Flooding interventions

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - November 20, 2020 - 12:00am

In the worst public health and economic crisis we have seen, the battle for 2022 is now beginning to heat up, and in an unsurprisingly ugly way.

So it’s truly refreshing to find someone who’s not talking politics, and is presenting doable interventions for disaster mitigation in her corner of the world.

This is the mayor of Alcala – a small town (population 38,883 as of the last census) over 39 kilometers north of Cagayan province’s capital Tuguegarao.

Yes, Alcala is the town where those images of people desperately scrambling for relief packs were taken. They were wearing face masks, so you can tell they’re worried not only about the devastation from the typhoons and floods, but also about the continuing threat of COVID infection.

Many Cagayan residents have lost everything, surviving the catastrophe with only the clothes on their backs. There are heartbreaking scenes of people weeping and asking for donations of food and clothing, especially for children. And it’s touching to see children showing with pride that they managed to save their most precious possession from typhoon damage: their learning modules.

Surrounded by so much tragedy, with more likely to come as weather forecasters warn of at least three more typhoons before yearend, Alcala Mayor Cristina Antonio is moving to implement several measures to minimize the impact of natural calamities in her town.

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Antonio, a law graduate of the University of the Philippines, has posted her ideas on Facebook, which she also discussed with “The Chiefs” last Tuesday night on OneNews / TV 5, shortly before President Duterte launched his churlish harangue of Vice President Leni Robredo for her disaster assistance efforts.

Among the measures that look like they can be carried out soon is the creation of a secondary channel in the flood high-risk barangay of Pagbangkeruan. Near the channel will be a “green wall” – a 30-meter-wide expanse planted to fruit and flowering trees native to the area. Antonio emphasizes the importance of picking native species such as bangkal to enhance the ecosystem rather than using fast-growing “imported” varieties such as mahogany. More native trees will be planted along all Alcala roadsides – a total of 120 kilometers.

While such vegetation walls won’t stop torrential rain from pouring for days on end, which inevitably loosens soil on mountain slopes and swells rivers and dams, trees absorb water and break the force of rampaging floodwaters – much as mangrove forests ease flooding and break tidal forces in coastal communities.

Another measure that is doable is shifting from the planting of yellow corn to agroforestry in 12 irrigation dam watersheds, with a combined area of 300 hectares. Antonio says growing yellow corn needs pesticides and weakens the soil. The muddy flood has destroyed the cornfields, so the shift might be accomplished faster. In the fertile valley, corn growers can plant higher value crops such as ginger. Maybe they can plant the prized native Ilocos garlic.

For agroforestry, Antonio wants to encourage the planting of fruit trees, whose roots have a firmer grip on soil. Fruits also fetch a good price in the market. I don’t know if Cagayan Valley is conducive to the most expensive local fruits: mangosteen and guyabano (both touted to have anti-cancer and rich anti-oxidant properties), and the slightly less pricey carabao mango and lanzones. But these fruits give growers a good profit.

One obvious problem is that it would take time for trees to bear enough fruits to provide steady livelihoods. Farmers can grow bananas and coconuts in the meantime – two items whose prices have shot up during the COVID pandemic, with virgin coconut oil now used as supplemental treatment for the coronavirus.

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While waiting for the bananas and coconuts to grow, of course there is the persistent danger of the next great flood. The location of Alcala, as Antonio points out, puts it on the receiving end of 80 percent of water run-off in the Cagayan River Basin. In December last year, she noted that the town suffered from a “100-year flood” caused mainly by monsoon rains.

Antonio, a first-term mayor, turned to scientists for solutions. The town asked river and marine geologist Fernando Siringan, former director of the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute, and another UP geologist, Keanu Jershon Sarmiento, to conduct a study.

The most immediate intervention that Antonio hopes to be undertaken is the widening of the river channel from Tupang in Alcala to Magapit in Lal-lo town. Along this stretch, the channel that is about 400 meters wide tapers into a bottleneck of just 180 meters, trapping rampaging waters and flooding the surrounding valley.

This intervention, Antonio pointed out, was in fact suggested way back in 1987, in a study conducted by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

With the sun finally out, Cagayan farmers are trying to salvage what they can of their crops, drying palay on roads now cleared of muddy floods. Maybe unhusked rice can still be dried, milled and sold. The yellow corn crops will have to be written off.

The government’s answer to the cataclysmic flooding in Cagayan Valley is the dredging of the river and a massive reforestation, involving up to 200 million trees.

As Antonio has pointed out, flooding in the valley is not new, and interventions have been proposed as far back as 1987.

Perhaps the scenes of tragedy in Cagayan will distract public officials from political skirmishing and spur the government into actual action.

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