The Fall of Santa Catalina.

When Obama comes, can Spring be far behind?


Spring? Very far from my mind when I think of Barack Obama, the next President of the United States. I’m in tropical Manila, of course, in the Philippines, 13,700 km away from Washington DC. Today, nevertheless, when I think of Barack Obama, I think of The Autumn, The Fall.

Surreal. That’s what the up-and-coming presidency of Obama is to me. I’ve been reading Google News and watching Fox much; I have come rather to think Obama is a change you can believe in, but too much of a change for the United States of America. And so is another up-and-coming USA event: an economic recession and an economic slowdown. In a recession or slowdown, nobody wins.

In the Philippines, 18 November, afternoon, we make sure everybody wins. In a birthday party, to encourage the young boys to learn to play tennis well and become champions each in his own time (like Obama maybe), we arrange for a round-robin competition and we pass the hat for the cash prizes: Pesos 400, 300 and 200 for the 3 winners, 160 and 150 for the 2 losers. Since I contribute 150, it means I contribute to the losers’ loser. I say you have to reward for trying.

The birthday party I am attending is for a good old friend, Namor Alapgan, 69, celebrated on a tennis court in the town of Santa Catalina in the province of San Manuel in my beloved country, where up the hills with a commanding view of the Sea of Santa Isabel, there sits the heavenly subdivision called Parklands. They are all tennis players except me. And in that party, Simon tells his important if sad story of a devastating landslide and flashflood that happened in Santa Catalina in 2006. Simon says the blame is on Parklands. Simon is a little intoxicated; I don’t drink, but I’m a good listener. It happened 2 years ago. Surreal now. (Note: To protect both the innocent and the guilty, the age is right but none in this paragraph is a real name).

Still so real to me. Really, they have the same cause. An economic recession or slowdown is caused by overuse and abuse of resources. The same is true with a landslide and a flashflood. Everybody loses.

On 28 September 2006, the super storm locally called Milenyo (internationally known as Xangsane, which means elephant in Laos) visited the Philippines and wrought havoc in Santa Catalina, among other places. The heavens poured water relentlessly; the winds blew their mightiest; and in Parklands, the earth soaked, landslided, and drowned the villages below. While not many people died, many lives were devastated – structures swept away, sources of livelihood lost, a vital bridge collapsed, the whole town inundated not only with water but filth neither fit for homes nor gardens nor animals. This is what I call the Fall of Santa Catalina. Will it happen again?

On the same storm, IRRI (the International Rice Research Institute) reported on the damage to itself, the rest of Los Baños and Bay: ‘more than 16,000 homes affected’ (‘Typhoon blasts rice research institute’ (October 2006, irri.org/media/press). There were wind gusts of 160 kph and some 112 mm of rain that poured (IRRI did not say if for 1 day only).

I reported on Milenyo myself; see my ‘Xangsane & The Legendary Mount Makiling,’ October 2006, frankahilario.wordpress.com). To quote me:

Others in Los Baños, Laguna had sad stories to tell. At least two sides of Mount Makiling came crashing down, trees and rocks and mud crushing houses and people and livestock.

I quoted Ms Portia Lapitan, Director of the Makiling Center for Mountain Ecosystems, a unit of the College of Forestry and Natural Resources of the University of the Philippines Los Baños, as saying that the rainfall was 308 mm, 15 times the average of 20 mm. Her explanation of the crashing down of the mountain was the deluge, the ‘abnormal volume of water and the intensity of the wind brought by the typhoon.’

So we go back to the Santa Catalina landslide and flashflood: Were they caused also by a slightly smaller deluge, 5 times the average of 20 mm (112 mm)? No, I don’t think so. Even the Mt Makiling landslide was not caused by the deluge – the deluge was all over that extinct volcano but the whole mountain didn’t come crashing down. In fact, it was only the village called Bagong Silang that landslided – the residents had been loosening the soil on the slopes, inappropriately applying lowland agriculture techniques to upland soil, cutting forest trees, cultivating farm crops, inviting disaster. Have I seen them do it? If you’ve seen one slash-and-burn farmer, you’ve seen them all.

Same story in the Fall of Santa Catalina: While the super storm was all over town, only the villages directly in the path of the landslide received the deluge of water and mud. This means that it was not too much rain coming down on short notice: it was too much soil. Soil erosion, which graduates into a landslide, is an erosion of knowledge.

Same story with economic recession and slowdown.

What’s the difference? Our Secretary of Finance Gary Teves says, ‘What you mean by economic slowdown is when your neighbor loses his job. By recession, it’s you who loses the job’ (Leo Reyes, 18 November, groundreport.com/Business). When the small businesses go, it’s a slowdown. When the big businesses go, it’s a meltdown.

Now my double metaphor: The landslide is the economic recession, the flood is the slowdown.

Both the economic recession and the earthly landslide are man-made; so are the economic slowdown and flashflood.

John McCain (my hero!) said it was ‘the old-boy network and Washington corruption’ that created the Wall Street crisis (Rick Klein, 16 September, abcnews.go.com). Corporate greed will sooner or later do your corporate body in. Keep up the good works and you're a good bet.

On one hand, I can blame the Fall of Santa Catalina on the Parklands people. In developing that plush subdivision, they may have disturbed the soil much it went down the hills when the deluge of rainwater came. You may have all the trees there but if you disturb or change the ground cover, the vegetation that has been keeping the soil intact, the plant roots mechanically holding the soil particles together, then you are exposing the whole place to erosion and, worse, landslide. That’s what happened in Bagong Silang. The disaster of Mt Makiling tells us that trees can only hold so much soil (and themselves) for so much time.

On the other hand, the blame may not be on Parklands at all. I went to many a village in Santa Catalina when I was helping ‘sell’ someone running for Mayor in the late 1990s, and I did not see enough trees on the hills to make the conservationist in me happy. Instead, I saw too many patches of bare soil. It is not right to put the blame on the Parklands people only for the landslide and the flashflood of 2006; I feel I must blame the Santa Catalina people also, if not much more, for the neglect of their hills, for not recognizing that if you do not maintain the ground cover of any soil, you are exposing it to erosion by rainwater anytime. Bare is exposed; a torrent of water will rape a bare soil – it’s a natural law.

I must also blame UP Los Baños, whose mandate is national, for the neglect of their extension, for not helping out the many Municipal Agriculturists and the 1 Provincial Agriculturist in the province of San Manuel in promoting the virtue / value of ground / soil cover. We cannot mistake the trees for the forest, to the neglect of the vegetation below the canopy of those trees, to the neglect of the organic matter that binds the soil particles together so that they become (almost) impossible to erode.

After the February 2006 landslide in Southern Leyte, Philippines, the province received through the ADB (Asian Development Bank) a grant of $3 million from the Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction (December 2006, adb.org/media). This was to be expended to repair roads, upgrade facilities and services of hospitals, and construct additional classrooms. The Leyte Landslide had dislocated 5,700 families, damaged 35 km of roads, and destroyed or imperiled 20 school buildings. The amount would also finance the establishment of the Provincial Disaster Management Center, and to ‘provide training and equipment for search & rescue operations.’

Thanks, ADB! But I notice that the emphasis is disaster management and not disaster prevention. So, I’m not surprised by this news: ‘Leyte landslide site still hazardous 2 years (later) – scientist’ (30 April 2008, Vicente Labro, inquirer.net/specialfeatures). But I’m surprised that in that same news item, Sandra Catane of the National Institute of Geological Sciences of the University of the Philippines Diliman, after an international expert group determined that the area is still hazardous, says ‘We need to do something (to reduce the impact of landslides).’  To reduce the impact but not to reduce the occurrence of landslides? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Elementary, my dear Sandra.

A little more than a month ago, on 15 October 2008, it was reported that another landslide occurred at the village of Guadalupe in Cebu City. As in the first incident on 14 April, the landslide covered 8 houses with thick mud and limestone; 12 families had to be temporarily relocated. Landco Pacific Corp, a Guadalupe developer, had constructed 8 water detention ponds to prevent flooding downstream, but City Councilor Gerard Carillo said ‘these were not constructed properly and could not catch the water coming from the upland areas’ (Linette C Ramos & Rene H Martel, sunstar.com.ph).

That little news item is very revealing to me: ‘could not catch the water coming from the upland areas’ – these words did not actually come from Carillo; I put them in quotes because they did not come from me either – they are the reporters’. The point is this: The water directly causing the landslide came from up the hills. This means that those hills are, among other things, devoid of vegetative or ground cover that can absorb the rainwater and keep it in place; the place is no longer functioning as a watershed. While those water detention ponds are important, it is more important that the watershed be reestablished. To put it simply, where the forest is gone, the forest must be restored – and fast.

First things first. If your hills are forested, you have a good watershed; otherwise, you have a bad watershed – and during the rainy season, you can expect soil erosion often and a landslide anytime. The best water detention pond is the watershed itself, the forested land. A good watershed soaks up a torrent of rainwater and releases the water not as a flash flood but gently, gradually. Here where the trees stand, only the water falls, not the soil.

There are natural landslides, but there are more landslides arising from clearcut forests and their roads; a 25-year scientific study has proven that ‘clearcutting causes very large increases in landslides’ (Pacific Rivers Council, December 1996, umpqua-watersheds.org). That’s in Oregon, in the USA, but it might as well as be in the Philippines.

Tropical or temperate, the forest is the watershed. Deforestation and bad agricultural practices result in ‘excessive soil loss and uncontrolled water runoff during and after rainstorms’ (Brian James, slumaffe.org). I know. I’ve seen it myself. When I was the Chief Information Officer of FORI (Forest Research Institute), 1975-1981, I visited, climbed and documented many a forested area and slash-and-burn plot in the Philippines: in Luzon, the Visayas, and Mindanao. I could see the undergrowth heavily damaged and the forest soil exposed by the dragging of the huge logs from here to there, from the top of the hill down to the stream below. So, it is easy for me to say that in the Philippines, distinguishing the trigger from the cause, the landslides of Santa Catalina, Southern Leyte, Mt Makiling and Guadalupe were all triggered by heavy rains and caused by different levels of degradation of watersheds. After a point, the level is not important – the degradation is.

The loss of the forest – that is to say, the fall of trees along with the baring of the soil – brings about the rise of floodwaters coming from the hills and flowing to the valley below. Will the Fall of Santa Catalina happen again? Not if they learn the watershed lesson that is also a tennis lesson that is also an economic lesson: Keep it up, and it won’t come crashing down on you. *

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