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Climate change has a human face

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By Imelda V. Abano

On the night of October 8 last year, 23-year-old Norma Sapao lost six members of her family to a massive landslide triggered by a week of continuous, heavy rains that swept through their mountainside village of Little Kibungan in La Trinidad, Benguet.

To Sapao, whose two-year-old son was plucked out alive after being buried in mud and piles of debris for seven hours, the tragedy could be a freak of nature—a tragic event that could hit the unlucky, the unsuspecting.

“It’s horrifying and sad,” says Sapao. “I lost my family, my home was reduced into a pile of debris, and we have nowhere to go until now.”

The raging mudslide from the soggy mountainside claimed 77 lives in her working-class community—laborers, farmers, vendors and clerks. In several instances, whole families were found huddled, lifeless under the debris.

Sapao, who lives with her husband and son in a tent near a strawberry farm in La Trinidad, observes that the weather has been changing rapidly, and its unpredictability frightens her.

“We don’t know whom to blame. Is it the wrath of nature because humans are destroying the forest? Or is it just pure bad luck?” Sapao asked.

But what Sapao and the community of Little Kibungan experienced that October night was not an aberration of nature. Scientists have long predicted that climate change would hit people hard, in a way that would exact large human toll and widespread destruction.

Poor people pay the price

Across the Philippines, people have noted the impact of climate change, including rising temperatures, severe droughts, devastating floods and landslides, increasingly severe storms and rising seas; but the brutal reality is that poor people live with the constant threat of homelessness, risks of injury and death, crop devastation and destruction of livelihood and communities due to weather-related disasters.

Climate change is transforming lives, and it is hard to ignore its human face.

Like Sapao, who survived the massive landslide in Benguet, fisherman Arnold Aromin, 42, from Bauang, La Union, is feeling the strain of the changing climate.

Aromin, after arriving in his village of Pagdalagan Sur from a nine-hour fishing trip at the Lingayen Gulf that borders the South China Sea, lamented his dwindling catch.

“Fishermen in our village have noticed a change in the weather pattern, and this has alarmed our community. Fish catch is declining and at an all-time low. Maybe this is also due to overfishing. Many fishermen have abandoned fishing or have left our village due to this misfortune and the threat of the rising sea,” said Aromin.

From a high of almost 2,000 kilograms of galunggong catch in the past years, the haul is down to an average of 300 kg per trip.

Already, the swinging weather patterns have also affected the livelihood of farmers across the country with the severe drought or El Nino that has affected the production and quality of their crop production.

Jun Cawili, 31, from La Trinidad, Benguet, said they are heavily dependent on the climate, and so they are seriously threatened by unpredictable weather. Cawili said he lost crop after crop from his 600- square-meter rented plot because the seasons are shifting.

“We are devastated. Most farmers in the Cordillera are not aware that this is a natural phenomenon. They thought that it was caused by the wrath of our gods. So they made sacrifices to ask for their mercy in order for rain to fall,” says Cawili.

These stories reflect the effects and impacts of climate change. Sapao, Aromin and Cawili are just three stories from millions of poor Filipino people who are experiencing the dramatic consequences of climate change in their day-to-day lives.

Urgency of climate action

Aware of many life-threatening disasters brought about by the changing climate, Climate Change Commission vice chairman Heherson Alvarez said the challenges to environment and sustainable development require concerted actions at the local and national levels to avert the consequences of swinging weather conditions; as well as the country’s drive to a low-carbon growth model to maintain economic development.

Alvarez said the Philippine government is emphasizing solutions that include emission reductions through behavioral change, renewable-energy production, conservation of biodiversity, forest protection, mitigation and adaptation measures.

“We must develop a belief in the need for protecting the environment. If we ignore climate change now, we will be unable to ignore the damage it causes in the near future,” Alvarez told the BusinessMirror.

As the global financial crisis takes hold and awareness of climate change increases, Alvarez said more nations like the Philippines and companies are trying to invest in alternative energy—innovations from wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, among others.

“We have a vast potential for renewable energy. A shift toward renewable energies will not only provide new business opportunities but actually improve the security of energy supply in most parts of the country,” Alvarez said.

According to the newly released World Bank study about East Asia’s energy future, countries could simultaneously stabilize greenhouse-gas emissions, increase energy security while improving local environments. This will be realized with major investments in energy efficiency and a concerted switch to renewable sources of power.

Vijay Jagannathan, energy sector manager for East Asia Pacific and author of the study, said in a statement that the projected needs for primary-energy development toward low carbon growth are estimated to be on order of almost $85 billion a year. “ There are tremendously large requirements in terms of additional financing. That’s a big hurdle.”

Katherine Sierra, vice president for sustainable development at the World Bank, told the BusinessMirror in a recent interview, that like many other countries in Asia, the Philippines is an emerging player in the alternative-energy race.

“The country has immense renewable-energy potential, which, if harnessed, presents the opportunity to reduce carbon emissions, improve energy security and spur economic development,” Sierra said.

Key priorities in a changing climate

For William Dar, director general of the Indian-based International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, safeguarding the environment, support for biodiversity, long-term strategy on agriculture and combating global warming are essential for a just and sustainable Philippine environment.

Dar told the BusinessMirror that among the key priorities the Philippine government must focus on is to develop a long-term strategy on climate change in agriculture. This, Dar explained, should both include mitigation and adaptation mechanisms. This strategy once formulated must have plan of action initially for five years, he adds.

One key priority that Dar suggested is to enhance documenting coping mechanisms already being practiced by farmers as a result of earlier climate variability.

“We need to enhance the understanding of the present and future effects of climate change, and for communities to adapt to these conditions. Again, a science-based approach is key to all these,” he explained.

The Philippine Dryland Research Institute, or Philippine Rainfed Institute, must also be established by the government as a long-term strategy to develop more resilient production systems, resilient crops/livestock, and prepare for resilient communities, according to Dar.

“We need a vigorous program in the Philippines if poor people are to stand a better chance of surviving climate change. The government must do more to help vulnerable people successfully adjust to our changing climate and strengthen policies that address global warming,” Dar said.

Elisea Gozun, chairman of Earth Day Network Philippines and former Environment Secretary, said there are two essential responses that the government should take into account in addressing climate change.

Gozun told the BusinessMirror that, first, the country should reduce greenhouse-gas emissions through various mitigation measures, such as energy conservation and water conservation. And second, the country needs to reduce risk.

“Considering that we are an archipelago with a very long coastline, with many low-lying areas, with many poor people living in high-risk areas and with most of our cities and municipalities being coastal, we are very vulnerable,” explained Gozun, also a 2007 Champion of the Earth awardee of the United Nations Environment Program. “ There is thus an urgent need for us to adapt to this more invasive environment we now live in.”

The Philippines rank second on the top 10 list of countries most affected by natural disasters in 2009, with 1.3 million people affected, according to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters.

Gozun said that, for example, since typhoons are stronger now, the Philippine government should build structures that can withstand stronger winds. She, likewise, said there is a need to amend the country’s building code and other guidelines.

“We need to identify low-lying areas that are at high risk to flooding and sea-level rise. People living there have to be moved. That response is not just housing and resettlement. We should also address their social needs and economic needs, such as employment, other sources of livelihood,” Gozun said.

She added that government reclamation projects and other major infra projects, such as roads, airports, Roro ports and piers, must factor in sea-level rise, and other climate-change consequences in their design.

More research should also be done for more climate-resilient crops, such as rice varieties that can withstand being under water for long or can withstand droughts, Gozun said.

Small steps make a huge difference

In the face of the immense challenges ordinary Filipinos face in addressing climate change, how can one small step make a huge difference?

For Gozun, it is basically consuming responsibly.

“We need to aim for a more eco-efficient lifestyle. Since all human activity has an adverse impact on the environment, we have to always be conscious of how we can minimize and mitigate these adverse impacts,” Gozun said.

In time for April 22, Earth Day, the Earth Day Network Philippines recently launched the 10 Million Movement to gather 10 million commitments of actions to save Mother Earth. Filipinos can log on to www.10mm.ph and make pledges on simple ways they can share to save the environment.

Gozun said Filipinos are also urged to practice 101 ways to a greener lifestyle which people can refer to—from turning off lights, riding mass-transit systems, recycling, buying organic products, not littering, planting trees and many other way that advocates environmental protection and conservation.

“It is a call to action,” Gozun stressed. “Every one of us has a duty to take care of our environment. Small actions can make a huge difference in tackling the global problem of climate change. We have to make every day Earth Day.”

But to Sapao, the volumes of research on climate change and the resources spent and efforts given by various governments to reduce global warming would go to naught if poor people like her would continue to live amid fear and uncertainty.

“We already face a daily struggle to survive. Although most of us could not fully understand climate change, it is a painful feature of our lives. We hope that we may be able to cope with nature’s way,” a sobbing Sapao said, glancing at the chipped mountainside where her family used to live until that fateful October night.

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