Calling a spade
Business World, 21 December 2011

What happened in Cagayan de Oro (CDO) is your typical cautionary tale — in spades — with the three elements present and accounted for: the warning of danger, the disregard of the warning, and the disastrous consequences of such disregard. And if a timeline presented by Esteban Godilano is any indication, CDO is just the latest in a series of such cautionary tales, starting from at least December 2003 after landslides occurred in Southern Leyte and Surigao following heavy rainfall for a couple of days, prompting Godilano to construct a landslide map for the country.

And who is Esteban “Steeve” Godilano? His CV is pretty impressive — an environmental science expert with a PhD in environmental information science from Cornell University (NY), an MA in Natural Resource Development and Management from the AIT (Bangkok), work experience nationally and internationally (20 countries), and currently the senior technical adviser of the Department of Agriculture’s department on climate change and geospatial technology, plus board member of the Climate Change Congress of the Philippines and a member of the Technical Working Group of the Climate Change Commission. In other words, not a politician.

The landslide map Steeve constructed in 2003 showed where in the Philippines landslides were likely to occur, based on a model that took into account rainfall, landcover, soil texture, slope gradient, erosion severity and something called a weight factor, and the probabilities of their occurrence (very high, high). The first element of a cautionary tale was thus fulfilled: a warning of danger in the form of the landslide map. And he was asked to present this to the National Disaster Coordinating Council in January of 2004.

Nothing happened (second element fulfilled).

Then, in November of 2004, landslides occurred in Quezon Province (e.g., Real, Infanta) after a series of typhoons with preliminary estimates of over 300 deaths in that area alone. Quezon province was one of those listed in the Godilano map with “very high” probability of occurrence. The third element of a cautionary tale fulfilled. And, presumably remembering the Godilano map, the NDCC invited him again, in December of 2004, to a command conference, where he again presented his landslide map.

Again, nothing happened.

What did Steeve want to happen? That an information and education campaign be conducted in all the areas where he had pinpointed the likely occurrence of landslides (which included the direction of the flows, apparently), so that the people would be prepared, and know where to go for safety — forewarned is forearmed. For example, he recounts, the people in Quezon rushed for safety to a school, which was squarely on the path of a succeeding landslide. Had they been apprised of where the safer areas were located, so many deaths would have been averted.

In any case, Godilano points out that his map proved 100% accurate in predicting the landslide areas — not the when of it, but the where of it.

But that is not the end of the story. Godilano also constructed a drought map in March of 2005, which was presented in a Department of Agriculture conference on dryland agriculture. Again, he pointed out areas in the Philippines that were prone to drought. It was a good presentation, but nothing came out of it, and the scientist, frustrated at government change, left to work abroad. During which time (in 2008), a drought occurred in Isabela and Cagayan provinces, devastating approximately 250,000 hectares of corn crops in the area, as was predicted in his drought map.

Coming back to the Philippines , perhaps hoping that this time climate change was being taken more seriously, he created still another map in June of 2009: this time a flooding map, which he presented to both the DA and the National Conference on Climate Change.

This time, however, there was not very much opportunity for the government to take action on his predictions, because of course Ondoy and Pepeng occurred in September of the same year (as his map had predicted).

Spurred on by the desire to ensure that the effects of climate change could be anticipated and therefore adapted to (reduce their severity), Godilano was encouraged by national government agencies and civil sector organizations to come out with an integrated climate change map. It involved vulnerability mapping for the country as a whole, with greater detail for each of the island groupings and the provinces. A series of mappings came out starting in November of 2009.

The map shows, in living color, the areas in the Philippines that are not affected (green) , that will be affected by flooding only, by landslide only, by dryland only, and then combinations of these, with finally the areas (264,000 hectares) which are affected by all three types of disasters.

By April of 2010, the forewarning was complete — and it was at this time that, in the climate change congress of the Philippines conference held in Cagayan de Oro (sponsored by CDO Archbishop Antonio Ledesma, chair), the CDO river basin, complete with maps, was identified as the next Marikina, only worse, because the CDO watershed is three times the area of the Markina watershed, and all that water goes into the sea through only one channel: the Cagayan river. That was more than one and a half years ago, Reader. Certainly, plenty of time to prepare.

On August 23, 2010, an even more updated map was presented, this time to show the predicted impacts of La Nina events, not just where, but when: the provinces that would be prone to disaster — landslides/flooding — from Jan-March, July-Sept, Oct-Dec, with certain unfortunate provinces that would be vulnerable for six-month periods, and certain provinces that would not be affected at all. Unfortunately, nobody paid attention: the hostage crisis took place on the same day.

All that forewarning. And still, more than 1,000 people have died because of the flash floods fromSendong, the great majority of them in Cagayan de Oro. Most of them could have been saved — if the forewarning had been followed by serious forearming.

It is time that we take Godilano and his ilk seriously — the Climate Change Commission, the Climate Change Congress, etc. Unless of course we think that Filipino lives are of no real significance — particularly if they are poor