‘Environment and disasters: too much water or not enough of it’

CROSSROADS TOWARD PHILIPPINE ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL PROGRESS - Gerardo P. Sicat (The Philippine Star) - November 25, 2020 - 12:00am

Through the year’s annual cycle, we get disasters that happen with regularity. During part of the year, there could be too much water, but during the hot months, too little of it.

Destructive floods and inadequate water supply. The visit of a one-two-punch succession of Typhoons Rolly and Ulysses just recently made this point abundantly clear.

The country experienced disastrous floods, made complicated by the release of excess water from dams that have accumulated threateningly high water levels. The damage from these floods has led the government to declare the recent episode as a calamity in the island of Luzon.

Yet, not long ago, the other face of the problem stared us in the face. Metro Manila’s water supply became dangerously low. The water supply for the national metropolis fell far short.

Recrimination against the water companies was vehement, and they felt great public anger fall on them. Though there was blame thrown around, this was essentially a failure of long-term investment in water.

An environmental system approach. Water resources investments have to be harnessed safely for national development. Some of the extremes of problems – whether excessive abundance or lack of it – could be minimized, if not avoided.

We cannot completely control nature’s fury, but we can prepare more reasonably and ably with proper planning and investments.

Like the nation’s energy development program, water resources investments got hijacked in the wrong direction some decades ago. This explains the paucity of investments in the water sector to enable the nation to catch up with the needs. Our politics when it came to water was one of benign neglect.

The major water dams that provide for irrigation, water supply, and hydro-power for the island of Luzon, for instance, were all undertaken before the 1980s.

It is only lately that a project for the construction of a major dam – the Kaliwa Dam – which is to expand the water catchment system for the Metro Manila region was started almost two years ago.

The life of major investments in water resources depends on keeping watershed areas safe from encroachments and destruction through deforestation. The reduction of watershed areas has made flooding a general problem of the nation in low-lying plains.

The logging that was allowed in the past to exploit forests for economic reasons that led to opening up of agricultural lands also left us denuded hills and mountains. The nation faces the problem of reforestation as a major issue.

One avenue to keep reforestation alive and sustainable is to encourage tree plantations, by incentivizing local governments to promote them for national survival and economy. So far, the nation has not succeeded in sustaining such a long-term industry.

Public efforts to replant the hills and mountains have failed despite public outcries and government promises of giant-scale reforestation. A potential solution is to involve private enterprise and encourage tree plantations. But trees are long term investments and households and private enterprise do not have the needed time-horizon to make it succeed.

Tree plantation investments to reforest the country as a corporate enterprise has not progressed much because of impediments in land laws. Yet, some countries have managed it as a national way of life. (This is a heavy topic, in part related to the constitutional issues on foreign investments.)

Prone to natural disasters. Our country has been tagged as is highly vulnerable to environmental disasters. We are along the same rim of countries fronting the Pacific Ocean as Korea, Japan and Taiwan.

Although the same countries are as exposed to environmental disasters as we are, they do not seem to suffer as much as we do from the visits of typhoons and floods. Our archipelago could be the most exposed from the standpoint of the Asian continent’s first defense against the big Pacific-made typhoons.

When it comes to the relative magnitude of damage and human suffering, we tend to suffer more. I talk in human economic terms, in numbers of people and families who suffer from such disasters.

There are obvious reasons for this.

The first is the level of the country’s economic development. The other countries have achieved a higher degree of growth over the past decades compared to us and have surpassed our achievements in industry and commerce.

As a result, they have greater control over their environment at the household and national levels. Against the force of nature’s fury, the three countries can use stronger materials to build their houses, public structures, and other coastal and anti-flooding investments. They have greater capacity to fight the brute force of nature because they can invest more resources to strengthen their defenses.

The second is that the three countries have much broader forest cover over their hills and mountains than we have. Historically, they have not exploited their forest resources the way we have.

In our case, we have consumed our forests through heavy logging, but have neglected as a nation to reforest effectively.

A third reason for the denudation of our forest cover is rapid population growth. Our population growth has been high compared to the other countries. While South Korea and Taiwan during their early years of growth in the postwar period had high rates of population growth, they experienced a decline as soon as the rapid economic growth took hold on them. Japan, for most of the recent decades, has been on a stable, even declining, population level.

Rapid population growth in our country has been in part responsible for the higher rate of clearing of lands for cultivation and for human exploitation. In the early stages of economic development, when much activity depends on the early rudiments of growth, the land has to sustain the living through the cultivation of food.

With people depending on the environment, there is also higher potential for degrading it: cutting or burning of existing forest lands for commercial or subsistence farming. The demand to open more lands exposes the country’s natural cover for maintenance and sustenance of the people’s.



For archives of previous Crossroads essays, go to: https://www.philstar.com/authors/1336383/gerardo-p-sicat. Visit this site for more information, feedback and commentary: http://econ.upd.edu.ph/gpsicat/

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