Climate and Environment

Weak warnings, land use exacerbated impact of heavy rain in Mindanao — scientists

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Weak warnings, land use exacerbated impact of heavy rain in Mindanao � scientists
View from an aerial inspection in Barangay Masara, Maco, Davao de Oro on February 7, 2024.
Presidential Communications Office

MANILA, Philippines — Scientists found deforestation, settlements in danger zones, and inadequate warning systems were key factors in the deadly effects of heavy rainfall in Mindanao last February. 

Heavy rains brought by the northeast monsoon and a low-pressure trough caused massive floods and landslides across Mindanao last month, burying villages and leaving dozens dead.

In Brgy. Masara, a gold-mining village in Maco, Davao del Sur, landslides claimed 98 lives.

According to a rapid analysis by climate scientists from the World Weather Attribution, heavy rainfall events are now dumping 50% more rain in Mindanao. 

However, they pointed out that while the February rainfall was “unseasonably heavy,” it was not “particularly extreme.”

The lack of early warning systems and the presence of communities in landslide-prone areas turned it into a “devastating” event, scientists said. 

“We can’t just blame the rain for the severe impacts. A range of human factors is what turned these disasters into deadly disasters,” said Richard Ybañez, chief research specialists of the University of the Philippines Resilience Institute. 

High vulnerability of population

The landslide in Masara occurred in an area designated as a no-build zone by the environment department’s Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) after a similar tragedy in 2008. 

The scientists highlighted how deforestation due to farming, logging and mining operations across eastern Mindanao has increased the risk of landslides and floods. 

Additionally, they noted that poverty negatively impacts the ability of communities to cope with extreme weather events “as their livelihood channels tend to be more limited and climate-sensitive” like mining and farming. 

The report also said there are “large gaps” in the region’s early warning systems. 

It noted that disaster risk management policies and funding primarily focus on reactive measures like response, and that rainfall and stream level sensors in the area are no longer functioning.

“Evacuations from high-risk locations were carried out when the island was hit by the rainfall in late January. However, many people were still in harm’s way,” Ybañez said.

“It is critical that both early warning systems and assessment of landslide-prone areas are improved to avoid similar disasters in the future,” he added. 

In February, Rep. Jose Manuel Alba (Bukidnon) filed a bill that seeks to institutionalize anticipatory actions for mitigating the impacts of hazards before they occur, a move welcomed by humanitarian organizations as a positive step toward addressing climate risks. 

Influence of climate change

The Philippine Movement for Climate Justice earlier called for a state of climate emergency in Mindanao as floods, landslides and drought affected communities in the country’s south. 

The scientists said climate change likely played a role in the heavy rainfall that devastated Mindanao because a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture. But they were unable to definitively quantify the influence of climate change on the event due to insufficient data.

The researchers also found that heavy rainfall events from December to February in Mindanao are no longer rare events.

“In today’s climate, the event has a return period of one in every 10 years. In other words, a heavy rainfall spell like this is expected with a 10% chance in any given year,” Mariam Zachariah, a researcher from Imperial College London, told reporters. 

The report also noted that the heavy rainfall would have been even more severe if not for the El Niño weather phenomenon, which is expected to persist until May. 

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