Mountains can break deadly winds, but can also cause deadly floods and landslides

An aerial view of a flooded area in central Luzon after Super Typhoon ‘Karding’ wreaked havoc on the region on September 26, 2022. PPA POOL PHOTO

AFTER the threat of deadly winds from Typhoon “Karding” was interrupted by the mighty Sierra Madre mountain range, we are now seeing renewed attention being given to the role of mountain ranges in risk reduction and management of disaster, particularly with regard to the threats of super typhoons.

People started singing odes to the mother of all mountains, as if it were a new discovery.

We must remember that for centuries the Sierra Madre and all the other mountains have repeatedly protected large areas of the archipelago from the effects of disastrous winds, especially those coming from the Pacific Ocean. The Sierra Madre, which stretches from Cagayan to Quezon Province, is perhaps the best known, but mention should also be made of the lesser-known Diwata Mountains that lie in eastern Mindanao facing the Pacific, straddling the province of Surigao del Norte to the region of Davao. .

The presence of mountains further decreases wind speeds, which by nature are expected whenever a typhoon makes landfall. They may not be able to protect the coastal areas facing the Pacific, but they practically become a shield for the more populated urban centers of the central and western flanks of the archipelago. There is actually no mystery as to why there are fewer urban centers on our east coast and why there is a higher population density in the central and western provinces of the country. . This is mainly the result of the pull factors provided by more favorable climatic conditions which make these areas relatively more hospitable.

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The Bicol region has always been characterized in official statistics as one of the poorest regions of the country despite its fertile volcanic soil. It can safely be hypothesized that this is because the region is prone to extreme weather events and is also vulnerable to volcanic eruptions. Thus, its ability to generate surpluses and accumulate capital would be impaired, even if people do not live in abject poverty. As a careful observer of the region, which I consider my home because it is where I was born, I can further hypothesize that despite what the economic statistics suggest, the region is still blessed in Due to its fertile lands and relatively slower rate of industrialization, much of its cultural ecology and political economy remains rooted in cultures of reciprocity, where traditional institutions allow people to live well despite the deprivation of material and measurable wealth.

In the face of the constant threats of seasonal destructive typhoons, organic institutions of resilience may have been deeply embedded and taken root in Bicol and other similarly situated regions. The same goes for the provinces of Aurora and Quezon in Luzon, Samar and Leyte in the Visayas, and the provinces of Dinagat, Surigao and Davao Oriental in Mindanao. It would be interesting to see the level of organic resilience and the presence of social capital in these areas, and compare them to those of more protected communities, including those protected by vast mountain ranges like the Sierra Madre.

It is also important to emphasize that mountains alone, as a physical entity, cannot be the only shield that can protect people from the destructive effects of extreme weather events. While the Sierra Madre and Diwata mountain ranges can break away and effectively reduce the intense winds brought by typhoons, they cannot protect low-lying areas from the destructive effects of floods and landslides. These equally destructive events are the result of the lack of adequate forest and vegetation cover that can help regulate water drainage during heavy rains and retain soil to prevent landslides.

Indeed, logging, both legal and illegal, has caused the loss of forest cover. But it is wrong to blame the forest industry alone. Other activities such as mountain agriculture, mining, ranching and conversion of mountain slopes into housing estates, human settlements and golf courses have contributed to the transformation of our mountains into mothers of disaster. during extreme weather events. The entire Baguio metropolitan area and even the Tagaytay highlands sit on landslide-prone mountain ranges, whose bare, cemented slopes have spawned deadly flash floods, like what we just saw in Banaue recently. .

Human activity, both for subsistence and for capital accumulation, and for leading a comfortable life, cannot escape responsibility. In fact, the bare mountain slopes are not the only reason why the plains are flooded during the rainy season. It is a scientific error to generalize that every flood is caused by bare mountains since there are natural floodplains. Flooding is actually nature’s way of distributing soil nutrients to fertilize farmland, and its seasonality can also feed inland lakes and rivers for fishing activities. This however was disrupted and the floods ceased to bring seasonal blessings wreaking havoc when people started building settlements in these areas which effectively blocked natural waterways and turned the ground into cemented causeways which greatly reduced their absorptive capacities while increasing surface runoff that contributes to urban lightning. floods.

Indeed, we need mountain ranges like the Sierra Madre to protect us from the winds brought by extreme weather events. But they must be sufficiently covered with trees and adequate and appropriate vegetation to prevent them from causing such deadly and destructive floods and landslides. We also need to re-examine our land use policies and practices, even in urban areas.

Catastrophic floods and landslides are not only due to logging, but are also caused by unecological land use practices both on mountain slopes and in cities where people live comfortably . Much of the killer flooding in “Ondoy” originated from the slopes of the Sierra Madre, while the flash floods that inundated the city of Santa Rosa and nearby towns spawned by “Milenyo” originated in the highlands of Tagaytay. We cannot rest in total comfort. We cannot always rely on mountain ranges to protect us from the deadly effects of time.

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