Super Typhoon Bopha shows why developing countries are most vulnerable to climate change

  • Published: 15 January 2013
  • Filed: 30 January 2013
  • 2 responses
Rescue workers look for survivors at a coconut plantation in the aftermath of Typhoon Bopha in Compostela Valley in the southern Philippines, 7 December 2012 (Photo: NBC News)

Rescue workers look for survivors at a coconut plantation in the aftermath of Typhoon Bopha in Compostela Valley in the southern Philippines, 7 December 2012 (Photo: NBC News)

If Hurricane Sandy was a wake-up call for many in the United States to the kind of extreme weather that climate change is expected to bring, Typhoon Bopha, which struck the Philippines a month later, is a reminder of what makes developing regions even more vulnerable to these changes.

Typhoon Bopha hit the Philippines on December 4 with winds topping 175 miles per hour, the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane in the Atlantic. Over a thousand people were killed and many more displaced – weeks afterwards, 300,000 were still homeless. But besides the strength of its winds, a host of other factors worsened the impact of the storm.

Complex vulnerability

Most of the casualties from Bopha were on the island of Mindanao, one of the poorest, fastest-growing (a total fertility rate of 4.2 children per woman), and least-secure regions of the Philippines. The remote terrain makes access to and from the area difficult; environmentally destructive practices have increased the hazards for flooding and landslides; a long-running anti-government insurgency is rooted there; and illegal mining and agriculture are the primary livelihoods for most of its inhabitants.

Worse, the storm was unexpected. “We have never had a typhoon like Bopha, which has wreaked havoc in a part of the country that has never seen a storm like this in half a century,” said Climate Change Commissioner Naderev M. Saño speaking on behalf of the Philippine delegation at the UN climate change conference in Doha, Qatar, which took place as the typhoon hit.

Although historically rare (it was the second-most southerly latitude Category 5 storm on record), Bopha was actually the second very destructive storm experienced by the southern Philippines in recent years. Typhoon Washi followed a similar path almost exactly a year earlier and killed 1,249.

“An important backdrop for my delegation is the profound impacts of climate change that we are already confronting,” Saño said at Doha. “As we sit here, every single hour, even as we vacillate and procrastinate here, the death toll is rising.”

The factors that make Bopha so deadly are tied up in broader human development and natural resource exploitation trends – and they’re not unique to the Philippines or Southeast Asia.

Many of the residents of Compostela Valley, one of the hardest-hit provinces on Mindanao, worked on banana plantations or other kinds of farms which were devastated in the storm. Some plantations had “not a single stalk of banana” left, reported the Inquirer Mindanao. For these companies, the cost of rebuilding and replanting, combined with the risk of subsequent storms, make relocating more attractive than starting again in the valley, which will leave entire communities without work.

“Their homes, their farms [were] totally wiped out, but over and above it all, it’s a total annihilation of their livelihood,” Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters’ Association President Alex Viloria said of the plantation workers. “Today in Compostela Valley, everything is gone.” Total crop damage from the storm is estimated at $210 million.

In the valley and elsewhere, partly due to clearing for agricultural but also because of illegal logging, deforestation contributed to the severity of the landslides and floods since there were no roots to keep soil in place. “In these illegally logged areas, what do you expect but landslides?” Filipino Senator Loren Legarda told The New York Times. Forests cover only six percent of the island’s original forested area, and much of the logging is done by large corporations.

The other main livelihood in the Mindanao is gold mining. One in five people in Compostela Valley province rely on mining, according to the Agence France-Presse. But much of it is illegal because the terrain is so prone to landslides and flashfloods – which the mining only makes worse. Though workers may know of the danger, they remain in the area anyway. “It is the risk they are willing to take, just to strike it rich. They don’t want to move,” Governor Arthur Uy told AFP.

The government has issued geohazard maps which detail the regions that are considered most prone to landslides and flooding, but they can be difficult to interpret, leading to confusion about which areas are actually safe.

“There is a problem of information dissemination. The local officials also thought they [were] evacuating to an area which was safe,” said Larry Heradez, a technical officer for the government’s mining regulator. Senator Legarda also encountered problems with the maps: “Even I couldn’t read them,” he reported.

A national security concern

Further complicating the area’s recovery, Mindanao is also home to several anti-government insurgencies. Among them is the National People’s Army, a military wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines established in 1969. Though its influence has waned since then, it still has more than 10,000 members and continues activity, including kidnappings and extortion.

Though one might think that devastated infrastructure and livelihoods would inflame tensions, at least the in the short term, Bopha has brought an end to hostilities. Government troops had been stationed on Mindanao to combat the separatists, but following the storm, they began to disperse aid, and the rebels called a ceasefire to allow the troops to better serve the affected population.

It is not uncommon for parties to come to a truce after a natural disaster; following the Indian Ocean tsunami that hit Indonesia, rebels in the hardest-hit province of Aceh declared a ceasefire and ultimately reached an agreement with the government within a few months. But the situation seems less tractable in the Philippines, and the current damages are certainly worse than the benefits of a ceasefire – at least if it proves only temporary.

“Left with virtually nothing”

Individual climate events are notoriously difficult to link to climate change, especially complex storms like typhoons. But warmer seas have been shown to contribute to the intensity of storms, so the potential impact of climate change on Typhoon Bopha cannot be dismissed. In any case, it is the type of storm – extreme weather in an unexpected place – that scientists have said is more likely now in many places and will continue to be so as global greenhouse gases increase.

Further, Bopha shows why developing countries are most vulnerable to these changes. Developing countries like the Philippines are expected to bear the brunt of the effects of climate change partly because of their geographic location – many are in tropical latitudes, which are expected to experience greater changes than countries closer to the poles – but also because of already-existing poverty, poor health, environmental degradation, violence, and lack of infrastructure which increases vulnerability.

A storm on the scale of Typhoon Bopha would be devastating no matter where it hit. But infrastructure in developed countries is less vulnerable and they have the resources to build back more quickly and to mitigate the effects of future storms. Relocating to less disaster-prone areas is also more of an option for affected communities in developed countries. Families in Mindanao and other developing parts of the world, however, are often already living on the margins. Typhoon Bopha destroyed the homes and livelihoods of entire communities, those who are least able to recover from this kind of disaster.

“So many people who had very little before the typhoon struck have been left with virtually nothing,” Gwendolyn Pang, secretary general of the Philippine Red Cross, told AFP.

Governments and organizations responding to natural disasters frequently focus on single sectors, like rebuilding physical infrastructure. But every so often, circumstances force us to look at the complete picture and examine the longer-term trends – be they development, environment, or security – that are creating vulnerability.

Unfortunately, Typhoon Bopha’s lesson was grim, showing precisely why the UN, World Bank, U.S. intelligence community, and many others have warned that climate change will have an out-sized effect on the developing world.

Source: New Security Beat, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (United States)

  • Joel Vargas

    Great article. The next decade is going to be a crucial turning point to the global warming. Political interest, economic conditions, and society challenges, are causing these poor governments get even poorer. The rich in the world are always looking for ways to get more money and little attention is given to these countries that are falling apart. Food supply is becoming a real problem. My company was hired by a country last month to investigate a problem. The issue was the lack of availability of corn. Well, oil companies are buying corn to produce fuels and affecting the supply of corn for developing countries in Central America. Corn tortillas are the basic food they eat. Bring natural dissasters and now you have a real crisis.

  • Joel Vargas

    Great article. The next decade is going to be a crucial turning point to the global warming. Political interest, economic conditions, and society challenges, are causing these poor governments get even poorer. The rich in the world are always looking for ways to get more money and little attention is given to these countries that are falling apart. Food supply is becoming a real problem. My company was hired by a country last month to investigate a problem. The issue was the lack of availability of corn. Well, oil companies are buying corn to produce fuels and affecting the supply of corn for developing countries in Central America. Corn tortillas are the basic food they eat. Bring natural dissasters and now you have a real crisis.

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