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ADAPTING TO RISING SEAS

Shared from the 2/23/2020 The Denver Post eEdition

No need to kneel in church at high tide By Hannah Beech and Jes Aznar © The New York Times Co.

BATASAN, PHILIPPINES» When the floods invade her home at night — and they always do, a little higher each year — Pelagia Villarmia curls up on her bed and waits.

Someday soon, she knows, the water will creep past the bamboo slats of her bed. It will keep rising, salty and dark and surprisingly cold.

The seawater has covered the walls of Villarmia’s home with murals of mildew. It has gnawed at the legs of furniture and frozen a DVD player with its tray ajar. A corroded picture of Villarmia and her husband, now dead, hangs on the wall, from back when they were young, hopeful and unaware of the sea’s hunger.

What is happening to Villarmia and her neighbors on Batasan, an island in the Philippines, is a harbinger of what residents of low-lying islands and coastal regions around the world will face as the seas rise higher.

In 2013, Batasan was convulsed by a 7.2-magnitude earthquake. Thousands of aftershocks followed, and the local topography was thrown off-kilter. Batasan and three neighboring islands collapsed downward, making them more vulnerable to the surrounding water.

ADAPTING TO RISING SEAS The highest point on the islands is less than 6½ feet above sea level.

When the floods are bad, Villarmia has learned to subsist on cold rice and coffee. She has grown skilled at tying up her valuables so they don’t float away.

She is 80 years old, and she knows the logic of actuarial tables.

“I will be gone before Batasan is gone,” she said. “But Batasan will also disappear.”

Around the time of every new and full moon, the sea rushes soundlessly past the trash-strewn shores, up over the single road running along the spine of Batasan, population 1,400, and into people’s homes. The island, part of the Tubigon chain in the central Philippines, is waterlogged at least one-third of the year.

The highest floods are taller than any man here, and they inundate the basketball court. They drown a painting of sea life at the primary school, adding verisimilitude to the cartoonish renderings of grinning sharks and manta rays.

When the tides come, Batasan, densely packed with houses and shacks, smells not of clean sea air but of a deeper rot — sodden sofas, drowned documents and saturated sewers that expel human waste into the brine washing through houses.

Only a few of Batasan’s coconut palms have survived. The rest have been choked by seawater.

“People say this is because of the Arctic melting,” said Dennis Sucanto, a local resident whose job is to measure the water levels in Batasan each year. “I don’t understand, but that’s what they say.”

A year after the 2013 earthquake, the local government proposed moving the islanders to new homes an hour’s boat ride away. Few took the offer.

This unwillingness of people on Batasan to abandon their homes — instead choosing to respond, inch by inch, to a new reality — may hold valuable lessons for residents of other vulnerable island states. Rather than uprooting an entire population, with the enormous trauma and cost that entails, the more workable solution might be local adaptations.

“The climate refugee message is more sensational, but the more realistic narrative from the islanders themselves is adaptation rather than mass migration,” said Laurice Jamero, who has researched the Tubigon islands for five years and runs the climate and disaster risk assessment efforts at the Manila Observatory, a research institute.

And Batasan’s residents have adjusted. They have rolled up their hems. They have placed their houses on blocks of coral stone. They have tethered their goats to sheds on stilts. They have moved most plant life from floodable patches of land to portable pots.

There are other concessions. The Roman Catholic priest at the local church declared that parishioners no longer have to kneel for prayer when the tides are high.

“We will find a way to do things because this is our home,” said Annie Casquejo, a local health committee member who once worked off the island but has, like many others, returned to Batasan.

Nature’s constant threat has imprinted resilience on the Philippine DNA.

The Philippines is one of the most disaster-prone countries on earth, victim to typhoons, earthquakes, floods, landslides and tsunamis, among other calamities. Early this year, Taal Volcano sent plumes of ash into the sky, threatening Manila.

“Practically speaking, the entire Philippines is a hazardous landscape, so people cannot just move somewhere else and be totally safe,” said Dakila Kim Yee, a sociologist at the University of the Philippines Visayas Tacloban College. “We have developed this culture of adaptation and recovery.”

More than 23,000 people in the Philippines died because of natural hazards from 1997 to 2016, according to the Asian Development Bank.

“It’s a way of life to deal with environmental challenges like typhoons or tsunamis,” said Jamero, of the Manila Observatory, referring to Tubigon islanders in particular and Filipinos in general. “Climate change has a severe impact, but this is not totally alien to them, so they have the capacity.”

On Ubay, an island of 160 residents that is 20 minutes by boat from Batasan, raised walkways connect a warren of shacks. At the primary school, the floor has been lifted higher than many adults, leaving the classrooms jammed into the rafters with less than 5 feet of space.

 

 

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