The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Floods devastate Philippines, fuel concerns over extreme weather

People wade through a flooded road in Jipapad, the Philippines, on Jan. 11 in a photo provided by Mayor Benjamin Ver. (AFP/Getty Images)
4 min

MANILA — The Philippines has been welcomed into the new year by incessant rain, fatal flooding and landslides in many provinces.

Nearly every day so far in January, heavy rains have caused a town or city to issue emergency warnings, order evacuations or respond with relief efforts. At least 28 people have died this month, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council said Monday. More than 211,000 people have been displaced among 1.3 million affected as the rains have destroyed homes, infrastructure, crops and fishing boats.

That follows the 50 killed and more than 50,000 displaced during the holiday season by torrential rains that began Dec. 25 and continued through New Year’s Day.

The unique ways Filipinos are protecting their homes against floods

The Philippines, an archipelago nation of more than 7,000 islands, has two seasons: the dry season, from December to May, and the rainy season, from June to November. Typhoons strike frequently. The floods this month have heightened concerns that climate change is fueling extreme weather that will make such events more common.

Although January ordinarily sees less rainfall, heavy downpours this month have hit the country hard, particularly southern provinces. The mayor of Tacloban City, in the Eastern Visayas region, told constituents last week to prepare emergency kits, store food and “most of all, don’t forget to pray to the one above.” Authorities in Zamboanga City in the south are balancing evacuations from flooded homes, housing displaced families, and distributing relief and medical aid as the forecast for the next week shows little indication that the rains will relent.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., overseeing aid distribution last week in Misamis Occidental, a southern province put under an official “state of calamity,” said the Philippines needs a long-term solution to perennial floods. Inclement weather prevented him from landing in some cities on his itinerary.

“We are looking at everything to find a solution,” he said. “We will continue to dredge rivers … and we will continue to improve flood controls.”

“But in the long term,” he continued, “we need to think about how we can do it so that this never happens again. We don’t have this kind of risk anymore.”

The dead have included children. Jaymar Sahim, a 13-year-old eighth-grade student, fell into a flooded ditch in Zamboanga City last week and was swept away by a strong current. Earlier in January, a 5-year-old boy drowned in flooded Davao del Norte, and an 8-year-old girl was swept away by strong waters in Lanao del Norte.

Nonstop rains in Mati City before New Year’s Day loosened a landslide that killed two cousins, ages 15 and 14, and two others.

As disaster hits the Philippines again, a farmer’s sorrow reveals the stakes

Five 1,000-year rain events have struck the U.S. in five weeks. Why?

Climate change is expected to exacerbate the problem. Warming makes the world wetter by increasing humidity and heat indexes and making precipitation extremes more frequent. Human-caused climate change made last year’s devastating flooding in West Africa 80 times more probable, researchers with World Weather Attribution reported in November.

Still, the Philippines has significantly improved its resiliency, especially since Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded, which killed more than 6,000 people, according to national disaster officials.

Obstacles remain. Joshua Agar, an assistant professor at the University of the Philippines’ Institute of Civil Engineering, said political will and attention in the Philippines are often misplaced.

“Due to our political culture, much focus was put on disaster relief (where personalities seize opportunities to put themselves in a good light through philanthropy) rather than on disaster prevention (where comprehensive disaster risk management is needed, with science steering the policies),” he wrote in an email.

The term “natural disaster” can be misleading, he said, because deaths during naturally occurring hazards can be reduced with proper response and prevention.

To be more resilient, said Kristoffer Berse, director for research and creative work at the University of the Philippines’ Resilience Institute, cities should improve drainage systems, build infrastructure such as levees to protect coastal areas, and improve risk assessment and early-warning systems.

“What we need to prepare for is the increasing complexity of cascading disasters — events that happen successively, if not as a result of or aggravated by a prior disaster,” Berse said.