A state of disaster was declared in parts of the northern Philippines earlier this week as a monsoon and typhoon brought incessant rain in the region for three days, triggering mass evacuations and affecting more than 1 million people.
Although Typhoon Trami has left the nation and made landfall in southern China yesterday, causing fresh flooding in the region, residents continue to wade in thick mud and water that is chest-deep in some areas. The weather-related deaths, which have risen to 21, have exposed the country's growing vulnerability to floods and seasonal monsoons. They also have reignited plans for smarter, more competitive growth.
What were once hot-button words within policy circles are entering mainstream discussions on how to prepare for more violent storms. Yet resiliency, adaptation and mitigation in the face of climate change were the last thoughts on Ray Santillan's mind as he braved the first day of heavy rain and floods to go to work. He soon learned that roads were impassable. Trash choked a centuries-old drainage system and main waterways, causing nearby rivers to overflow into low-lying towns.
"The streets were like an ocean," Santillan said.
Nearly 20 typhoons hit the country each year. Four of the most devastating typhoons between 2008 and 2012 caused damage of $2.2 billion, compared to $828 million for the four most powerful typhoons between 1990 and 1998. The southern, rural regions of the archipelago have experienced the highest death tolls because of landslides and flash floods writ large from severe deforestation.
The capital, Manila, home to about 8 million people, is made up of 16 cities and one municipality. It is also located in a catch basin between two rivers. This week's monsoon rains showed how the capital has learned from previous disasters with improvements in warning systems and preparation but has done little to dredge rivers and build buffer zones.
Upgrading the city's infrastructure and investing in climate adaptation programs are at the early stages of policy. The People's Survival Fund, one of the first of its kind in Southeast Asia, mandates that the government finance local climate change action plans that increase the resiliency of communities to climate-induced disasters.
Improvements in infrastructure are becoming more crucial in development goals. Urban planners and economists are urging the government to fortify major ports of trade and travel. More than 100 flights were canceled at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, while streets were congested with traffic.
'Manila falls on its knees'
"Metropolitan Manila is completely unsustainable," said Jose Lorenzo Tan, CEO of the World Wildlife Fund in the Philippines and a board member of the Philippine Disaster Recovery Foundation.
"Its food, energy and water comes from outside, and without access, Manila falls on its knees, as we saw in the past three days," he added.
A total of 675 evacuation centers are still providing shelter for 200,060 people, while nearly half a million are also displaced but have opted to stay with friends or relatives, the Philippines National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council said.
The Philippine Red Cross has deployed search-and-rescue teams, taking more than 3,400 people to safer areas and providing immediate relief to families in evacuation centers, according to Madeline Wilson, the organization's emergency communications officer in the Asia Pacific.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino visited evacuation centers in the hardest-hit areas, including Cavite province, where entire communities were submerged by floodwater. Provincial officials declared a state of disaster in Cavite and other parts of the country, which allowed the release of federal funds for disaster relief.
"By 2 a.m., there was water under our bed, and then we lost electricity," said Kirk Alegre, a resident of a hard-hit town in the outskirts of Cavite.
"The floods were waist-high inside, but if you went outside, it was over people's heads, and cars were underwater," he added. Like hundreds of families, Alegre sought shelter on higher ground with his wife and child on the second floors of friends' homes.
Alegre is still in the process of cleaning his first-floor apartment with his wife. He described the dark brown mud and the fear of insects that came out of the muck and may carry disease.
Record flooding in China and Russia
The Philippines is one of a handful of nations suffering from torrential rain and floods. More than 23,000 residents have been evacuated from three regions in Russia.
Authorities are continuing to build protective and temporary dams in Russia's Khabarovsk Territory, Jewish Autonomous Region and Amur Region amid the greatest flooding in more than a century. Experts predict that water levels in the Amur River will reach 7.8 meters above normal, which would signal a mass evacuation of about 600,000 people.
In various areas of northeastern and southern China, 105 people were killed and 115 were missing after floods and a typhoon hit the region earlier this week, state media reported.
The ideas of discouraging growth in areas sensitive to weather events and ensuring that people do not locate in flood zones are slowly creeping into urban policy around the world but is not clear whether or not they will catch on. The recent buyout program in New York in the wake of Superstorm Sandy gave homeowners a choice to leave their high-risk homes, but only a few chose the option.
"Adaptation is contextual," said Jan Corfee-Morlot, head of the environment directorate of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and one of the authors of a forthcoming assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
"If you haven't done the regional bit, then it messes up," she added. "It implies a huge amount of institutional capacity," which developed nations have more control over.
In a study published in Nature Climate Change this week, Corfee-Morlot and other authors of the OECD-backed report focused on hot spots around the world to examine the risk of flooding from sea-level rise in ports and megacities (ClimateWire, Aug. 21).
Invest now or pay more later
The economists estimate that future flood losses in the world's largest coastal cities will cost $1 trillion per year by 2050 if cities do not adapt to rising seas and protect against intensifying storms.
Corfee-Morlot called the study "the tip of the iceberg." Flood is quantifiable and trackable analytically. It packages one impact in the sprawling topic of climate change, making it digestible for both public and private sectors.
"It says, 'Look and pay attention, because the risk is there,'" she added. "People are ready, and the next thing is to invest."
The wealthiest nations ranked next to developing countries in suffering flood losses relative to gross domestic product.
In the Philippines, policies that can be effective at reducing the impacts of climate change in poor areas may be one and the same with poverty alleviation programs. A recently published study from the World Bank examined the welfare impacts of climatic variability in rural Philippines.
The researchers examined the impact of rainfall shocks on household consumption, finding how access to communication, highways and markets significantly reduces economic damage from weather events.
Both rural and urban parts of the nation are increasingly aiming to adapt to climate variability, while the biggest challenges stem from financing and leadership in governance.
"You can no longer look at a city in the realm of a political geography," Tan said. "You have to look at it as an ecosystem."
"Without access, you have no economy," he added.