I am on a mission deep in the crocodile paradise of the Agusan Marshes, to understand how years of overexploitation has impacted on the lives of the region's local population and to identify how Wetlands International and its humanitarian partners can restore the region’s valuable natural resources.
The Philippine flooding tragedy
For years, Red Cross and partners of Care and Cordaid have helped people after flooding disasters in the Philippines, but they are now confronted with floods that are rapidly increasing in frequency and intensity, claiming more lives every year. Conventional approaches – providing relief aid after a disaster and developing emergency preparedness and risk mitigation strategies – no longer suffice.
Infrastructural solutions such as landfills and dam construction have merely caused a displacement of flooding to communities elsewhere. Villagers have temporarily escaped the floods by building their houses on poles, but increasingly they suffer the limitation of their creative solution: the four-metre poles do simply not suffice to keep the floodwaters at bay. People are slowly losing their battle.
Both communities and humanitarian organisations have started to realise that they can only solve this desperate situation by fighting the factors that cause the floods.
Suspecting that the rampant degradation of Mindanao’s ecosystems may be one of these causes, they asked Wetlands International to help out by mapping these interactions and identifying practical ‘ecosystem-based solutions’ that bring back the role of ecosystems in water regulating and storage and soil protection.
From the mountains to the floodplains
This is how we ended up in the swamp. We are halfway our assessment, which started in the mountains of the Agusan river basin a few days before. My conclusions are quite shocking. The mountain ridges are dotted with illegal mining pits and most forests have gone. Rapidly they are being replaced with huge exotic plantations for pulp and paper production. It hardly comes as a surprise that the area has lost many of its natural riches and that mudslides and massive erosion wreak havoc with the local peoples’ daily lives.
But is there any connection with the floods downstream? As our boat slowly moves through the flooded forests, I realise there is. I notice that the trees around me are slowly dying – only few leaves remain in their crowns. I witness a wetland that is being suffocated by the silt loaded river. Captured by invasive water hyacinths that cover most of the floodplains, the fine soil particles settle on the floodplain, stagnating water flows and burying native vegetation. This is a disaster for the indigenous communities. An old man, seated on the floor of his floating house explains how centuries of traditional knowledge and beliefs slowly disappear along with the rich fisheries resources and other valuable biodiversity.
A giant bathtub
The Agusan marshes are like a giant bathtub. As it fills up with sediment, the water spills to surrounding areas. The floods are literally displaced, causing annual three metre floods in surrounding villages and agricultural lands that last for months. Each year the floods get worse. Tens of thousands of people have become trapped in a desperate poverty situation.
A new approach
The loss of healthy ecosystems is a common cause of increasing disaster risk. Yet, rarely do disaster risk reduction programs consider natural resources management as a vital strategy. This is why Red Cross, the Red Cross Climate centre, Cordaid, Care, Wetlands International and their local counterparts united themselves in the Partners for Resilience Alliance <add link to brochure>. In 2011 they started implementing a five year programme in the Philippines and eight other countries.
By combining conventional community based risk reduction measures with ecosystem-based approaches – for example wetland restoration, reforestation or environmental protection measures – they will increase the resilience of hundreds of thousands of people against floods, storms, mudslides and various other (climate) hazards. This will result in a new paradigm, where the maintenance of healthy ecosystems is one of the fundaments to risk reduction.
Our boat passes a local vegetable garden. To my surprise the onions and chilli peppers are being grown in old discarded rubber boots, placed on a rack above the ground. Movable onions are a creative solution to cope with the floods, but also a sad symbol of destructive short-sighted exploitation of the natural environment that caused the flooding.
I realise that our large-scale programme is a much needed and timely effort to work with government officials and communities towards a management approach where healthy ecosystems are seen as a core part of human development and resilience.
Pieter van Eijk
Senior Technical Officer
pieter.vaneijk @ wetlands.org