Sean McDonagh is an Irish eco-theologian who worked in the Philippines for two decades.
What more has to happen to concentrate the minds of the officials from 174 countries who are currently in Warsaw, Poland, for the Conference of the Parties (COP 19) at the UN Framework Conference on Climate Change? In 2012, the week before last year’s Conference in Doha, Typhoon Bopha crashed into the province of Davao Oriental in the Philippines and killed almost 600 people in the Compostela valley. By the time it had crossed Mindanao almost 2,000 people were dead. Homes, businesses, schools, churches and power lines were all destroyed.
At 4.49am local time, on Friday 8 November 2013, a category five typhoon, called Haiyan, (locally called Yolanda), one of the strongest storms ever recorded, slammed into the islands of Samar and Leyte which are located on the eastern side of the central Philippines. Both these provinces are among the poorest in the Philippines.
The storm packed winds of almost 200 miles per hour creating mayhem in towns, villages and in the city of Tacloban, the provincial capital of the province of Leyte. The storm was so strong that it is estimated that 70% to 80% of everything in its path was destroyed. Houses were blown down, roofs were stripped off building, trees and coconut trees uprooted, power cables and telecommunications equipment destroyed.
During my years in the Philippines, I visited Tacloban a number of times. The Irish Mercy Sisters from Our Lady of the Isle in Cork had set up a school in Tacloban in the 1950s. I remember that the airport was about four or five miles from the city centre. In the wake of Haiyan, the runway looked like a muddy wasteland, with debris from the galvanized iron roofs and overturned cars strewn everywhere. All the windows in the airport tower were blown in and the glass was scattered everywhere. Many of the homes which lined the road from the airport into the city centre were blown down or washed away. The picture was one of absolute devastation.
The storm and accompanying heavy rain has caused massive landslides. Before the forests on the islands were destroyed by wealthy Filipinos in the 1950s and 1960s, typhoons did not do so much damage, as the canopy of the tropical trees protected the soil and the roots soaked up the excess water. But once the vegetative cover was removed, soil erosion was inevitable. When it comes to assessing the full damage from Haiyan, the tens of thousands of tons of productive topsoil which has been lost must be included, to get a true estimate of the damage. Those few rich people who destroyed the forests across the Philippines have left a trail of misery behind them. What they did was sinful and the poor are now paying the price.
By lunchtime on Sunday, November 10th 2013, it was estimated that 10,000 people had lost their lives in Leyte alone, and that figure is likely to rise as the clean-up gets under way in other places, especially in Samar. Most of the deaths came from drowning. Six metre high ( 18 feet) waves swept inland for almost 11 kilometres, leaving a trail of death and destruction in villages, towns and, especially in the city of Tacloban where hundreds of people were drowned. The giant waves overturned cars and jeeps and left debris everywhere. Electric power and telecommunications lines were completely destroyed, so people found it impossible to check whether relatives were safe.
A few of the pictures which have emerged show heart-breaking scenes: In one photo a grieving mother is sitting weeping in front of her son who has been laid out on a bench in a barrio chapel in Tacloban. Other photos show parents desperately searching for their children who were swept away by the colossal waves. Pain and anguish is etched on the faces of these poor people, many of whom have lost all their material possessions as well as their relatives. At the height of the storm, TV footage showed children clinging to rooftops for their lives.
Haiyan cut right through the central Philippines like a knife. Though much of the damage was in Leyte and Samar, other areas were also affected, including Cebu, the country’s second largest city. According to officials two people were electrocuted in storm-related incidents and another was killed after being struck by lightening. Seven others were reported injured. Even Bohol which last month experienced a deadly 7.3 magnitude earthquake was also affected.
Typhoons are common in the Philippines, but many scientists believe that climate change is increasing the number and ferocity of these storms which is why we need a substantial breakthrough at the Warsaw climate
Columban JPIC recently supported the production of a new 18 minute DVD on ‘Conflict and Climate Change. View the trailer at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=1u3EGSJ68x4
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