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Friday, May 14, 2021

Bound to happen

Jimmy K. Laking

The swathe of destruction attributed to flooding spawned by Ulysses in mainland Luzon was bound to happen.

In the end, authorities counted a total of 73 deaths as the typhoon, named after Greek hero Odysseus (known to the Romans as Ulysses) swamped the lowlands from Cagayan Valley to Metro Manila. The narratives that followed likened the floods to a sea of brown waters inundating the low-lying plains of Isabela, Cagayan Valley and parts of Metro Manila.

All the affected areas, geography says, is linked by a single thread: the grand Sierra Madre mountain ranges that ranged from Rizal province all the way to the Cagayan Valley where it links with the Caraballo mountain ranges. It was aptly called the backbone of Luzon.

Since time immemorial, the Sierra Madre has been known to weaken the impact of high velocity winds brought about by typhoons upon landfall.

It has not failed the mainland a bit as far as that goes. The heavy rains were also par for the course in a country that is visited by typhoons annually.

What is tormenting that part of the country is self-inflicted: decades of illegal logging that has sustained dynasties but impoverished the Sierra Madre and left bare the environment.

This is the same general area that has produced several Philippine presidents (Elpidio Quirino, Diosdado Macapagal, Ferdinand E. Marcos, Corazon Aquino, Fidel Ramos, Gloria M. Arroyo and Benigno Aquino III). Count in Juan Ponce Enrile (who comes from Cagayan province) and you can say that part of the Philippines has been well represented in power.

Yet to a man or woman, none lifted a finger to help protect the Sierra Madre from wanton destruction.

The flooding, described to be worsening yearly, is the sum total of their inability to protect the backbone of their homeland. It is payback time.

In 2010, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has recorded a total loss of 161,240 hectares in the Sierra Madre from 1988, due to illegal logging.

Land conversion has also opened the area to mining and road construction. This was mostly felt in Nueva Viscaya, Isabela and Cagayan province.

With much of the forest cover wiped out, the ability of the slopes to hold excessive rainfall has been greatly weakened. The result is excessive run-off that translates into massive flooding.

The construction of the hydroelectric dams (Magat dam in Isabela, Pantanbangan dam in Nueva Ecija) did not improve the situation any further. While these dams have contributed to the power grid and provided irrigation, the inability of management to implement reforestation in the watersheds has contributed to excess run-off.

It would take great political will on the part of all stakeholders to staunch the bleeding.  Reforestation will have to be done on a massive scale with a view to protecting what remains of Sierra Madre’s forest cover.  A moratorium on logging should be immediately enforced and LGUs and communities should embark on their own reforestation programs if they are to make life and their communities more livable and more bearable.

The problem is not limited to the Sierra Madre and its environs. Old-timers say that in Mindanao itself, there was a time when the length of the Rio de Grande de Mindanao from Bukidnon looked like a bluish snake (as seen from the air) from its source in Bukidnon to its mouth in Cotabato City.

But for decades now, the river has turned into a brownish shape, courtesy of denuded watersheds and forests along its way to the top. The river that used to be extremely deep to allow big boats to navigate is now shallow near its mouth.

This narrative is not unfamiliar to this city. In fact, this is also what is happening along Davao’s river as observed by disaster-preparedness groups.

Their story is a recurring one. Every time it rains heavily in the uplands, cut trees and plants and all sorts of plastics are washed downriver and deposited at the Davao Gulf.

Does this explain why occasionally half-dead whales, suffocated by plastics, turn up at the beaches to breath their last?

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