In the past three days, many people, many from the media, have called, texted, emailed, or in person asked me whether the tragedy caused by Sendong can be attributed to climate change. This is a very sensible question and one that deserves a thorough answer.
In order to understand how to answer this question, I spent the past few days doing the rounds in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan, personally inspecting the hardest-hit areas and taking aerial photographs as well. I also did the rounds to assess the situation in the communities. After all, I was both a natural scientist and a social scientist. I cried when I went to Iligan. I also fought back tears as I saw the 150+ cadavers being processed at the NGCP hangar. The situation was really overwhelming. It can be noted that in my posts on Facebook, I have very few photos of people, because I wanted to preserve the dignity they have left and not publish their faces without their permission. After all, I am not a journalist but a public servant, so I cannot hide behind the camera lens. My posts are perhaps a bit misleading because it would seem I spent a lot of time clicking the shutter button. But I actually spent 90% of the time talking with disaster victims who lost their entire homes and belongings and inspecting ground zero.
As I have related hundreds of times in speaking engagements and lectures, climate change will be a major factor in any weather-induced disaster. But like many other disasters, it is a deadly combination of various factors. Here I attempt to offer what I believe were the contributory factors that led to the terrible disaster in Northern Mindanao and Southern Negros.
1) There is no disaster if there are no people or assets in harm's way. Clearly, in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan City and Dumaguete, many people were in high-risk areas. Riverbanks, sandbars, steep slopes, denuded areas, and floodplains are not at all safe for human residences and not prudent for investment of human assets.
2) Environmental degradation leads to a domino effect of unimaginable proportions. The extractive activites (e.g. logging, mining, industrial monocrop plantations) upstream may have greatly contributed to the deadly flash floods in Iligan City and CDO.
3) Disasters are not merely a function of hazards (rainfall, fast-onset floods, typhoons, ground movement, storm surges, etc). It is much more a function of people's vulnerability (difficult socio-economic conditions, lack of livelihoods, lack of choice but to live in high-risk areas, lack of access to basic services like health, education, lack of community organizations, lack of emergency systems). What further compounds vulnerability is poor governance, incompetent and corrupt leaders, poor or absent land use planning, land tenure problems, inequitable development paradigms, perpetuation of power of the greedy few at the expense of the poor. What reduces vulnerability is the inverse of all of these.
4) Climate change has resulted in a shift in the way the Philippine climate behaves - official studies indicate that the typhoon belt has moved southward. The trend is that most typhoons are now crossing central Philippines (which means Southern Luzon-Bicol, Visayas, and Northern Mindanao). This means that Northern Mindanao will have more typhoons than in the past. Climate change also has very wide-ranging unpredictable impacts, including anomalies in rainfall. Climate change is also manifested through increased warming of the sea surface and so it is also worthwhile to note that tropical storms would not usually brew if the sea surface temperatures are below 27 degrees Celsius. But if SSTs are above 27 degrees Celsius, you got a brewery of typhoons, and more intense ones at that. So with climate change, the new normal is one that means what used to be will no longer be.
5) It's complicated. But yes, climate change is very much at play here. But it doesn't mean we blame climate change altogether. Perhaps we can start looking at the mirror and find the answer there.