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Fishing town of Concepcion, Iloilo in the Philippines.

Nature meets tech

An unlikely alliance to protect islands from storms

© CI/photo by Tim Noviello

By Molly Bergen

Editor's note: This story forms part of the series “Turning the tide in ‘Typhoon Alley’,” a Conservation International special report documenting how communities in the Philippines are rebuilding from Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013 — and using the power of nature to resist stormier seas. Click here to read other posts.

On the island of Iloilo, Conservation International and partners are launching an innovative “green-gray” project that combines traditional engineering approaches — such as seawalls — with ecosystem restoration projects, including planting mangroves, to buffer communities from storms. Conservation International marine scientist and project advisor Dr. Emily Pidgeon explains why combining technology with nature is critical.

Question: Is restoring mangroves and other ecosystems enough to protect them from future storms?

Answer: In my more than 10 years with Conservation International, I’ve seen a huge growth in understanding — particularly by governments and corporations — of the role that ecosystems can play in helping people adapt to shifting weather patterns brought on by climate change.

In the case of the Philippines, a country made up of more than 7,000 islands, millions of coastal residents are almost completely dependent on their marine resources for their livelihoods. Many of these people live on or right next to the beach so to have easy access to the ocean for fishing. So there’s no question that protecting and restoring the mangroves, reefs and seagrass beds that act as nurseries for their fish is critically important. However, in many cases, these ecosystems will not be enough to completely buffer them from climate change impacts like larger storm surges.

A few weeks ago, I was in the Philippines with our local staff, visiting a site we are considering for the green-gray project. At one point I asked the villagers how high the storm surge was during Typhoon Haiyan [in 2013]. They said the waters were higher than the coconut tree that I was standing under.

Storms like Haiyan are coming again; it’s a matter of “when,” not “if.” And honestly, there is no number of mangroves that can protect that village from that level of storm surge. Protecting nature is often the cheapest, easiest answer, but it’s only one part of the overall solution — and figuring out how to adequately adapt to climate change requires every tool in the box.

Q: Where do you start with a project like this?

A: Actually figuring out how to do it is incredibly difficult. While there have been experimental green-gray projects on the California coast, in Australia and parts of Europe, as far as I know this sort of project has never been done in a developing country.

Since the engineering side of the project is outside Conservation International’s expertise, the idea is that we will work with the local government to manage the “gray” components, which will be built by local engineering companies. In coordination with this, Conservation International will work with local communities to restore and protect mangroves and other coastal ecosystems, protect coral reefs or conduct any other environmental conservation activities are needed. Eventually we are planning to expand to new sites as we learn what works.

Q: How do you decide where this project should be built?

A: First, we have to figure out where the storms are likely to hit most frequently, and determine what the main priorities should be. If the priority is protecting the village from damage at all costs, the solution might be different from maximizing the amount of mangroves for the sake of the fisheries. We must work with the communities and make sure they understand these tradeoffs and can make the most informed decision to protect their most urgent priorities.

Part of this process is also acknowledging that sometimes there is no easy solution. During my recent trip, we visited one village that was right against the beach. There was no infrastructure — green or gray — that was going to adequately protect it from storm surge. There is money from the government to build a new village inland, but residents don’t want to move because their fisher livelihoods depend on being near the water. In communities like this, the best way to convince people to move further inland may be to provide them with alternative livelihood options that don’t depend on living right on the beach.

Q: Are there any top contenders?

A: We have identified a likely site for the project: a village that is naturally somewhat sheltered from open water by an island. Still, the communities there had horrible stories about what the storm surge was like during Typhoon Haiyan.

The residents seem willing to relocate their village slightly up the hill. If the community was relocated, the current mangrove area was expanded and restored, we put in a small seawall, and put together a good storm evacuation plan — something that didn’t exist here during Typhoon Haiyan — the community should be able to survive the next big storm. With a plan like this, a storm the size of Haiyan would flood the village to everybody’s knees instead of completely wiping it out.

You have to be honest with people: This is not going to protect them 100%. But it would be significantly better. Most importantly, we have to do what’s viable for each individual community. On the coast of Japan, the government is building 10-meter [33-foot] walls. Japan has the resources to do that, but it completely destroys coastal ecosystems and it will do horrible things to coastal fisheries. In the small coastal fishing villages of the Philippines, this type of solution is just not viable. In most places you are going to need a combination of solutions.

Conservation International is trying to figure out how to apply multiple solutions together in an integrated way. The “green” is where Conservation International’s expertise is, but there are many socioeconomic factors, like education, that are also critical for climate change adaptation. For example, some Pacific Islands are putting their adaptation funds into sending their residents to university in Australia or New Zealand, so they will be more employable in other countries as their homelands are gradually being swallowed by rising seas. I personally see that as a very smart move.

Emily Pidgeon is the senior director of strategic marine initiatives in Conservation International’s Center for Oceans. Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Conservation International’s blog, Human Nature. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Donate to Conservation International.

More chapters in this series