Armed with nature, Philippines to boost defenses against stronger storms

© CI/Tim Noviello

Above: Recently planted mangroves near Concepcion, a town in the Philippines hard-hit by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.

Two years ago, just before the U.N. climate talks in Warsaw, Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines, killing more than 6,000 people and displacing millions more. The storm’s effects rippled around the world, providing a sobering backdrop to the Warsaw talks, amid growing scientific projections linking increased frequency and intensity of severe storms to a changing climate.

Now, an agreement signed Wednesday at the climate talks in Paris will deliver more than US$ 1.6 million to the Philippines to help the island country become more resilient to such storms.

The agreement, signed by Conservation International (CI), the French Global Environment Fund (Fonds Français pour l’Environnement Mondial, or FFEM) and the government of the Philippines, will fund a project in the Municipality of Concepcion, hard-hit by Haiyan. The project will be managed jointly by CI and and the Philippines Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Notably, the grant will fund an innovative integration of “green” and “gray” approaches to climate adaptation. Conservation and restoration of coastal ecosystems — the “green” — will replenish natural coastal features, especially mangrove forests, that act as natural defenses against storm surges. Extra reinforcements will be built where needed in man-made infrastructure — the “gray” — such as coastal armoring and small levees.

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This mixed approach provides additional benefits that gray infrastructure on its own cannot, including carbon storage and habitat for fish — a major source of food and livelihoods for seaside communities. This aspect is crucial given that 70% of Filipinos depend on agriculture and the oceans, said Philippines Environmental Secretary Nereus Acosta at the signing. “The only social security they have is nature,” he said.

Typhoons are nothing new to the Philippines — by dint of geography, it is the most exposed country in the world to tropical storms. But the number of annual severe storms has gone up in recent years, from an average of 20 per year to between 24 and 26; five of the country’s 10 deadliest storms have occurred since 2004. A growing tide of research points to global climate change as a driver of stronger storms.

But land-use practices in coastal areas across the Philippines have rendered it especially vulnerable, as an estimated 70% of the country’s mangrove forests, which would have helped buffer communities from the storm surge, have been cleared for fish ponds or other development. When Haiyan slammed into the islands in November 2013, these areas were hit especially hard. Those where some mangroves still thrived, including the town of Silonay, were largely spared the worst impacts of the storm.

Haiyan’s devastation highlights the need to act now, according to CI Chairman and CEO Peter Seligmann.

“We’re in a moment when nations across the globe are feeling the impact of great storms, droughts, increased tides,” he said. “This is a moment when vulnerable nations need the help now. It’s not a matter of the future, it’s immediate.”

Bruno Vander Velde is CI’s editorial director.

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