Rain, rain and yet more rain greets most visitors to Siargao Island.
Located on the extreme western Pacific rim, the island faces well over 200 days of heavy rainfall every year. In total it adds up to four metres, and it regularly triggers massive flooding.
“In addition, Siargao Island often bears the brunt of typhoons and storm surges,” says Catherine Martin, manager of disaster management services at the Philippine National Red Cross (PNRC), “and it’s also threatened by rising sea levels, literally eating its shores.”
The waves just off Siargao’s famous beaches are perfect for surfers, but for local villagers making their living from fishery and farming the rain and floods are major problems.
One of the barangays (villages) affected is Santa Paz, sandwiched between green hills and the Pacific Ocean. It’s also trapped by the forces of nature.
Annual rains in December and January have carved a creek in one of the hills, and during the rainy season it turns into a torrent that used to flow straight into one of the main roads through the village.
But in 2002 the water – as well as the life of the villagers – took a new course. That year saw the completion of a 60-metre canal to steer floods away from the houses.
“It used to take a week before the water subsided,” recalls Lelita Dumali, 61, holding her hand at shoulder level to indicate the height of the floods inside her house.
During the worst periods Lelita, her husband and five children evacuated to a nearby school. Even once they were back in their house, the water confined her children to a small upper level.
Since the flood contaminated their drinking water they had to “harvest” rain to cope.
“Sometimes it was not enough,” says Lelita, adding that her children usually suffered from diarrhoea from drinking contaminated water.
The canal was built by the PNRC and the local authority as part of the Integrated Community-Based Disaster Preparedness Programme (ICDPP). Red Cross volunteers and community members carried out the majority of the construction work, with technical support and partial funding from the Danish Red Cross.
The canal now prevents water sources from being contaminated, while the reduced flooding has cut the number of villagers who get fungal infections and water-borne diseases, according to the local Red Cross branch.
But some disaster risks remain to be mitigated in Santa Paz. The canal is not long enough to steer the flood water away from Lelita’s fields, located next to the village. Her cassava, bananas and corn often rot away, or must be harvested prematurely ahead of the rains.
“Once we even had to build a raft out of banana trees to evacuate the water buffalo from the field,” she says.
Nearly 15 per cent of Santa Paz’s 550 inhabitants are fed by the crops from Lelita’s fields, many of them exchanging food for work. But the floods have forced more villagers to buy food produced outside the barangay.
In mid January 2009, three weeks of continuous rain pushed the capacity of the canal to its limits: Santa Paz experienced the worst flooding since 2002.
Lelita and the other villagers want the canal to be extended to withstand heavy rains in the future, but funds are lacking. Other barangays have to be prioritized since Santa Paz has already benefited from previous risk-reduction activities.
Sense of urgency
In Burgos, a few kilometres north of Santa Paz, residents are also trying to mitigate the impact of climatic disasters.
Poblacion 1 and 2, two barangays on the coast, usually experience at least one major storm surge per year, and floods of up to about a metre used to follow, destroying houses and washing boats into the streets.
But since 2001 another ICDPP project, a sea wall more than 200 metres long, has given substantial protection. It stopped many surges caused by heavy rain and typhoons.
A sense of urgency still hangs over Burgos. The wall is now being tested to its limits by rising sea levels and needs extending. In January 2009, rain and storm surges after Typhoon Auring flooded both barangays and Red Cross volunteers from the local disaster action team (BDAT) helped people evacuate to higher ground.
Well aware of the link between climate change and rising sea levels, residents have implemented a waste-management system, separating out compost from trash that can’t be recycled, and BDAT volunteers help the local authority educate people about the importance of sorting household waste.
Says Maximino Virtudazo, 59, a veteran BDAT volunteer and one of those who took part in the construction of the wall: “If the Pacific continues to rise, the wall will be destroyed and then only God knows if my children will still live here in the future.”
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