metro Manila is considered the seventh “most vulnerable” among the provinces and districts of Southeast Asia, according to a study on Climate Change vulnerability by the Singapore-based Economy and Environment Program for Southeast Asia (EEPSEA).
The key threats to the ocean are the elevated sea temperature, acidification and sea level rise. The increase in Carbon Dioxide and other greenhouse gases causes rising sea temperature and ocean acidification, both of which cause mass coral bleaching.
Dr. Edgardo Gomez of the UP Marine Institute noted that the El Niño of 1997-98 was particularly strong when temperature increase was 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to the usual +0.25 degrees C associated with such events.
By the end of 1998, 16% of the world’s coral reefs died and those affected more than ten years ago have just began to recover.
The Verde Island Passage, with its more than 300 species of corals, has one of the largest concentrations of corals in the world.
The coastlines of Negros Occidental, Antique and Batangas have witnessed during the past few years of rainy summers, the infestation of coral reefs by the Crown-of-Thorns starfish. The uncontrolled starfish population apparently endangers corals.
Aside from Climate Change and natural forces, other issues threaten our marine life. Illegal and destructive fishing methods like the use of compressors, cyanide dynamite, catching fish spawners, gill netting and beach seine beset coastal municipalities. Poaching in Marine Protected Areas by local and commercial fishers are major threats. Over-fishing is due to poverty and lack of alternative means of livelihood.
While the corals in the Verde Island Passage are still generally in good condition, we must all be vigilant against the myriad threats facing our corals.
The wrong that we do on land, we reap downstream and in the ocean because pollution from land sources does not stay on land. It ultimately finds its way into the sea. Rivers bring refuse, sewage, mine tailing from the mountains, valleys and plains. The uncollected garbage and sewage of Metro manila is fed into Manila Bay via its rivers and streams.
We need to consider the sustainable use of marine resources in the new local development planning process. All activities can then be planned with reduction of climate-related risks and disasters in mind.
“Creeping Climate Change”, as former Secretary Alvarez calls it, kills our corals and other fish habitat through acidification, erodes our beaches, contaminates fresh water resources with salt and undermines ecological balance.
We need to be alarmed, to sit down together and create an effective counter-strategy. NOW!
There have been success stories in the fight against Climate Change by local communities.
After three deadly typhoons in 2006/07, Albay province led by Gov. Joey Salceda initiated the mainstreaming of climate change policies for proper institutionalization and support. Investing in the integration of adaptation policies with disaster management and economic development policies, Gov. Salceda attracted foreign assistance and cooperation. During the next quarter, an intensive training program in a new Comprehensive Land Use and Development Planning process will begin. Albay has become a global model for adaptation.
In 1970, Rep. Alfredo Marañon initiated the conservation and management of the dying coral reefs in Sagay, Negros Occidental with the Siliman University Laboratory headed by Dr. Angel Alcala.
The efforts bore fruit in 1995 when some 32,000 hectares of Sagay’s territorial waters were declared Protected Seascape. On April 14, 2001, the same area became the Sagay Marine Reserve through Presidential Proclamation No. 592.
There are others.
As the impacts of Climate Change exacerbate existing pressures and stresses on the environment, the communities and the economy, adaptation is essential to cope with its extreme manifestations.
Climate Change is a formidable foe, perhaps the greatest challenge that mankind has ever faced, as some would have it.
Biological Diversity or Biodiversity is the foundation of life on earth. Biodiversity IS Life. And Climate Change is threatening this Life.
We are fortunate to have the opportunity to right our wrongs by moderating the impacts of Climate Change. We must prepare the future generation for a world that will be harsh to life on the planet.
Only a united global population can save Planet Earth from the catastrophes promised by Climate Change. (end)
**This is an updated version of a speech I delivered at the National Workshop on Trade and Environment (focus on Climate Change) Sponsored by World Trade Organization and the Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) . Held at the DENR Social Hall, Quezon City on May 28-29, 2009
FOR RELATED ARTICLES, GO TO: