The Impact of Faulty Warnings and Deforestation on Deadly Rains in Mindanao

This screengrab from AFPTV aerial video footage taken on February 7, 2024 shows the site of a landslide in Davao de Oro province on Mindanao island in the southern Philippines. Faulty warning systems, poverty and deforestation of mountains in the southern Philippines turned recent unseasonally heavy rains into deadly disasters, weather experts said in a report on March 1, 2024.
Renante Naparan / AFPTV / AFP
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Recent devastating landslides and floods in the southern Philippines, resulting in the loss of over 100 lives, were not solely caused by heavy rainfall, but rather a combination of faulty warning systems, poverty, and deforestation, according to a report by the World Weather Attribution group. The study focused on the eastern region of Mindanao, where unusually heavy rain occurred during the northeast monsoon and a low-pressure trough.

While the heavy rain was not considered “particularly extreme,” the vulnerability of people living in landslide-prone areas and the shortcomings in weather alerts exacerbated the impact of the downpours. Richard Ybañez, chief science research specialist at the University of the Philippines’ Resilience Institute, emphasized that blaming the rain alone would be insufficient. He stated, “A range of human factors is what turned these downpours into deadly disasters.”

The deadliest incident took place on February 6, when a mountain collapsed and engulfed a gold mining village, resulting in the death of more than 90 people. Buses and houses were buried under the debris. The report acknowledged that climate change likely contributed to the heavy rainfall, but due to limited available data, its exact impact could not be quantified. However, the analysis of historical data revealed a significant trend: compared to the pre-industrial climate, the heaviest five-day periods of rainfall now deposit around 50 percent more rainfall on Mindanao island during the December to February period.

Poverty rates in the mountainous region were found to be higher than average, rendering the population more vulnerable to the consequences of heavier rainfall. Additionally, intensified deforestation has increased the risk of landslides. The report highlighted the dangers posed by construction in areas designated as “no-build zones” and emphasized that policies, laws, and funding for disaster risk management have stagnated over the past decades, with a disproportionate focus on post-disaster response.

One concerning finding was the lack of functioning automated sensors for rainfall and stream levels in the region since at least 2022, as funding for maintenance and data transmission was cut. This absence of data severely hampers the ability to accurately predict and prepare for extreme weather events. The report also criticized the country’s weather forecasts and warnings, which lack detailed information on local risks and fail to provide clear instructions on evacuation procedures.

Ybañez highlighted the need for significant improvements in both early warning systems and the assessment of landslide-prone areas to prevent similar disasters in the future. He emphasized that the recent rains would have been even more extreme if it were not for the El Niño weather phenomenon, which caused drier conditions across the country.

The Philippines, ranked among the most vulnerable countries to the impacts of climate change, typically experiences around 20 major storms each year. The combination of environmental factors and inadequate disaster risk management has made the country particularly susceptible to the devastating consequences of extreme weather events.

Addressing these challenges requires a comprehensive approach that includes investment in early warning systems, accurate data collection, and improved risk assessment. It is crucial for policies, laws, and funding to prioritize proactive measures rather than solely focusing on post-disaster response. By doing so, the Philippines can better protect its population and mitigate the devastating effects of future disasters.

Source: The Manila Times

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