Water of life… and death

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - November 18, 2020 - 12:00am

You can live without food for a couple of days, but not without water.

With the knowledge that water is the stuff of life, humans all over the planet built communities around bodies of water. Over the millennia, oceans, lakes, rivers, creeks provided nourishment and livelihood, irrigated crops and made sanitation and personal hygiene possible.

Even wild animals know enough to build lairs near sources of water.

For all those blessings from water, humans have also endured the adverse consequences of living close to water sources. Heavy rains swell rivers and lakes and inundate communities, leaving death and destruction. Killer ocean tsunamis have obliterated entire towns.

Rains can be deadly even for those living far from bodies of water: incessant downpours loosen mountain soil, triggering landslides and volcanic lahar flows.

Yet the advantages of living close to the water still far outweigh the risks for many people. So it would be impractical, according to the governor of Cagayan province, to relocate to higher ground the most flood-prone communities in Cagayan Valley.

People need the mighty Cagayan River – the country’s longest – for a wide range of activities, from washing clothes to transportation and irrigation. The Cagayan Valley is a major source of rice and other crops for Luzon. So any proposal to ban human habitation around the river is unlikely to prosper, according to Cagayan Gov. Manuel Mamba. The governor of neighboring Isabela province, Rodito Albano III, has the same view.

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The two governors, who faced “The Chiefs” last Monday night on OneNews / TV5, said they did receive warnings about the periodic release of water from Magat Dam as typhoons starting with Rolly hit the country.

Mamba, who lamented that his province has not benefited at all from Magat, is still studying if the dam management should be sued for the cataclysmic flooding that submerged Cagayan.

Albano, however, pointed out that the Cagayan River is fed by 37 tributaries, and the dam is considered the 38th. Rolly and Ulysses simply brought so much rain, Albano said. He noted that the yellowish brown color of the floodwater that swamped Cagayan and parts of Isabela indicated that much of the water came from the river tributaries in the three major mountain ranges around the valley: the Sierra Madre (the country’s longest), Caraballo and Cordillera.

Residents took Ulysses for granted, Albano said, because the rainfall alert was only from yellow to orange and the storm warning signals were only from No. 1 to 2 in different areas of the province. People thought they would sleep soundly through the storm.

Metro Manila was under Signal No. 3 and red rainfall alert, but we still mostly downplayed the threat. Maybe we muted our phones to shut up the wailing alerts from the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council.

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If dam warning and water release protocols in Cagayan Valley were followed (to prevent dam gates from bursting), and residents aren’t keen on abandoning riverside communities permanently, what can be done?

Both Mamba and Albano say river dredging – the first in decades for the Cagayan River – would help. So would curbing illegal mining and logging, although Albano insists there is no more illegal logging in his province.

Planting more trees would also help, although they would need special care since saplings tend to be destroyed in forest fires during droughts, Albano said.

The situation is slightly different in Metro Manila, where unplanned development has created communities at high risk during natural calamities.

Geohazard experts say Provident Village, which suffered the worst flooding during Typhoons Ondoy and Ulysses, sits on the Marikina floodplain where human habitation should not have been allowed in the first place. Despite the regular flooding scourge and continuing risks, however, village residents are in no hurry to move out.

The creation of the Dagat-Dagatan housing project in Navotas during the Marcos regime also filled a natural catch basin and aggravated the massive flooding in the Camanava area.

Around Laguna de Bay, much of the surrounding floodplain was reclaimed and fish pens were allowed to proliferate, causing heavy siltation. In some lakeside communities including in Muntinlupa, floods can take up to three months to subside.

Even creeks and waterways in Metro Manila have been filled to make way for all types of construction.

In Las Piñas, such illegal structures on public land are being demolished so natural waterways can be restored and used for flood mitigation. But in many other areas, such demolition projects have faced strong resistance from residents.

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People ignore the risks posed not only by typhoons and floods, but also earthquakes. Certain spots along the Marikina Valley Fault, for example, now have ground cracks that run through private homes. People whose homes sit on the cracked ground have said in interviews that they don’t intend to move to safer communities. There is no certainty, they explained, that a strong earthquake or even the so-called Big One would strike in their lifetime.

This is probably the same mindset behind the development of certain residential and mixed use properties that lie along the valley fault in Laguna.

The same goes for Baguio City, where the pine trees have given way to houses built close together, perched precariously over the slopes.

Where does disaster mitigation fit into these areas?

Faced with the challenges of flood mitigation, the Duterte administration has a ready answer: create another task force.

We now have a Build Back Better task force, whose acronym could be confused with the original BBB for Build Build Build.

Building back better was the buzz phrase in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Yolanda. I’m not sure if this has been achieved in the typhoon-ravaged areas of Eastern Visayas.

Many of our communities are prone to disasters because of haphazard development. And no one is about to budge from the high-risk areas. If another Yolanda or Ondoy or Ulysses or the Big One threatens, our response boils down to que sera, sera.

That “whatever will be, will be” fatalism will be a major hurdle for anyone tasked to avert further death and destruction in our country.

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