Philippine cities face ‘slow disaster’


  • ASEAN+
  • Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Picturesque but problematic: An abandoned structure amid encroaching bay waters in Sitio Pariahan, Bulacan. (Right) A woman carrying a baby through floodwaters in Mabalacat, Pampanga— AFP

MANILA: When Mary Ann San Jose moved to Sitio Pariahan more than two decades ago, she could walk to the local chapel. Today, reaching it requires a swim.

The main culprit is catastrophic subsidence caused by groundwater being pumped out from below, often via unregulated wells for homes, factories, and farms catering to a booming population and growing economy.

The steady sinking of coastal towns and islets like Pariahan in the northern Philippines has caused Manila Bay’s brackish water to pour inland and displace thousands, posing a greater threat than rising sea levels due to climate change.

“It was so beautiful here before. Children were playing in the streets,” San Jose said, adding: “Now we always need to use a boat.”

Just a handful of families remain in Pariahan, which had its own elementary school, a basketball court and a chapel before the flood.

These days just the flooded chapel, a cluster of shacks on bamboo stilts where San Jose lives with her family, and a few homes on a bump of land remain.

The children that live there commute 20 minutes by boat to a school inland and most of the residents eke out a living by fishing.

The provinces of Pampanga and Bulacan – where Pariahan is located – have sunk between 4cm and 6cm annually since 2003, according to satellite monitoring.

A woman carrying a baby through floodwaters in Mabalacat, Pampanga— AFP

“It’s really a disaster that is already happening. It’s a slow-onset disaster,” explained Narod Eco, who is part of a group of scientists tracking the problem.

By comparison, the UN estimates average sea level rise globally is about 3mm per year.

The creeping bay waters put people and property at risk, while the threat is amplified by high-tides and flooding brought by the roughly 20 storms that pound the archipelago every year.

Some areas have raised roads in an effort to keep up with the sinking, creating odd scenes where the street surface is at the height of door knobs on roadside buildings.

At least 5,000 people have been forced out of the mostly rural coastal areas north of Manila in recent decades as the bay water has moved further inland, regional disaster officials said.

The sinking is very likely permanent because the ground in the hardest hit areas is mostly clay, which sticks together after the water is pulled out.

The fate of towns such as Pariahan provide a preview of the problems that may await some of the capital’s 13 million people.

A moratorium on new wells in the greater Manila area has been in place since 2004.

But enforcing that ban falls to the National Water Resource Board and its roughly 100 staffers responsible for policing the whole country.

“We have insufficient manpower. It’s a big challenge for us, but we are doing the best we can,” the board’s director Sevillo David said.

Yet in Pariahan the residents who remain are doing what they can to stay in a place they call home.

San Jose explained: “Every year we raise (the floor) of our house. Now my head almost reaches the ceiling.” — AFP


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