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A man stands beside a house damaged by the destructive winds of Super Typhoon Goni in San Miguel Island, Tabaco City, Albay province. Photo: Bill Bontigao

Riding out strong storms in the midst of climate crisis

Filipino residents are reeling after a series of typhoons hit the country in late 2020. Is the country, one of the most vulnerable to climate change, reacting?
Filipino residents are reeling after a series of typhoons hit the country in late 2020. Is the country, one of the most vulnerable to climate change, reacting?

Bill Bontigao, a resident of San Miguel Island in Albay province, experienced the longest four hours of his life on November 1, All Saints’ Day. While most Filipinos prayed for the deceased inside the comfort of their homes, Bontigao watched in fear from the window of his aunt’s house trees falling one by one. 

For hours, Bontigao also dealt with violent winds threatening to open the doors and windows of the place where his family sought temporary refuge as Super Typhoon Goni, the world’s strongest storm in 2020, pummeled Bicol region, on the southeastern area of Luzon island.

“Going through consecutive typhoons is a very traumatic experience,” Bontigao, a 20-year-old university student, said. 

Before Goni cut a path of destruction, Typhoon Molave lashed the same region and made landfall over Bontigao’s hometown. A week after Goni, Typhoon Vamco tore through a broad swath of Luzon, triggering severe floods in Metro Manila and Cagayan, a province up north. 

“The wind never stopped blowing and I could see how trees were blown down and roofs were flying from one home to another. Even the walls put as a divider [between] ours and our neighbour’s homes were blown away. That was the first time I saw something like that in my entire life,” Sara May Vecino, a resident of the neighboring Camarines Norte, said of her experience with Vamco. 

The three typhoons forced millions to go to temporary shelters, claimed the lives of at least 125 people and wreaked damage to houses, infrastructure and agriculture amounting to billions.

The violent winds of Super Typhoon Goni toppled several trees in San Miguel Island, Tabaco City, Albay province. Photo: Bill Bontigao

Bigger typhoons

The Philippines is situated along the typhoon belt and the so-called “Ring of Fire” of the Pacific Ocean, making the occurrence of earthquakes and tropical cyclones common. On average, the country is hit with an average of 20 storms annually. 

Bicol, the region worst hit by the three typhoons, is one of the areas in the country that is regularly exposed to a variety of disasters. 

Dealing with storms has become a part of the lives of residents of Bicol region, especially during the latter parts of the year. But for Francis Lamba, a resident of Libon in Albay, it’s the first time he experienced a storm as strong as Goni in his 30 years. 

“As Bicolanos, we have grown accustomed to typhoons but it feels like they are evolving, they are becoming stronger,” Lamba said. 

Climate change is exacerbating the archipelago’s exposure to disasters. As the planet continues to heat up, leading to a rise in sea surface temperatures, the Philippines is being subjected to more disastrous and more frequent cyclones. The warming of the planet also results in sea-level rise. 

“The seas are higher and therefore any typhoon coming ashore can cause a deeper penetration of storm surge. Rainfall is usually much more intense, water volume is falling on land, causing flooding and debris flow,” Brenda Ekwurzel, director of climate science at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a forum. 

Impacts and public perception

A Harvard Humanitarian Initiative research published in October found that seven in 10 Filipinos believe they would be “somehow affected” by the impacts of climate change. Concerns over the effects of climate change revolved around health, income loss, damage to agriculture and property and change of livelihoods. 

This, despite having a low level of public awareness on the topic. Sixty per cent of the respondents said they had not heard of and did not feel well informed about climate change. Bicol region had the highest proportion of people who are not aware of the phenomenon according to the study.

The factors that contributed to low public awareness on climate change include the failure to mainstream climate change and its links to disasters among local and national government agencies, Renee Karunungan, a doctoral researcher at Loughborough University, said. 

“We see disasters as one-off events instead of them being connected to one another… Climate change isn’t in the agenda of our leaders [either],” Karunungan said. 

She also stressed that climate change—despite being a “cross-cutting issue”—is taking a back seat because there are other “everyday realities” that people are facing such as poverty. 

Although the study suggests that there is a low level of public awareness around global warming, Bicol residents said that previous experiences with disasters and climate change prompt them to prepare for the future.

Climate emergency 

Rachel Anne Herrera, a commissioner of the country’s Climate Change Commission, said the country needs to act fast and declare a climate emergency because “it is hard to name a community in the Philippines that has been able to escape the impacts of the climate crisis.”

Environmental groups have been asking the government to issue a climate emergency declaration to establish a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach to address the crisis, hold polluters accountable and ensure a rapid transition to renewable energy.

While President Rodrigo Duterte has not declared a climate emergency himself, the House of Representatives passed a resolution declaring one. Unfortunately, like most declarations across the globe, it is non-binding. 

Bontigao, Vecino, Lamba and millions of others who were affected by the typhoons are now rebuilding their lives but the painful memories of these disasters, which happened in a matter of weeks, will continue to haunt them.

“This is a wake-up call for us to do better as human beings. The government should address climate change [because] it exists. And what they are doing to mitigate its impacts is not enough,” Bontigao said. 

Pieces of furniture are saved by residents after the onslaught of Super Typhoon Goni in San Miguel Island, Tabaco City, Albay province. Photo: Bill Bontigao