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World’s biggest storm – a taste of things to come?

Boats on beach

In early November I found myself in a postcard – tropical beach, swaying palms, calm sea, cloudless skies. No, not on holiday but rather I was visiting Batangas Province in the Philippines as part of the Capturing Coral Reef & Related Ecosystem Services (CCRES) project – a World Bank/Global Environment Facility initiative in which Currie is a partner.

CCRES will undertake research to calculate a value for the services provided to local communities by seagrass beds, mangroves, coral reefs and develop eco-friendly businesses, toolkits and spatial planning models which capture this value and, in doing so, assist communities to develop new sustainable revenue streams. Our visit was to investigate potential pilot sites for the project.

To complete the postcard, colourful fishing boats crowded the shore, but this pretty sight had a disturbing implication for the local community. Instead of being out gathering the day’s catch, the fleet had been grounded by a typhoon warning. I was aware that the villagers were largely subsistence fisher families reliant on the sea for their food and income, so asked our local host what happened when the weather prevented the boats going out.

“They are hungry,” he said.

The category five ‘Super’ Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines two days later. By that time, I was lucky enough to be back in a Manila hotel – a polite note slipped under my door warned to stay close by in case of floods. Ok then! Satellite images showed the typhoon engulfing the entire country, yet Manila remained largely unaffected. From my hotel window, I watched people going about their daily business under a dark grey sky.

Things became more surreal as the extent of the devastation wreaked in the central Philippines emerged. Reports came in of winds up to 340 kilometres – recorded before the instruments broke. Frantic media coverage focussed on Tacloban, a city of over 200,000 virtually destroyed by the storm. But it was the silence from whole areas in the path of Haiyan that was even more disturbing.

When the storm passed, coverage focused on human tragedies with families and communities devastated, as well as logistical issues. Food, water, shelter and medical supplies were urgently needed across hundreds of square kilometres. People squatted amongst mountains of debris.

The United Nations reports over 6000 dead in the Philippines but the exact number is unknown. Bodies are still being found and many were swept away by gigantic storm surges and fierce winds.  An estimated 14 million people were affected in the Philippines, Vietnam and Micronesia, with 3.5 million made homeless. Infrastructure such as roads, communications and power were totally wiped out in hard hit areas, together with crops and livestock. Economic cost estimates range but are in the tens of billions. But what of the human cost?

The coastal village we visited was spared a direct hit but still its fishers, and thousands of others like them, were confined to the shore for many days. Hungry. How can their experience be quantified? And what else does not appear in the bottom line? One of our colleagues had 15 years of forestry research severely affected with greenhouses and test plots flattened by Haiyan. This will potentially delay uptake of findings on sustainable forestry practices for many years. These sorts of impacts will never be fully understood.

Haiyan was apparently the strongest storm ever to make landfall. Ever. Think about it.

With climate change expected to create more and more ‘super’ storms and other natural disasters, the potential for human suffering is almost unimaginable. In the Philippines, climate change is an accepted reality amongst citizens and politicians alike with significant concern about what the future impacts will be. It’s hard to ignore 6000 corpses.

To support victims of Typhoon Haiyan, visit UNICEF or the Red Cross.

ABOUT CCRES

The Capturing Coral Reef & Related Ecosystem Services (CCRES) project seeks to unlock the natural wealth of coastlines in the East Asia-Pacific region. CCRES will undertake research to calculate a value for the services provided to local communities by seagrass beds, mangroves, coral reefs and develop eco-friendly businesses, toolkits and spatial planning models which capture this value and, in doing so, assist communities to develop newsustainable revenue streams. Currie is a partner in the project which is funded by the World Bank, the Global Environment Facility, and The University of Queensland; and involves Cornell University; University of California, Davis; WWF; University of the Philippines; and De La Salle University

For more information visit the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, or check out CCRES on Facebook and Twitter.

About Gabrielle Sheehan

Gabrielle is the great-all-rounder: manager of consultation and stakeholder relations, writer of strategies and case studies, developer of collateral, passionate traveller and occasional tango dancer. She listens, she writes and she delivers. She’s had extensive experience and knows how to navigate government departments and the corporate world. Read more posts by Gabrielle.

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