‘Ulysses’ great floods: Another wake-up call?
He howling winds and torrential rains have kept people awake and praying for the storm to pass when it was felt the strongest in the middle of the night on November 11.
TEven before Typhoon Ulysses’s (international name Vamco) landfall in the town of Patnanungan in Quezon province in Southern Luzon at 10 p.m., power supply and telecommunication, including wireless Internet services in many areas on its track were cut off momentarily, silencing social- media platforms where feeds are mostly about blow- by- blow accounts of the typhoon in their area. But as soon as services were restored, social media was suddenly filled with cries for help.
In the morning, the typhoon’s worst impact was revealed. Parts of Metro Manila and other parts of Luzon were turned into a massive water world.
Reminiscent of Typhoon Ondoy (international name Ketsana) that caused the great flood in September 2009, Ulysses dumped an equivalent of a month’s rain in just a day, turning roads into ravaging rivers.
Due to Ulysses, six dams in Luzon were forced to open flood- control gates as water reached critical levels. Major rivers in Luzon have likewise overflowed, causing the massive flood in many areas.
Eastern Metro Manila, Southern Luzon and Cagayan Valley were heavily submerged.
The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council ( NDRRMC) reported that 67 people died due to Ulysses as of November 14.
The national government as well as local government units (LGUS) in many areas were caught by surprise by the flooding as tens of thousands of families were unable to vacate their homes to safer grounds and were forced to climb atop roofs needing rescue.
Environmentalists were quick to blame the f loods on the continuing environmental degradation courtesy of illegal logging, mining and quarrying.
Worse than Ondoy
Reaching 22 meters, the water level in the Marikina River surpassed Ondoy’s record of 21.5 meters, according to Marikina Mayor Marcelino Teodoro.
Teodoro admit ted that the y underestimated Ulysses, making their preparations falling short of expectation.
Interviewed by the media on November 12, Teodoro said they were anticipating the water level in the Marikina River to reach only 18 meters high, at most.
Almost all 16 barangays, including those not historically experiencing severe flooding, were submerged.
While the flood during Ondoy was considered a wake- up call with several laws enacted on its account, the great flood caused by Ulysses a decade later proved a failure in many levels— on the part of concerned government agencies and LGUS, to address the environmental degradation, or at the very least, prepare for the worst- case scenario.
Republic Act (RA) 9729, or the Climate Change Act, was enacted on October 23, 2009, a month after Ondoy.
The law calls for the mainstreaming of climate change into government policy and created the Climate Change Commission, the climate change coordinating body.
A year after, RA 10121, or the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act, was passed. It institutionalizes the government’s disaster response from the national government down to the smallest unit of the government.
On November 24, 2011, Proclamation 296, signed by then- President Benigno Aquino, established the Upper Marikina River Basin Protected Landscape ( UMRBPL). It covers a total of 26,125.64 hectares in Antipolo City, and the towns of Baras, Rodriguez, San Mateo, and Tanay, in Rizal province.
Just a few days after Ulysses, the Masungi Georeserve Foundation posted a statement on its Facebook page describing the Upper Marikina Watershed suffering from “Stage 4” forest cancer.
Accompanied by photographs of a denuded forest, Masungi’s Facebook post on November 13 lamented that the efforts to restore the UMRBPL apparently failed.
“Had the forest rehabilitation efforts years ago were taken seriously, the flooding and devastation in surrounding cities and communities when typhoon occurs would not have happened,” it said.
“Restoration is the only way to go. It is not only the planting of native trees but the restoration of an entire working ecosystem,” the statement added.
It explained: “Being a nearby forest to Metro Manila, the Upper Marikina Watershed regulates water flow, enhances water quality, and reduces the risk of floods and landslides in downstream cities like Marikina. It is the only sustainable and long- term solution coupled with smart infrastructure and disaster risk management.”
For its part, environmental group
Kalikasan- People’s Network for the Environment ( PNE) blamed the floods not only on the watershed degradation and extreme rainfall event.
It also pointed to the dam’s management failure, apparently blaming the release of excess waters from large dams during the heavy downpour that aggravated flooding in Luzon.
“All these combined transformed the entire island of Luzon into a virtual water world,” Leon Dulce, national coordinator of Kalikasan- PNE told the Businessmirror via Messenger on November 14.
Dulce also criticized the national and local governments for their failure to act according to their mandates to reduce the risk of disaster.
Heavily silted rivers
In separate fora and telephone interviews, environment officials acknowledged the various problems that contributed to the recent flooding.
In Cagayan and Isabela provinces and nearby areas in the Cagayan Valley region, Environment Secretary Roy A. Cimatu blamed the siltation of the Cagayan River caused by the degradation of the watershed.
At a news conference on November 15, Cimatu said a massive dredging of the heavily silted Cagayan River and a massive reforestation of the surrounding watersheds are needed to address the problem.
Rabin Quilala, deputy executive director at the DENR’S River Basin Control Office ( RBCO), said the f looding in Marikina City and
low- lying areas in Metro Manila and nearby towns of Rizal can be directly attributed to the degradation of the Marikina River Basin.
The situation of the Marikina River Basin generally reflects the problems besetting all other river basins in the Philippines, he said.
“The status of river basins in the country are basically the same because of forest denudation,” he added.
Major rivers, he said, are already heavily silted, making areas close to rivers prone to flooding.
Quil ala recognized that addressing the multifaceted problems besetting the country’s river basins requires long- term planning and implementation.
The DENR- RBCO already had various integrated master plans for the country’s major river basins. However, he said funding for the implementation of the various programs as recommended by experts that crafted the master plans remains a “big problem.”
Hard engineering that will require a huge budget, he said, is needed, to prevent, if not mitigate flooding.
Such activities include mass ive river-dredging, cons truction of check dams or small water impounding areas, river dikes and even irrigation canals to dive rt floodwaters, harness water through hydropower generation, and boost crop production, at the same time, on top of reforesting degraded watersheds.
Isidro L. Merc ado , the Rizal Provincial Environment and Natural Resource Officer, said as far as the UMRBPL is concerned, the protected area has somehow recovered from decades of abuse and forest denudation.
He said cur rent ly, around 70 percent to 75 percent of the almost 26,000- hectare UMRBPL is already covered by a lush forest.
“Compared to the 50- percent forest cover when we started in 2011, forest cover is now 70 percent to 75 percent,” Mercado told the Businessmirror on November 14.
However, he said outside the protected areas, trees planted through the National Greening Program ( NGP) have yet to fully grow and mature.
DENR Assistant Secretary Ricar - do Calderon, for his part, attributed the flooding in Luzon to the excessive rainfall.
“Imagine the 356 mm rainfall in Tanay only. That is equivalent to a month of rainfall already,” said Calderon, also an Assistant Secretary for Climate Change of the DENR.
The fact remains that v arious development activities in Mar ikina Cit y have weakened the watershed’ s capacity to absorb rainwater, he said.
“When I flew [ by helicopter] over the Marikina Watershed, I saw the forest is thick. The problem is the areas outside the protected area,” Calderon told the Businessmirror on November 13.
He said rain water cascading from the top of the mountains to the Marikina River in five hours to six hours only means the forest is healthy. He also noted that the soil was already saturated because of past typhoons before Ulysses came.
Problems and solutions
On November 14, DENR Undersecretary Jonas R. Leones, for Policy, Planning and International Affairs, acknowledged that quarry operations may have taken its toll on the Marikina River anew.
He said while many quarry operations in Rizal, based on the plotting of the DENR revealed that they are not within the watershed, the operations still contribute to the environmental degradation and the siltation of the Marikina River.
There are 10 to 11 Mineral Production Sharing Agreements and 22 plots that operate with local government- issued permits in San Mateo and Rodriguez in Rizal, according to Leones, Cimatu’s spokesman.
But whether quarrying is done in public or private land, he said its operation must be strictly regulated and limited to minimize their environmental impact.
“We may need to sit down with the LGUS on this one. On our [DENR] part, we will look into the quarry operation’s environmental compliance certificate,” he said.
Meanwhile, the official said care and maintenance of NGP sites and livelihood program for upland dwellers will have to do for now due to budget constraints.
Livelihood projects for upland dwellers in watersheds will help reduce the pressure on the environment, acknowledging that tree- poaching, charcoal- making and slash- and- burn farming are also a big challenge to the ongoing reforestation effort, including the rehabilitation of the Marikina Watershed.