Mountains can break deadly winds but can also bring killer floods and landslides
The Manila Times
AFTER Typhoon “Karding’s” threat of deadly winds was interrupted by the mighty Sierra Madre range, we now see much renewed attention paid on the role of mountain ranges in disaster risk reduction and management, particularly in relation to threats from super typhoons. People began singing odes to the mother of all mountains, as if it was a new discovery. We have to remind ourselves that for centuries, the Sierra Madre and all other mountains have repeatedly shielded vast areas of the archipelago from the effects of disastrous winds, especially those coming from the Pacific Ocean. The Sierra Madre, which stretches from Cagayan to Quezon province, may be the best-known, but we also need to mention the lesser known Diwata Mountains found in Eastern Mindanao facing the Pacific, straddling the province of Surigao del Norte down to the Davao Region. The presence of mountains helps to further diminish the velocity of winds, which by nature is expected every time a typhoon makes a landfall. They may not be able to protect coastal areas facing the Pacific, but they practically become a shield to the more populous urban centers found in the central and western flanks of the archipelago. There is actually no mystery as to why there are fewer urban centers in our eastern coastline, and that there is a higher population density in the central and western provinces of the country. This is mainly the result of the pull factors provided by more favorable climatic conditions which render these areas relatively more hospitable. The Bicol Region has always been characterized in official statistics as one of the poorest regions in the country despite its fertile volcanic soil. One can safely hypothesize that this is due to the fact that the region is prone to extreme weather events, and is also vulnerable to volcanic eruptions. Thus, its ability to generate surplus and accumulate capital would be impaired, even if people there may not live in abject poverty. As a keen observer of the region, which I consider as my home because it is where I was born, I can further hypothesize that despite what the economic statistics suggest, the region is still blessed because of its fertile lands and the relatively slower rate of industrialization, much of its cultural ecology and political economy of remain anchored in cultures of reciprocity, where traditional institutions enable people to live well despite being deprived of material and measurable wealth. In the face of constant threats of seasonal destructive typhoons, organic institutions of resilience may have been deeply planted and took root in Bicol, and in other regions similarly located. The same could be said for Aurora and Quezon provinces in Luzon, Samar and Leyte in the Visayas, and Dinagat, Surigao provinces and Davao Oriental in Mindanao. It would be interesting to see the level of organic resilience and the presence of social capital in these areas, and examine these in contrast to that of communities that are more protected, including those shielded by vast mountain ranges like the Sierra Madre. It is also important to call out the fact that mountains alone, as a physical entity, cannot be the sole shield that can protect people from the destructive effects of extreme weather events. While the Sierra Madre and the Diwata mountain ranges can break off and effectively reduce intense winds brought by typhoons, they cannot shield lowlying areas from the destructive effects of floods and landslides. These equally destructive events are the result of the absence of adequate forest and vegetative cover that can help regulate the discharge of water during heavy downpour and hold the soil to prevent landslides. Indeed, logging — both legal and illegal — caused the loss of forest cover. But it is wrong to heap the blame solely on the logging industry. Other activities such as upland agriculture, mining, ranching and the conversion of mountain slopes to subdivisions, human settlements and golf courses have contributed to the transformation of our mountains into mothers of disaster during extreme weather events. The entire Baguio metropolitan area and even the Tagaytay highlands are sitting on mountain ranges that are prone to landslides, and whose bare and cemented slopes have spawned deadly flash floods, the likes of what we just saw in Banaue recently. Human activity, both for subsistence and for capital accumulation, and for living comfortable lives, cannot escape responsibility. In fact, bare mountain slopes are not the only reason the plains are flooded during the rainy season. It is a scientific fallacy to generalize that every flood is caused by denuded mountains since there are natural flood plains. Floods are in fact nature’s way of distributing soil nutrients to fertilize farmlands, and its seasonality can also nourish inland lakes and rivers for fishing activities. This was however disrupted, and floods turned from bringing seasonal blessings into wreaking havoc when people began building settlements in these areas which effectively blocked natural waterways, and turned soil into cemented pavements that greatly reduced their absorptive capacities while increasing surface runoff which contribute to urban flash floods. Indeed, we need mountain ranges like the Sierra Madre to protect us from the winds brought by extreme weather events. But we need them to be sufficiently covered with trees, and adequate and appropriate vegetation to prevent them from spawning floods and landslides that are as deadly and destructive. We also need to reexamine our land use policies and practices even in urban areas. Calamitous floods and landslides are due not only to logging, but are also caused by un-ecological land use practices both on the mountain slopes and in the cities where people live in comfort. Much of the killer floods of “Ondoy” came from the slopes of the Sierra Madre, while the flash floods that inundated Santa Rosa City and neighboring towns spawned by “Milenyo” came from the Tagaytay highlands. We cannot rest in total comfort. We cannot always rely on mountain ranges to protect us from the deadly effects of the weather.