Just three days after the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) announced that La Niña had ended, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) announced the onset of the rainy season last June 4, 2021.
From October 2020 to March this year, a weak and moderate La Niña, which refers to the cooling of ocean surface temperatures, prevailed in the country. Coupled with the Northeast Monsoon or Amihan, it was predicted to bring above-normal rain conditions, which were seen in previous typhoons. On November 1 last year, Super Typhoon Rolly, 2020’s strongest tropical cyclone in the world, devastated 8 regions including Bicol. Floods, mudslides and storm surges affected 2 million people. In the same month on the 11th, Typhoon Ulysses struck Central Luzon, causing massive floods and landslides.
Now, the Southwest Monsoon or Habagat—warm and moist air that speeds up cloud formation that causes rainfall—has become the dominant weather system in the country. This is one of the factors that prompted PAGASA to declare the start of the rainy season. In a press statement, PAGASA administrator Dr. Vincent Malano explained, “The passage of Tropical Storm Dante and the occurrence of widespread rainfall in the last five days for areas under Type 1 climate confirm the onset of the rainy season. Intermittent rains associated with the Southwest Monsoon will continue to affect Metro Manila and the western section of the country.” The western parts of Luzon, Mindoro, Negros and Palawan fall under the Type 1 climate category.
Massive flooding in Romblon due to the torrential rains brought by #DantePH. (Photos from PIA-Romblon)
The End of La Niña Does Not Spell Safety
With La Niña ending last June 1, WMO said that “neutral conditions are likely to dominate the tropical Pacific in the next few months.” PAGASA hydrologist Rosalie Pagulayan further explains, “There’s no La Niña, no El Niño, which means wind conditions have returned to normal. So, we can expect a normal amount of rainfall from June to September in the whole country.”
But as with everything related to the weather, nothing is set in stone. In WMO’s press release, the chance of neutral conditions continuing until July is at 78%. This decreases to 55% by August to October, while conditions are uncertain for the rest of the year.
Despite this high chance of neutral conditions, PAGASA warned that “The probability of near to above-normal rainfall conditions is high in the next two months (June-July.) The public and all concerned agencies are advised to take precautionary measures against the impacts of the rainy season.” Simply said, the end of La Niña does not mean that the country will be safe from tropical cyclone risks. “We can’t discard the possibility of extreme events,” says Pagulayan. “Our mindset should always be disaster preparedness.”
The Philippines is the country most-visited by tropical cyclones in the world. Here, the rainy season is synonymous with typhoons and floods. “This month of June, PAGASA forecasts that we may experience 1 to 3 tropical cyclones. Usually, tropical cyclone occurrences peak from July to September.” Though PAGASA announced there will be monsoon breaks or non-rainy periods which may last for days or weeks, Pagulayan stressed that we are currently in the thick of typhoon season.
How Manmade Activities Worsen Natural Disasters
But despite the absence of La Niña, Tropical Storm Dante caused flash floods and landslides in Visayas and Mindanao earlier this month. The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) reported 11 deaths and over 122,000 people affected. Damage in agriculture was pegged at over ₱90 million, while infrastructure damage was over ₱130 million. “The amount of rainfall Dante produced was staggering and unexpected,” admitted Pagulayan. “In my opinion, the change in landscape may have been a major contributor.”
Aftermath of tropical storm #DantePH at Barangay Cabil-isan in Daram, Samar. (Photos courtesy of Slug Rosales)
Pagulayan refers to the altered natural environment brought about by human acts such as deforestation and development projects. In an earlier interview, Dr. Renato Solidum Jr, officer-in-charge of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, and undersecretary for Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate explained how manmade activities can worsen disaster impacts. “Landslides occur in steep places or those with soft ground. Destroying our mountains through deforestation or housing developments leads to faster erosion and lowland flooding. The eroded soil along with improper waste disposal fill up our rivers and drainages, also causing floods.”
WMO echoed this statement by saying that now that La Niña has ended, climate events are now in the hands of human-induced climate change. “La Niña has a temporary global cooling effect, which is typically strongest in the second year of the event. This means that 2021 has got off to a relatively cool start – by recent standards. This should not lull us into a false sense of security that there is a pause in climate change,” said WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas.
Taalas warned that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere remain high, fueling global warming. In fact, WMO predicted a 90% chance of at least one year between 2021 to 2025 to become the warmest on record. Soaring temperatures mean warmer oceans, which spell disaster. This, Pagulayan confirmed in a previous article. “Warmer oceans result to more evaporation. When there’s more moisture in the atmosphere, this may result in intensified tropical cyclones,” she said. “This means stronger rains, storm surges, and the possibility of tornadoes. Coastal communities will be inundated even those that do not usually experience floods. Heat waves may occur. While some parts of the country may experience droughts, other parts will receive excess rainfall. The greatest impact is on food production.”
Preparedness as a Personal Responsibility
It’s the second year we, Filipinos, find ourselves grappling with both the typhoon season and the COVID-19 pandemic. While this makes the management of evacuation centers challenging, Pagulayan stresses the importance of being pro-active when it comes to preparedness. “Let’s not rely solely on the government for our safety. Let’s ask ourselves what we an contribute.” She gives the following tips:
- Coordinate and work with your community’s disaster manager. Your community’s topography and needs are unique. You, your fellow-residents and barangay leaders can best map out a preparedness plan for your community.
- While staying alert to advisories released by your community’s disaster office, it’s also advisable to read updates from national agencies. Read the reports and listen to expert interviews. The additional knowledge boosts your preparedness by helping you form a bigger picture of possible scenarios.
- If you need to evacuate, always remember to bring a Go Bag. “This includes everything you need for the first 6 hours in the evacuation center,” says Pagulayan. Keeping yourself safe as an individual is a form of community service.
More and more Filipinos are going hungry. This is according to the Rapid Nutrition Assessment Survey conducted by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI) late last year. After surveying almost 6,000 households all over the country, FNRI reported that 62.1% of families experienced moderate to severe food insecurity.
When does a household qualify as being “food insecure”? The FNRI gives the following criteria:
- Worrying about food
- Inability to eat preferred foods
- Only able to eat a few kinds of foods
- Eating foods they do not desire
- Eating smaller portions
- Eating fewer meals daily
- Absence of food in the household
- Going to sleep hungry
- Going through a whole day without sustenance
The COVID-19 pandemic seems to be the cause of this hunger spike. FNRI states that more than half of surveyed households reported having less access to food during community quarantine because of: 1) lack of money, 2) limited public transportation, 3) job loss, 4) limited food stores in their area, and 5) being an elderly with no family members to help them buy food.
But food security may be achieved through one’s own efforts. Last year, FNRI posted a call for Filipinos to grow their own food during the pandemic. This way, households are assured of food supply despite limited mobility. This is especially true in urban areas, which are “less likely to consume fresh produce, which are good sources of vitamins and minerals that boost immunity.
Kangkong harvest (photo by Chie Roman)
Being a Farmer in Your Own Backyard
The terms “plantito” and “plantita” became popular during the lockdown as Filipinos turned to gardening to care for their mental health. The challenge now is to shift the focus from greens that beautify the home to edible plants.
According to PAGASA, the hot and dry season this 2021 would be shorter than the previous years’. This may be considered good news because in a Panahon TV interview, Agriculturist Lito Bollosa from the Bureau of Plant Industry said that both the onset and end of the rainy season is the most ideal time to plant.
However, one can still start planting during the hot and dry season. “When it comes to vegetables, we can plant the ingredients of the pakbet. These are indigenous crops that can survive adverse conditions and the constant changes in weather,” Bollosa explained in Filipino.
Bollosa states that crops which require minimal supervision and water include:
- kamoteng kahoy
Aside from being low maintenance, these crops are also easy to plant. “With indigenous vegetables like alugbati, kangkong, and kamote, you only need to stick the cuttings into the soil. With just a little water, they can already survive,” said Bollosa. He added that other crops that are able to survive intense heat include mung beans, corn—and dragon fruit, which belongs to the cactus family and therefore doesn’t require a lot of water.
Meanwhile, fruits that take center stage this hot season are watermelon and mangoes. “We see an increased production of fruits and vegetables now because of the sun’s constant presence. These crops need sunlight to produce their own food. The excess nutrients end up as fruits.”
However, extreme weather conditions may also cause plants to flourish. This is because of their need for survival, causing them to release more antioxidants and other protective chemicals. “Prolonged heat or rains can cause plant stress,” shared Bollosa. “For example, when the calamansi experiences excess heat or rains, it tends to produce more flowers and fruits.” This technique is used in farming to boost fruit production. Bollosa elaborated, “Fruits like rambutan, lanzones, and avocado flower during the hot season. After the ‘ber’ months, they are subjected to heat to induce flowering.”
According to Bollosa, calamani produces more fruit when stressed. (photo by Chie Roman)
Before planting your own food, Bollosa suggests these tips:
- Research if the plant you want to grow is compatible with your location. Climate plays an important role in agriculture. Highland crops flourish in cold weather, while lowland crops can stand the literal heat with the help of technology.
- Plant in the right soil. “Start with a soil mixture,” advised Bollosa. “You can mix carbonized rice hull or charcoal to boost its carbon content. This allows your soil to absorb more moisture.”
- Use a planting pit. A planting pit is filled with organic materials such as dried leaves, grain stalks and other vegetative material that enriches the soil. The pit is dug close to crops to increase soil fertility and moisture retention.
- DIY the process. In urban areas wherein planting is confined to small spaces, Bollosa suggests using downscaled agricultural practices. Examples are covering pots with newspaper or cardboard to prevent water evaporation; and punching holes in plastic bottles so they can irrigate crops without drowning the soil.
Growing young ginger (photo by Chie Sales)
Following the Planting Calendar
To be able to successfully grow food, Bollosa stressed the importance of following the planting calendar. Certain plants grow their best in specific months of the year. The Department of Agriculture released a comprehensive planting calendar, which Panahon TV condensed below:
|End of Rainy season
to Cool and Dry Season
By following nature’s rhythm, you can reap the benefits of growing your food. Aside from getting the nutrients your immune system needs, you are ensured of your food’s safety and quality. Planting can also help you save money, protect the environment, and boost your household’s food security. You can enjoy all these rewards, while taking part in one of the greatest miracles—nurturing another life besides your own.
With the ocean covering about 70% of our planet, it provides us not only food and transportation, but also medicinal ingredients that help combat cancer and heart disease. According to the World Wildlife Fund, over 250 million people depend on the ocean for coastal protection and livelihoods.
While the ocean fuels the world’s food security and economy by transporting around 90% of global trade, it also ensures humanity’s survival by producing half of the oxygen we breathe. But only few are aware of how the ocean also regulates our weather and climate—the theme chosen for this year’s World Meteorological Day celebrated last March 23. “The Ocean, Our Climate and Weather” trains the spotlight on how the ocean affects our atmosphere, the importance of ocean monitoring, and the impacts of climate change.
How the Ocean Shapes Weather and Climate
We get most of our freshwater supply from rain, produced by the water cycle fed by the ocean. According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), this happens because the ocean absorbs a significant amount of the sun’s heat, and releases it to the atmosphere as water vapor. Ocean currents distribute water vapor around the globe, influencing weather and climate in different areas. The interaction between the atmosphere and the ocean produces El Niño, associated with warm and dry conditions; and La Niña, which brings wet conditions.
PAGASA Hydrologist Rosalie Pagulayan shares how oceans shape Philippine weather. “Our ocean plays a big role in the formation of tropical cyclones or bagyo. Here in the tropics, the oceans provide all the necessary energy to sustain a tropical cyclone. If you notice, when the cyclone makes landfall, it weakens. It regains strength and intensity when it crosses large bodies of water.”
Around 20 tropical cyclones enter the Philippine boundary each year, making it the most tropical cyclone-visited country in the world. While cyclones may lead to disasters, they also provide half of the country’s rains, which fill up dams.
Climate Change and Our Oceans
The ocean fights global warming by absorbing 50 times more carbon dioxide than the atmosphere, and more than 90% of excess heat trapped by greenhouse gases. But human activities such as fossil fuel use, livestock production and deforestation are boosting global temperatures.
“Ocean heat is at record levels because of greenhouse gas emissions, and ocean acidification continues unabated. The impact of this will be felt for hundreds of years because the ocean has a long memory,” says WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas. Impacts include the melting of ice in Greenland and Antarctica, which contribute to the rise in sea level. “In 2020, the annual Arctic sea ice minimum was among the lowest on record, exposing Polar communities to abnormal coastal flooding, and stakeholders such as shipping and fisheries, to sea ice hazards,” Taalas explains.
Excess heat in oceans also cause extreme weather events, such as the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record in 2020, which produced 30 named tropical cyclones. “Warmer oceans result to more evaporation. When there’s more moisture in the atmosphere, this may result in intensified tropical cyclones,” says Pagulayan. “This means stronger rains, storm surges, and the possibility of tornadoes. Coastal communities will be inundated even those that do not usually experience floods. Heat waves may occur. While some parts of the country may experience droughts, other parts will receive excess rainfall. The greatest impact is on food production.
”When the ocean absorbs more than its fill of carbon dioxide emissions, its waters lose oxygen and become more acidic. This disturbs ecosystems, causing deaths among marine species and reducing food supply for humans.
Monitoring the Ocean
The ocean is a vast and mighty force, and its power will be more than we can handle if the climate crisis continues. WMO works to improve and widen its scope of observation, research and operational services for climate change adaptation and promoting resilience among communities.
As more and more populations settle along coastlines, accurate and impact-based forecasts as well as multi-hazard early warning systems need to be in place to save lives. Tourism and maritime transportation rely on actionable information in securing their operations and promoting economic growth.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted WMO’s operations through its recall of research vessels and failure in maintaining its ocean buoys, the organization remains dedicated to expanding its global observing system—something Pagulayan is grateful for. “Global warming creates a domino effect in our environment. Animal and plant species that fail to adapt can result in their extinction. We need to deepen our study on all these impacts. Through WMO, PAGASA is able to collaborate with other countries to gather enough data and scientific evidence on climate change and our ocean,” she ends.
In 2019, “climate emergency” was chosen as the Word of the Year by the Oxford Dictionaries, which defined it as a “a situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage resulting from it.”
Since the United Kingdom’s climate emergency declaration in 2016, more than a thousand local governments in 28 countries have made their declarations, pushing for more urgent measures to address global warming.
In the beginning of 2019, then 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, a Swedish environmental activist, urged global leaders who attended the World Economic Forum to act on climate issues. Her now infamous words, “Our house is on fire,” sparked youth-led environmental rallies all over the globe. On September 20, 2019, around 4 million people worldwide took the streets to participate in Global Climate Strike, the biggest climate protest in history.
Greta in 2018, participating in a Helsinki rally
Why Climate Emergency Became a Buzzword
2019, which marked the last year of the hottest decade on record, saw a wave of climate emergency declarations across the globe. It was also the year when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its first comprehensive report on how agriculture and other forms of land use worsen climate change, and vice versa. With rising temperatures come extreme weather events, droughts, forest fires and pest outbreaks that threaten global food supply.
The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) supplemented these findings with a report published on the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction last October 13. The UNDRR report on the human cost of disasters from the past 20 years (2000-2019) showed a staggering 45% increase in major recorded disaster events, compared to data gathered between 1980 and 1999. In the past two decades, over 7,000 disasters claimed more than a million lives, resulting in global economic losses of US$2.97 trillion.
Majority of the disasters are climate-related, particularly floods—which have doubled in the last twenty years— and storms, which increased by almost 40 percent. Major increases were also observed in droughts, wildfires and extreme temperature events.
With these planet-threatening climate impacts, climate emergency declarations seek to compel all sectors of society, including the government, businesses and the media, to recognize the need to take immediate action.
Indonesians joining the Global Climate Strike on Sept. 20, 2019
Declaring a Climate Emergency in the Philippines
The Philippines has yet to declare a climate emergency, something which environmental group Greenpeace has been pushing for since December last year, when Typhoon Tisoy devasted Northern Samar and Bicol, prompting provinces to issue a state of calamity. The typhoon, which halted Manila’s airport operations for twelve hours, forced hundreds and thousands of people into evacuation centers, and left 17 dead.
Greenpeace activists marched to Malacañang, calling on President Rodrigo Duterte to immediately declare a climate emergency. “Year after year, Filipinos are identified among the most impacted globally by this crisis, an emergency situation made worse by the big polluters—fossil fuel companies who have lied and covered up about how their operations have been driving the climate crisis and who have been raking in trillions in profits at the expense of millions of people who suffer from its impacts,” said Lea Guerrero, Country Director of Greenpeace Philippines.
According to the Germanwatch-published Global Climate Risk Index 2020, the Philippines ranked 2nd in the counties most affected by impacts of weather-related loss events in 2018. But in terms of facing the highest risk of climate change hazards, the country topped the list of the Global Peace Index. Greenpeace stressed the need for climate impacts to be addressed since the country’s poorest regions and provinces are the most prone to sea level rise, extreme weather events, and landslides.
Typhoon Tisoy’s devastastion in Legazpi City, Albay
Climate Emergency and the Pandemic
This year, Greenpeace renewed its call for a climate emergency declaration, pushing for climate action and climate disaster risk reduction to be at the heart of the government’s COVID-19 recovery plan. “Unless the worst impacts of the climate crisis are averted, the cost in human lives and economic losses will continue to rise to catastrophic proportions,” said Greenpeace Philippines Climate Justice Campaigner Virginia Benosa-Llorin. “The Duterte administration must use the opportunity of the COVID recovery to build in strong climate action into a response that will enable the country to weather other future crises that may happen alongside the climate emergency.”
A way to do this is to maximize renewable energy (RE) sources, also strengthening the country’s commitment to the the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which aims to keep global temperatures below 1.5 degrees. According to Greenpeace’s Southeast Asia Power Sector Scorecard, the Philippines was an early leader of RE after the introduction of the 2008 RE Act. But through the years, this commitment died down, causing coal to make up more than half of the country’s energy mix. Because of this, the country has grown dependent on imported fossil fuels, which have tripled in less than a decade.
But the report states that isn’t too late to make a turnaround. If the country transitions to RE, increasing it to 50% by 2030, it can still meet its global climate targets while ensuring a better recovery after the pandemic. Allocating the national budget for eco-friendly measures on health, energy, transport, water, food, waste and education, is believed to strengthen the country’s resilience and sustainability.
Less Talk, More Walk
Greenpeace demands the following concrete steps from the government:
- Putting climate urgency at the heart of policy decision-making from local to national levels.
- Holding fossil-fuel companies accountable for driving climate change and inflicting harm on the Filipino people.
- Demanding industrialized nations to enhance their emissions reduction ambitions in order to meet the Paris Agreement
- Ensuring the Philippines’ rapid and just transition to a low-carbon pathway through a massive uptake of renewable energy solutions
- Phasing-out coal, and stopping all plans for future coal and fossil fuel investments
Last October, Department of Energy Secretary Roy Cimatu, who also heads the Cabinet Cluster on Climate Change Adaptation, Mitigation and Disaster Risk Reduction, released a statement in favor of the country’s declaration of a climate emergency. “The Philippines has already suffered billions of losses, damages and disruptions due to the impacts of hydrometeorological hazards, so there’s an urgent need to address more projected adverse impacts to ensure climate justice for the current and future generations of Filipinos,” Cimatu said.
In the meantime, Greenpeace and other environmental groups continue to monitor the government’s decisions and actions to make sure that their words are concretized by effective action.
Last October 2, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) released a La Niña Advisory, announcing the onset of above-normal rainfall conditions in the country.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), La Niña is a “cold event” that pertains to “below-average sea surface temperatures across the east-central Equatorial Pacific.” Analiza Solis, chief of PAGASA’s Climate Impact Monitoring and Prediction Section stated that the weak habagat (southwest monsoon) experienced from June to September this year was indicative of an impending La Niña. “Historically, below-normal rainfall conditions in areas under the Type 1 Climate (western parts of Luzon, Mindoro, Negros and Palawan) during the habagat season is a precursor or part of the early impacts of La Niña.”
Though “weak and moderate La Niña” is expected to persist until March 2021, PAGASA Administrator Dr. Vicente Malano warned to never underestimate its possible effects. “In 2006, Guinsaugon in Leyte experienced a massive landslide. It caused considerable damage in properties and deaths.” The disaster was believed to be triggered by an earthquake in Southern Leyte, and two weeks of non-stop rains induced by weak La Niña. The landslide buried around 980 of the village’s population of 1,857.
What to expect
The approaching amihan (northeast monsoon) is expected to enhance La Niña. Solis explained that the rainfall forecast for October this year until the first quarter of 2021 is 81 to 120% more than the normal. Areas most likely to be affected are MIMAROPA (Mindoro, Marinduque, Romblon, and Palawan), Visayas and Mindanao. Because of the 2006 landslide, PAGASA is also closely monitoring western Luzon, even if it is normally dry during La Niña. “Day-to-day forecasts are crucial, supported by tropical cyclone warnings and sub-seasonal forecasts, so we can prepare for possible extreme weather and rainfall events,” Solis said, adding that this La Niña, five to eight cyclones are expected until March 2021.
Preparing for Possible Outcomes
According to Dr. Renato U. Solidum, Jr., the undersecretary for Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate, various agencies should focus on Disaster Risk Reduction Management (DRRM). “First, we need to monitor the different weather and climate phenomena, which PAGASA is doing. Second is assessing hazards and risks, which involves identifying the risks, their effects and the affected areas. Third is disseminating information and warnings to different sectors through proper communication channels. And fourth—the most important of all—is to have an effective and efficient response.” This includes mitigation measures, their effectivity, and a quick response that will lead to quick recovery.
Impact on Agriculture
Solis stated that during La Niña, low-lying agricultural lands are prone to floods, which may produce extensive crop damage. Recurring rains also increase the possibility of pests and crop disease, and may lead to river flooding and dam spillage.
Impact on Health
During excessive rainfall, there is a prevalence of waterborne diseases such as cholera and leptospirosis in flooded areas—things we need to avoid, along with loss of lives from flashfloods.
Impact on Environment
Landslides and mudslides are possible, while coastal communities are warned against coastal erosions due to strong waves. In the urban setting, damage to infrastructures is possible, as well as urban flooding, economic losses, and increased traffic.
Angat Dam located in Bulacan (file photo)
Filling our Dams
The water level in Angat Dam, which supplies 97% of Metro Manila’s water needs, has been slowly but continuously decreasing. “These past weeks, we’ve seen a decline in Angat, Pantabangan and other dams. Even if it rains in these areas, they don’t hit our reservoirs,” Dr. Malano reported. But because of the rainfall forecast during La Niña , our dams are expected to recover. Weather Services Chief Roy Badilla of PAGASA’s Hydrometeorology Division stressed this benefit of La Niña: “50% of our rainfall come from tropical cyclones and La Niña, so without the La Niña, our dams won’t have enough water.”
Solis encouraged the public to maximize rain water harvesting and storage to cope with the dry season from April to June. Flood warnings and advisories from PAGASA should also be monitored. To avoid floods, the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) is requested to remove road obstructions. As local government units and disaster risk reduction offices prepare for imminent disasters, farmers need to strengthen their post-harvest facilities to ensure the proper drying and storage of their produce. “Adverse impacts are likely over the vulnerable areas and sectors of the country,” Solis added. “While our dams have their fill of rain, we should mitigate the possible impacts of La Niña and the amihan.”
La Niña and the Pandemic
Though La Niña is a natural climate variability, Solis said that climate change might also be affecting its pattern. “Before the year 2000, strong El Niño and La Niña episodes occur at least every 7 to 10 years. But during the past decades, the intervals have been cut down to 5 to 7 years. Along with their increased frequency is the increased intensity of their impacts.”
Because this year’s La Niña is coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, PAGASA’s OIC-Deputy Administrator for Research and Development Esperanza Cayanan emphasized the need for preparedness in evacuation centers. “We need to enforce physical distancing among evacuees, and make sure that these centers are not used for COVID-19 patients.” Solis mentioned the same concern for hospitals. “Health care centers and hospitals should prepare for additional patients with water-borne diseases, and to separate them from COVID-19 patients.”
In the meantime, Dr. Malano suggested the use of schools and churches, now empty because of the prohibition of mass gatherings and face-to-face classes. “Disaster risk reduction should be everyone’s responsibility. We need to cooperate with each other so we can open up these facilities for evacuees, allowing them to observe physical distancing.”
For the past weeks, the water level in Angat Dam, which supplies 97% of Metro Manila’s water needs, has been slowly but continuously decreasing. According to the Climate Outlook Forum of the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) last September 23, the dam’s level was at 177.3 meters, 32.67 meters less than its normal water level of 210 meters.
But according to Rosalie Pagulayan of the Hydro-Meteorological Division of PAGASA, historical data in the past 14 years shows that Angat Dam’s water level typically dips during this time.
Angat Dam’s current downward trend in light blue (graph from PAGASA)
“Its level continues to decrease, but we expect it to increase during the Northeast Monsoon. Even with no typhoons, we can expect Angat Dam to recover in the last quarter of the year,” says Pagulayan. This is based on the forecast rainfall of PAGASA’s Climatology and Agrometeorology Division, which shows an expected 386 millimeters in October, 294 millimeters in November and 129.5 millimeters in December.
Forecast Rainfall for the remainder of 2020
Metro Manila’s Main Water Source
The Angat Reservoir and Dam is located in the Angat Watershed Forest Reserve in Norzagaray, Bulacan. According to Manila Water, the dam supplies the water requirements of Metro Manila, and irrigates about 31,000 hectares of farmlands in Pampanga and Bulacan. It also generates hydroelectric power for the Luzon Grid, and holds water to reduce flooding in downstream towns and villages.
Top photo of Angat Dam taken last April 13, 2010 when water levels hit the critical 180 meters above sea level. Photo at the bottom with the structure completely exposed, was taken last July 16, 201, when levels reached a historical low of 157.55 meters. (Top photo by Joseph Agcaoili /Greenpeace. Bottom photo by Gigie Cruz-Sy /Greenpeace)
The dam usually stores enough water for Metro Manila’s 30-day supply. But El Niño, which refers to the unusual warming the oceans giving way to higher temperatures, can affect dam levels. On July 18, 2010, Angat Dam decreased to its all-time lowest level of 157.55 meters, the difference from its normal level roughly equivalent to the height of an 18-storey building. Because of El Niño, rain was below-normal, drying up the rivers that led to Angat Dam. Irrigation in Bulacan and Pampanga was cut to give way to the water needs of Metro Manila, which still experienced service interruptions. The government distributed relief goods among farmers and their families because they were unable to harvest.
Last year’s El Niño brought the Angat Dam down to 159.43 meters, just 2 meters more than its lowest record in 2010, prompting the National Water Resources Board to further reduce the allocation for Manila Water and Maynilad Water Services. Over 6 million residents of Metro Manila, Rizal and Cavite experienced daily rotational water interruptions from six hours to as much as 21 hours. Because of this, hospital operations and businesses were affected with some restaurants, carwashes and laundry shops closing temporarily.
Residents waiting by the roadside for fire engines to fill up their water containers in 2019
Why We and our Dams are in Danger
According to the World Population Review, Manila is now the most densely-populated city in the world with over 42,000 residents per square meter. Data from the Philippine Statistical Authority shows that over 21.3 million people live Metro Manila.
Overpopulation created a spike in water demand, especially during the sweltering El Niño season of 2019, one of the reasons a Manila Water representative pointed out as the cause of reduced water levels in dams. But the water crisis is a global one, which the Union of Concerned Scientists in the U.S. also attributes to climate change. Global warming alters the water cycle, affecting the “amount, distribution, timing and quality of available water.” While a warmer climate speeds up the evaporation of water on land and in oceans, it also holds more water that can be released through devastating typhoons, causing massive floods.
The Philippines’ water crisis also extends to limited access to water and sanitation outside the metropolis. The World Health Organization states that out of the 105 million living in the Philippines, around 7 million depend on water sources that are unsafe and unsustainable. In fact, one of the country’s leading causes of death in 2016 was acute diarrhea, causing over 139,000 fatalities.
An unreliable water supply severely affects public health, pushing people to look for other drinking water sources that may be unsafe. Basic hygiene—a must during this pandemic—is also compromised as one needs to thoroughly wash themselves, their clothes and their food to prevent infections from COVID-19 and other illnesses. When water pressure in pipes are low because of scarce supply, elements can contaminate the water once the pressure is restored.
Before Manila Water implemented rotational service interruptions in October last year, Metro Manila residents went on panic mode and stored water ahead of time. The move lowered water pressure, limiting its flow and distribution toward high places. WHO also cautions against the improper storing of water as this can allow mosquitoes to breed, possibly increasing the risk of diseases such as dengue fever.
Solving the Water Crisis
While individuals are responsible for their own health and safety by making sure their drinking water is safe and free from contamination, WHO states that the government also needs to provide long-term solutions. Groundwater and surface water from rivers and lakes will not last long when exacerbated by climate change and a growing population.
“Strategies such as the application of improved rainwater collection systems and state-of the-art desalination technologies coupled with renewable energies can be used in the Philippines,” says Environmental health technical officer in WHO Philippines Engineer Bonifacio Magtibay on the WHO website. “By adopting innovative and long-term solutions, the Philippines can ensure water for all that will protect the peoples’ health and help drive sustainable development forward.”
Pagulayan also reiterates that though PAGASA expects Angat Dam to recover, residents must not be complacent. “We have always called for the responsible use of water. This is a very important commodity because we use it for almost all our activities. Even if we’re not experiencing El Niño or other weather systems, we should always be looking at how we can maximize our resources. Let’s not waste water.”
For more tips on conserving water, watch this.
For more details on the Angat Dam, watch Panahon TV’s report.
Last September 10, residents of California cities, particularly San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley beheld an eerie sight of orange skies. Such was the result of wildfires raging in the US West Coast, their smoke and ash blotting out sunlight and creating the rust-colored haze.
According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the wildfires began as early as January, and have already burned down more than 3 million acres in the state. Since the increased fire activity last August 15, there have been 24 deaths and over 4,000 damaged structures. But outside these figures, the wildfires have wreaked havoc in the atmosphere, putting areas under Air Quality Indexes of “very unhealthy” and even “hazardous”, forcing residents to stay indoors.
Orange-tinged skies in the Bay Area in San Francisco last Sept. 10 at 10:30 a.m. (photo by Irma Cruz-Dimaisip)
The Pollution Problem
Even without the wildfires, ambient air pollution is a global problem, causing over 4 million deaths each year. According to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, pollutants are linked to severe respiratory and heart diseases, and lowers resistance against airborne viruses, making one vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), these human activities are the major sources of outdoor pollution:
- Fuel combustion from motor vehicles (e.g. cars and heavy duty vehicles)
- Heat and power generation (e.g. oil and coal power plants and boilers)
- Industrial facilities (e.g. manufacturing factories, mines, and oil refineries)
- Municipal and agricultural waste sites and waste incineration/burning
- Residential cooking, heating, and lighting with polluting fuels
- Poor urban planning, which leads to over-dependence on private vehicles
Combustion engines, fossil fuels and industrial activities produce Particulate Matter (PM), which contains sulphate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, black carbon, mineral dust and water. Most dangerous is PM2.5, which has a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers. Because of its tiny size, PM2.5 is easily inhaled, allowing it to penetrate the lungs and blood stream, causing illnesses, which may lead to premature death.
WHO data further states that more than 80% of people living in urban areas that monitor air pollution are exposed to air quality levels that exceed WHO guideline limits. The most affected countries with the greatest toll are in the Western Pacific— and Southeast Asia, which includes the Philippines.
Aerial view of the Pasig River (photo by Enrico Empainado/Greenpeace)
Metro Manila’s Alarming Air Quality
Greenpeace Philippines reported a dramatic improvement in air quality during the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) in Metro Manila from March 15 to May 15, 2020. With this measure to curtail the spread of COVID-19, most of the National Capital Region’s 2.5 million vehicles were kept off the road, resulting in PM2.5 levels dropping by an astounding 180%.
But this improvement was short-lived. Since the region shifted to general community quarantine (GCQ) last June 1, smog and pollution levels continue to climb, slowly reverting to the poor air quality experienced before ECQ.
Prior to the lockdown last February, groups such as Greenpeace, Clean Air Asia and the Center for Energy, Ecology and Development (CEED), Health Care without Harm, the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice (PMCJ), and the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) Philippines had called on the government to overhaul its monitoring and analysis of air pollution data to provide more accurate information. This was in response to the recent 2019 Air Visual report, which placed the Philippines in the 58th spot out of 98 countries. The groups argued that though the country’s ranking wasn’t high, data still showed that the country’s air quality was getting worse. In 2018, the country’s air pollution level of 17.6 micrograms per cubic meter was well beyond WHO’s safety limit of 10 micrograms per cubic meter.
Bikers during ECQ (photo by Jire Carreon)
A Greenpeace Philippines report released in February, showed that toxic emissions could cost Filipinos as much as a 1.9% loss in Gross Domestic Product, as well as 27,000 premature deaths. For a clearer picture of the country’s air pollution, the groups urge the government to place monitoring stations near coal-driven power plants and areas of high traffic.
“The Philippine government should see the data as an impetus to overhaul air quality monitoring systems in the country, as well as to transition away from highly polluting facilities such as coal plants. Our safety standards for air pollution haven’t changed since 1999,” said Khevin Yu, campaigner of Greenpeace Philippines. “This situation has allowed industries and facilities to pollute the air we breathe with impunity.”
Meanwhile, Greenpeace campaigner Rhea Jane Pescador-Mallari believes that the ECQ showed Filipinos that healthy, clean air is possible in the metro. “Moving forward, if the government is willing to use the opportunities and lessons learned from the pandemic and amplify it through policies and infrastructure, active mobility and micro mobility, as well as invest in efficient and safe mass public transport, then a return to the massive pollution levels before COVID-19 can be avoided.”
Clean Air for All
The severity of recent global wildfires are fueled by climate change, which brings about soaring temperatures, drier conditions and pest outbreaks that weaken trees. According to WHO, air pollutants like black carbon and methane contribute to global warming and glacial melt. The Climate and Clean Air Coalition also states that air pollution threatens food and water supply by blocking sunlight, and affecting the movement and intensity of monsoons.
To secure the Filipinos’ health, Greenpeace Philippines advocates for the stricter implementation of the Clean Air Act, and the following measures:
- Maintaining flexible remote work arrangements or staggered work shifts, where possible
• People-centric urban design, where public spaces should be planned in parallel with the establishment of mobility programs
• Rebuilding trust in mass transit and supporting displaced transportation workers, possibly with LGU-centric green mobility services
- Low-cost, active and carbon-neutral transport options that enable micro-mobility
• Tightening vehicle emission standards from Euro 2 to 4 to 6, and implementing accordingly
• Developing capabilities for real-time monitoring of dangerous pollutants in cities
• Strengthening industrial air pollution standards and wider adoption of renewable energy
Greenpeace believes that the efforts to solve air pollution are the same ones needed to mitigate the climate crisis. “As epicenters of growth, cities need to provide an environment that puts in high premium the health and wellness of both people and the planet. At the local level, addressing air pollution is a key aspect of making cities livable and sustainable. At the national level, it means addressing the climate crisis while helping build climate-resilient communities,” said Mallari.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to be in full swing with currently over 20 million confirmed cases worldwide. In the Philippines, the total number of cases has reached 148,000 with over 2,000 people dying from the disease.
But the pandemic isn’t the only crisis the country faces. Right now, the Philippines is in the middle of typhoon season. According to the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA), more tropical cyclones enter the Philippine Area of Responsibility (PAR) than anywhere else in the world each year. An annual average of 20 tropical cyclones develop in the region, 8 to 9 of them traversing the Philippines.
The peak of typhoon season, wherein 70% of typhoons develop, happens between July to October. According to PAGASA, the country may experience 8 to 13 tropical cyclones from August until the end of the year. More than ever, Filipinos need the weather bureau’s comprehensive and reliable forecasts to help them ensure their safety this pandemic.
Getting to Know PAGASA
PAGASA traces its roots back to the Observatorio Meteorologico de Manila (now Manila Observatory) a scientific research institution established by the Jesuits in 1865. Involved in the systemic observation of Philippine weather, it first issued typhoon warnings in 1880.
In 1901, the observatorio was re-organized and was formally named as the state’s weather bureau. Today, PAGASA, under the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) is mandated to “provide protection against natural calamities and utilize scientific knowledge as an effective instrument to ensure the safety, well-being and economic security of all the people, and for the promotion of national progress.” (Section 2, Statement of Policy, Presidential Decree No. 78; December 1972 as amended by Presidential Decree No. 1149; August 1977)
With its mission to be a center of excellence for weather-related information, PAGASA seeks to protect lives and properties through its following products and services:
- weather forecasts and tropical cyclone warning
- flood forecasts and warnings
- climatological and farm weather
- research and development
- information, education, and public outreach
- astronomical services
PAGASA weather forecasters before the pandemic (L-R: Nikos Peñaranda, Chris Perez, Ariel Rojas)
PAGASA and the Pandemic
The pandemic impacted public mobility, businesses, services, and many other aspects of daily living. According to Chris Perez, PAGASA spokesperson and senior weather specialist, the weather bureau was no exception. “The restrictions put into effect by the national government to prevent the further spread of the virus affected PAGASA’s day-to-day operations in the sense that only a few personnel are required to report to the office. This posed a great challenge in ensuring the continuous delivery of the agency’s products and services despite the limited manpower.”
PAGASA’s limited physical manpower at the office has been supported by work-from-home personnel since the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) last March 16. Those assigned to report to office are provided company transportation from their homes to the office then back to their homes after a 3-day or 5-day work assignment. Perez adds, “The same personnel are given grocery allowances, and sleeping quarters to rest after their duty. Key personnel such as the PAGASA Administrator and higher officials report to the office when needed—during the event of a tropical cyclone, the processing of payrolls, and other duties.”
Because health vigilance is a must during the pandemic, PAGASA’s weather division has formed a committee to oversee the health and well-being of its employees—both in the office and working from home. “This ensures that the appropriate number of working personnel is met whenever the situation warrants,” Perez explains. “In the case of a personnel getting ‘sick’ and not being able to report for work, this committee will handle the matter in accordance with the national government’s established health protocols.”
The habagat may enhance tropical cyclones, bringing more rains in the country. (Photo by PM Caisip)
Currently, PAGASA holds webinars to conduct climate forums and educate sectors on the natural hazards the rainy season brings. During the National Disaster Resilience Month last July, PAGASA’s webinars targeted religious organizations and focused on preparedness among children.
Season of both Typhoons and the Pandemic
Since the government’s announcement of the country’s first COVID-19 case in January, 7 tropical cyclones have entered the PAR as of writing.
Perez holding a press briefing for Typhoon Ambo last May
Typhoon Ambo (international name: Vongfong) made its first landfall in Eastern Samar. PAGASA recorded five more landfalls that weakened the weather system before it headed inland to Luzon. According to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) last May 20, Ambo caused an estimated damage of Php2 billion in agriculture and infrastructure, and left 5 people dead.
Tropical Depression Butchoy (international name: Nuri) made its first landfall in Pollilo Island in Quezon. Because Butchoy was expected to produce heavy rainfall in Albay, , the province was placed under disaster “response status.” Butchoy’s rains prompted PAGASA to declare the start of the rainy season in the country last June 12.
Tropical Depression Carina headed for the Luzon Strait near Batanes and Cagayan. Before leaving, the weather disturbance left over PHP19-million worth of damage in Ilocos Norte in crops and properties.
Dindo (international name: Hagupit) strengthened from a tropical depression into a tropical storm on August 1. Though Dindo enhanced the southwest monsoon (habagat), bringing more rains, Dindo did not have a direct impact on the country, and exited PAR on August 3.
PAGASA upgraded a weather disturbance into Tropical Depression Enteng (international name: Jangmi). The next day, it intensified into a tropical storm, enhancing monsoon rains in MIMAROPA, Pangasinan, Benguet, Zambales, Bataan and Antique.
Just seven hours after Enteng left PAR, Tropical Depression Ferdie developed, raising Public Storm Warning Signal No. 1 in parts of Luzon. While maintaining its strength, Ferdie exited PAR on August 13.
Tropical Depression Gener entered PAR. No public storm warning signal was raised since Gener was expected to weaken as it moved westward of PAR.
PAGASA’s Crucial Role
Perez studying a tropical cyclone’s movement
Even before the pandemic, PAGASA has always been an important source of information essential to public health and safety. “PAGASA’s products and services are of vital importance in day-to-day activities,” Perez says. “Matters related to the pandemic can be planned and executed—such as the transport of medical personnel, products and services, or even the usual buying of groceries and medicines of the general public—in accordance with the expected weather.”
Weather forecasts are even more relevant now that natural disasters such as typhoons can hamper health services and damage health infrastructure. According to Christopher Trisos, director of the African Climate and Development Initiative at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, natural disasters can also disrupt the supply of clean water and eat into government budgets already stretched thin by the pandemic response. Physical distancing is also challenging in often-crowded evacuation centers.
Last May, India and Bangladesh were ravaged by Category 5 Hurricane Amphan, leaving over a hundred dead and displacing thousands of families. Partnered with the pandemic, the disaster can impact even more lives.
In the Philippines, the second half of the year marks the time when most tropical cyclones directly affect the country. And coupled with the habagat season commencing from July to September, tropical cyclones can bring continuous moderate to heavy, and even at times, torrential rains, which may cause flooding in low-lying areas and landslides near mountain slopes. These winds and rains, regularly experienced during this period, may inflict damage to properties, causing disruptions in major services such as power, transportation, health and food. “There is a tendency that the current situation may worsen—such as an increase in the number of affected persons or casualties— when there is a disruption to the provision of the these products and services due to weather-related hazards,” Perez explains.
The typhoon season may worsen public mobility already hampered by the pandemic. (photo by Jire Carreon)
Right now, PAGASA is testing a new prediction model called the 2-Week Tropical Cyclone Threat Potential Forecast that shows the development of cyclones two weeks before they occur. The agency’s researchers developed this weather forecasting model in partnership with Taiwan’s Central Weather Bureau.
The situation may look grim, but Perez says we can do our part in alleviating it. While we can’t stop weather systems from entering our country, we can slow down the rise of COVID-19 cases in the country. “Heed the government’s call to just stay at home as much as possible, and follow the established health protocols being implemented,” Perez urges. “Lastly, make it a habit to monitor every day the various PAGASA weather updates as these may guide you in planning your day-to-day activities.”
- With additional reports from George Gamayo
Weather is no longer a mundane topic people use to make small talk. Nowadays, news about the weather makes Filipinos straighten up and listen because of the countless ways it impacts their lives. This is precisely what inspires PAGASA Weather Specialist Ariel Rojas when he delivers the forecast—with his eyes alert and his hand sweeping across the graphics-generated Philippine map.
“I’ve always been curious about the weather. I was born and raised in Bicol where it always rains and tropical cyclones always visit,” he shares. His journey toward weather forecasting began when he took up B.S. Meteorology in UP Diliman’s graduate school under a PAGASA scholarship. In 2017, he began working in PAGASA, and had since been trained here and abroad, allowing him to gain new knowledge and techniques in weather forecasting.
Rojas regularly appears on Panahon TV to deliver the weather forecast, but with Panahon TV’s first free webinar, Intro to Philippine Weather, he’ll get to share more of his knowledge. We sat down with him to delve deeper into his childhood passion.
What are your current duties in PAGASA?
My main duties include analyzing weather data, maps, and models to formulate weather forecasts, and presenting the forecast product to the public through PAGASA’s online platforms and interviews with media outlets. I also conduct lectures on weather forecasting or other weather-related topics to media practitioners and students.
Do you think it’s important for Filipinos to have basic weather knowledge?
Yes, it is! The Philippines is the most tropical cyclone-visited country in the world! That alone should be enough reason. We are also an agricultural nation so many farmers depend on the rain. Our economic, agricultural, and other daily activities are informed by the state of the atmosphere so basic weather knowledge is a must for everyone.
If there’s one thing you’d like every Filipino to know about weather forecasting, what would it be?
That weather presenting is only the tip of the iceberg. Forecasters analyze weather data, maps, and models to come up with the final forecast and all of these take time. Tropical cyclone events require more time and harder analyses.
How do you feel about being part of the Panahon TV webinars?
I always look forward to joining Panahon TV activities because they’re fun and I learn a lot. I feel honored to have been invited to take part in this webinar. I am also trying to further hone my communication skills so this would be a great platform for that.
What do you hope participants will take away from your workshop?
I hope that they will carry with them whatever little nugget of weather knowledge they can take away from the workshop. We basically experience the same weather patterns every year so just knowing when these patterns change can greatly help them in their decision-making, even the most mundane ones like choosing which clothes to wear or when to book an out of town trip.
To join Panahon TV’s free webinar Intro to Philippine Weather with Ariel Rojas on June 2, 2020 at 2:00 p.m., register at https://bit.ly/3d70vTk .