HUMAN folly lies behind the
devastating rains that have forced tens of thousands of families to
flee their homes in the Philippines, but human ingenuity and
solidarity can mitigate against its impact. This is the message of
a new online documentary produced by Christian Aid, Big River
Rising, which documents how scientists are helping Filipino
slum-dwellers cope with flooding. It was shot during the August
monsoon deluge that claimed more than 100 lives this year (News, 17
Fr Jose Ramon Villarin, a Jesuit
scientist known as "Fr Jett", who is President of the Manila
Observatory and a specialist in atmospheric science for the
Independent Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), explains in the film
that it is "no longer enough" to attribute the rainfall during
monsoon season to nature. Human actions have "warmed up the earth",
and the country's imitation of growth in the First World is
actually imperilling growth and development because money that
could be spent on food and education is diverted to repairing and
rebuilding in the wake of flooding.
"Certainly, urban development . . . in
Manila, it is helter-skelter, haphazard," Fr Jett said on Monday.
"There is no logic, really; it is dominated by economic interest
largely." Rapid, unplanned development is leading to increased risk
of disaster as a lack of vegetation, poor drainage, a growing
population, and the occupancy of riverbeds precipitates
Big River Rising explores the
challenges of finding equitable solutions to flooding, including
the problems that could be created by simply relocating the two
million informal settlers who have made their home along the
fragile riverbanks of Metro Manila, an area of 16 cities and 20
million people. Current relocation strategies often require these
people to move back to the countryside, to places without
employment or basic services.
Fr Jett said that it was "desperation"
that drove people to live along the riverbank. "People don't want
to live that way . . . but there is no other place. It's close to
work; so it's really the provision of space for housing and shelter
that needs to be addressed. . . I think this government understands
that, but it is not an ideal world and you have to find land right
now, and one way is just to decongest the metropolis because it is
really crowded, a mega city, which is an Asian phenomenon."
The documentary shows how scientists
at the University of the Philippines National Institute of
Geological Sciences are helping poor communities to understand and
re-spond to their environment. This includes monitoring flood
markers, planning evacuation procedures, and using text messages to
warn communities further downstream of rising water-levels.
Long-term solutions include widening parts of the river,
reforestation, and prohibiting the building of certain structures
within a certain distance of river banks.
In 2009, the Working Group on Mining
in the Philippines pub-lished a report accusing British and
American mining companies of wilfully destroying indigenous
people's homelands and causing environmental pollution in the
Philippines (News, 11 February, 2009). Fr Jett suggested on Monday
that some progress had been made since this time. The President,
Benigno (Noynoy) Aquino, had released an executive order, "which is
a strong signal to the private sector that it cannot be business as
usual, that things will be reviewed. There is a moratorium on new
mining projects until a new revenue sharing scheme is devised."
He also said, however, that
governments alone would not be able to drive forward the
environmental agenda: "It is really economics that drives this
whole train . . . We need to look at other values. Civil society
and grassroots movements, churches and schools can do a lot, where
other values are brought to the table."
Social media had been "very important"
in giving people a voice, he said, although a new law that
"threatens to stifle online expression" was cause for concern.
The Roman Catholic Church had adopted
the environment agenda "quite late" compared with other churches,
he suggested, but "there are elements of Christian Catholic
spirituality where we can recover a lot," including Franciscan
spirituality, which "celebrates . . . living lightly on the earth,