Successive typhoons hit the Philippines – A letter from Manila

John Din is the Justice, Peace and Ecology Coordinator for the Columban Missionaries in the Philippines. He writes about the recent typhoons that have torn through parts of the Philippines.

By now you have received the news of the massive destruction brought about by the successive typhoons in the Philippines.

In the span of three weeks, the Philippines has been ravaged by six typhoons. The last two have been the strongest, Typhoon Rolly, which made a landfall in Bicol Region (south of Manila) and the last one Ulysses made landfall in central and northern Luzon.

Typhoon Ulysses made a landfall last Thursday evening. I woke up in the middle of the night with howling wind and rain. Later, on, electricity went off. PAGASA (the weather bureau raised signal no. 3 for Manila. I came down in the dark with a flashlight to the main lobby of the Columban house in Singalong to see if there was any damage to the house. What was terrifying was the speed of the wind. I was imagining the worst scenario for those living in the low-lying areas of Manila.

The following day, Friday, all the news was about the floods in Metro Manila, Rizal and Bicol. Pictures of families scrambling onto rooftops awaiting rescue abounded in the social media.

While people were responding to the flood in Metro Manila, little did we know that a massive flood – the worst to hit in 40 years – was also ravaging in Cagayan Valley, the northern part of Luzon. Most of the information about this flood was through social media.  Cagayan Valley is the catchment basin of water from other provinces, particularly from the Sierra Madre mountain ranges, that has been severely denuded by decades of logging. Some of the blame was placed on the Magat dam that had to release water to avoid a more serious destruction as the dam’s water level was at critical point.

Various initiatives from civil society organisations, government-organised relief assistance is going out to the victims of the flood including rescuing people off rooftops.

The Columbans are coordinating with the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines and the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines’ CARITAS and NASSA organisations in extending relief assistance to the victims of Typhoon Ulysses. However, the coronavirus pandemic made it difficult to reach the victims as there are restrictions in travelling to different provinces.

This phenomenon of successive typhoons – back-to-back storms – is enhanced by climate change. Flooding incidents are the cumulative effects of the continuous rains in Luzon. Definitely, there will be more of this. In 2020, we have also had the La Nina phenomenon that will increase the northeast monsoon and trigger flash floods and rain-induced landslides over susceptible areas.

A lot of discussion has taken place in social media about the cause of the floods. Discussion ranges from government failure, poor urban planning, deforestation and quarrying in Sierra Madre, to siltation and clogging of rivers and water pathways. Climate change concerns abound in social media as well as calls for donations to help the victims. Conflicting messages from the government does not help in developing strategies to face climate change. A few days ago, during the ASEAN meeting, there was a demand for climate justice, while at the same time approving the construction of another dam in Sierra Madre.

As of today, 69 lives have been lost and a number of undetermined missing persons due to landslides. As daylight comes, we will be seeing more and more the extent of the havoc brought about by the successive typhoons.