Thu, Feb 21, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Typhoon Bopha gives the Philippines a taste of ‘new normal’

By Simon Tisdall  /  The Guardian, NEW BATAAN, Philippines

When Typhoon Bopha struck without warning before dawn, flattening the walls of their home, Maria Amparo Jenobiagon, her two daughters and her grandchildren ran for their lives.

The storm on Dec. 4 last year was the worst ever to hit the southern Philippines: Torrential rain turned New Bataan’s river into a raging flood. Roads were washed away and the bridge turned into an enormous dam. Tens of thousands of coconut trees crashed down in an instant as unbelievably powerful winds struck. The banana crop was destroyed in a flash — and with it the livelihoods of hundreds of farmers.

The only safe place the family could think of was the concrete grandstand at the village sports stadium. Two months later, Jenobiagon, 36, and her three-year-old granddaughter, Mary Aieshe, are still there, living in one of the improvised tents spanning its steep concrete tiers along with hundreds of other people.

“We were terrified. All we could hear was loud crashing. We didn’t know what to do. So we came here,” Jenobiagon said. “Everyone ran to the health center, but houses were being swept away and the water was neck deep. Everywhere we went was full of mud and water. We went to a school, but it was flooded, so we came to the stadium.”

New Bataan Mayor Lorenzo Balbin said the fury of the storm was far beyond the experience of anyone living in Mindanao. It would take 10 years to replace the coconut crop, he said. Some villages in Compostela Valley may be too unsafe to live in.

Typhoon Bopha, known locally as Pablo, broke records, as well as hearts. At its height, it produced wind speeds of 257.4kph, gusting to 313.8kph. It was the world’s deadliest typhoon last year, killing 1,067 people, with 800 left missing.

More than 6.2 million people were affected — the cost of the damage may top US$1 billion. As a category 5 storm (the highest), Bopha was significantly more powerful than Hurricane Katrina (category 3), which hit the US in 2005, and last year’s heavily publicized Hurricane Sandy (category 2).

With an estimated 216,000 houses destroyed or damaged, tens of thousands of people remain displaced, presenting a challenge for the government and aid agencies.

The Philippines experiences an average of 20 typhoons a year (including three super typhoons), plus numerous incidents of flooding, drought, earthquakes and tremors, and occasional volcanic eruptions, making it one of the most naturally disaster-prone countries in the world.

However, more disturbing than Bopha’s size was the fact that it appeared to reflect rapidly deteriorating climatic trends.

The five most devastating typhoons recorded in the Philippines have occurred since 1990, affecting 23 million people. What is more, Bopha hit an area where typhoons are all but unknown.

The UN’s Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change says mean temperatures in the Philippines are rising by 0.14oC per decade. Since the 1980s, there has been an increase in annual mean rainfall. Yet two of the severest droughts ever recorded occurred in the 1990s.

Scientists are also registering steadily rising sea levels around the Philippines and a falling water table. All this appears to increase the likelihood and incidence of extreme weather events, while adversely affecting food production and yields, through land erosion and degradation.

Mary Ann Lucille Sering, head of the Philippine government’s climate change commission, is in no doubt her country faces a deepening crisis that it can ill afford, financially and in human terms.

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