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Part of: Mangroves and climate change
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On Philippine coasts, rebuilding nature’s barriers to rising seas

by Molly Bergen, Conservation International | Conservation International
Thursday, 19 November 2015 16:32 GMT

In the Philippines’ more than 7,000 islands, people’s lives are intimately connected to the ocean. (© Conservation International/photo by Tim Noviello)

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Vulnerable villages can’t hold back the raging seas on their own. They need nature’s help

After days of anxiety-filled storm preparation, it was midmorning when a voice on Susset Enolva’s radio relayed an urgent message: The typhoon approaching her beachside home on the tiny Philippine island of Polopiña (also known as Igbon) had hit “Signal 4,”  promising intense typhoon conditions and winds of more than 185 kilometers (115 miles) an hour.

Enolva and her mother gathered her three young sons and ran through the rain to her uncle’s house nearby. “We took our pots with cooked rice and then our uncooked rice container and some pillows — nothing else … No clothes. Because we were panicking. I couldn’t think straight anymore.”

Soon the roaring winds were toppling trees around her uncle’s house, and the roof began to shake. So the family fled to their last hope for refuge: the village church, where ocean waves were already lapping at the foundations.

“The kids were shivering from the cold … I kept on praying. I thought the coconut tree was going to fall on the church … I was also thinking about the storm surge. If the water got higher, we would be trapped … Where would we go? We would just die here.”

When Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda) crashed into the central Philippines on November 8, 2013, it was the strongest tropical cyclone to ever make landfall anywhere in the world. The storm killed more than 6,000 people and left more than 4 million displaced, and its legacy is ingrained in the national psyche, leading many Filipinos to frame recent life events in “before” and “after” terms.

Two years later, communities are still recovering, and Enolva and her neighbors are concerned about the possibility of increased frequency and intensity of typhoons under a changing climate.

But these vulnerable villages can’t hold back the raging seas on their own. They need nature’s help.

A ripple effect

Although her family survived, Enolva lost everything else: her house and her possessions were swept out to sea. She now lives in one of a row of blue-painted concrete houses with iron roofs built for the village by Christian Aid, a humanitarian organization. The new houses are designed to withstand winds of up to 200 kilometers (124 miles) an hour, but their proximity to the water’s edge means that their safety is not guaranteed.

In a country of more than 7,000 islands, people’s lives are intimately connected to the ocean. Many live in island barangays (villages) like Enolva’s, which are only accessible by boat. Often backed by steep cliffs, these towns sit almost on the beach, giving residents — most of whom are fishermen — easy access to the water. Countless fishers lost their boats to Haiyan, but the storm’s impacts didn’t stop there.

On the nearby island of Iloilo, Haiyan’s pounding waves decimated coral reefs off the town of Concepcion. “Based on a study conducted by the University of the Philippines Visayas and commissioned by the local government of Concepcion, the storm reduced the coral cover from 70% of the area around Concepcion to 10%,” said Maria Josella Pangilinan, the climate change program manager at Conservation International (CI) Philippines.

With their habitat gone, most of the fish have disappeared, requiring fishers to spend more time at sea and farther offshore to bring in smaller catches.

“Before Yolanda, we were able to get four kilos in one day when we went fishing — and we didn’t even have to go far,” said local fisherman Remy Navarro. “After Yolanda, fishing was really difficult, and the situation has not changed even after one year; you fish and only get enough for the family’s consumption. Since Yolanda, people have been depending on relief assistance.”

Here as elsewhere, poorer populations are the first and worst hit by extreme weather events. Typhoons are nothing new to the Philippines — by dint of geography, it is themost exposed country in the world to tropical storms. But the number of annual severe storms has gone up in recent years, from an average of 20 per year to between 24 and 26; five of the country’s 10 deadliest storms have occurred since 2004. A growing tide of research points to global climate change as a driver of stronger storms.

Typhoons are becoming a bigger worry for Filipinos.

“After Yolanda, we feel like … we’re always on alert,” Enolva said. “The typhoons entering the Philippines are getting stronger every time.”

And when the storms come and the waters rise, there is less standing between the communities and the sea. 

The first line of defense

One reason modern typhoons may cause more damage is mangrove destruction. When healthy, mangroves — which can form dense forests along tropical coastlines around the world — create a powerful barrier between land and sea.

Think about how your raincoat protects you from the weather. Now start snipping off bits of the raincoat, leaving your skin exposed to the elements. That’s what the world has been doing to its mangroves.

In the Visayas Islands — the Philippine region that experienced the most damage from Typhoon Haiyan — most of the mangrove forests that once lined their coasts have been cleared to make way for fish ponds and other coastal development. Enolva’s village in Polopiña also lacked a coastal greenbelt, leaving people with no buffer from the storm surge.

Recent research has found that for each kilometer of mangrove forest that ocean waves pass through, water levels can be reduced by half a meter (1.6 feet). Milliard Villanueva, the mayor of Concepcion, is adamant about the importance of restoring nature in order to adapt to the impacts of stronger typhoons: “It is the first line of defense, particularly on storm surge,” he said.

Thanks to a growing awareness of the value of keeping these natural areas intact, locals are now embracing the need to restore mangroves, reefs and other ecosystems. In Concepcion, a number of independent initiatives are working to do just that. In 2014, the local government built an artificial reef and is cultivating coral to replace that which has been lost to Haiyan; it is starting to attract more fish back into the bay. Some communities are planting mangroves; others have plans to restore seagrass beds.

 Combine forces, increase resilience

But given the urgent threats that rising seas and more intense storms pose to human lives, nature-based activities need to work in tandem with more conventional man-made constructions.

“We know that while ecosystems can provide protection to communities, it’s not enough,” explained CI Philippines Country Director Enrique Nuñez. “Restoring ecosystems to the point where they can provide the optimal level of protection can take time — time we may not have before the next big storm.

“What we need is what we call a ‘green-gray’ or nature-based engineering solution for coastal protection — one which combines green/blue solutions such as mangrove reforestation with hard-engineering infrastructure, like seawalls. Integrating these techniques will give these communities the best chance of adapting to a new reality that includes stronger, more frequent storms.”

Building on previous successes helping communities in the Philippines’ Verde Island Passage, restore nature in order to adapt to climate change impacts, CI aims to pioneer this “green-gray” approach in Concepcion, Iloilo over the next four years.

With funding from the FFEM (Fonds Français pour l’Environnement Mondial) and in collaboration with the Philippines’ Biodiversity Management Bureau and local and international partners, CI looks to pair natural and man-made defenses to build community resilience against climate impacts while simultaneously restoring coastal and marine biodiversity.

This project could take on many different forms, from a permeable bamboo fence erected in the shallows between newly planted mangroves and deeper water, to an artificial reef made of rock debris that hosts a thriving oyster population that filters seawater while reducing wave energy.

Whatever it looks like, it will be one of the first projects in the world that combines green and gray infrastructure to adapt to climate change and reduce risk of disaster.

When it comes to climate change, efforts to help people fight and adapt to its impacts have never been more in demand. As world leaders prepare to gather in Paris to hammer out a global climate agreement, Nuñez hopes that this groundbreaking work in his home country will inspire others.

“Not only do we want to bring attention to the Philippines as a country highly vulnerable to climate change, we also want more people to see how if the green-grey initiative is successful, it could blaze a path for how people can adapt to a changing world.”

For people like Susset Enolva, lives and livelihoods hinge on getting this right.