Killer mudslides can be stopped if there's a will

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 February, 2006, 12:00am

The Philippines is an unlucky country when it comes to the ravages of nature, a reality apparently confirmed by the mudslide in Southern Leyte province which may have killed 1,800 people. But while nature may be blamed for the powerful typhoons, earthquakes and volcanos that pound the poverty-stricken nation of 80 million people, mudslides are a different matter.

Although the exact circumstances of the tragedy are unclear, mudslides are generally the result of mistreatment of the environment. Land, when stripped of protective trees, bushes and grass, is prone to erosion from wind and rain.

Filipinos, the majority of whom are farmers, are well aware of this because their livelihoods depend on it. Yet the gap between knowledge and practice is wide, as the Leyte disaster and countless similar ones in recent years reveal.

Survivors of the mudslide in the farming village of Guinsaugon were quick to realise man's hand in the disaster, suggesting to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo that logging was partly to blame. The leader promised to do her utmost to prevent a repeat and urged Filipinos to 'link arms to preserve our environment and protect what remains of it for our next generation'.

Little more than a year ago, Mrs Arroyo made the same pledge after heavy rain in the province of Quezon, south of Manila, caused slides that killed more than 1,000 people. A law was drafted and enacted cracking down on unauthorised logging nationwide. Similarly, after a series of deadly landslides on an island adjacent to Leyte in 2003, officials launched a geo-hazard mapping project to identify and make safe dangerous slopes.

The Philippines' vulnerability to land slippages is well known; up to 6,000 people died on Leyte from them in 1991 and the yearly toll around the nation is in the hundreds, sometimes thousands.

Logging, usually illegal, is mostly to blame, but the constraints of poverty and increasing population numbers can also mean encroachment onto sensitive land. The same has been the case in other developing countries across Asia, where landslides are also a frequent occurrence.

At least 75 people were killed by mud cascading onto houses on Indonesia's main island of Java last month, while Pakistan's Environment Minister, Tahir Iqbal, blamed most of the almost 74,000 deaths from an earthquake four months ago on landslides. He called for urgent reforestation in the quake zone, pointing out that in areas where there were forests, landslides did not occur.

Despite the technological advances of recent decades, the lessons of nature are still too frequently learned through tragedy. Even the world's wealthiest nation, the United States, is fallible, as the flooding of the city of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina last September proved.

In such circumstances, an argument might be put that the Philippines, lacking the financial resources and equipment, can do little but wait for the next tragedy and pray. That would appear to be what has been happening.

As the latest disaster reveals, efforts made by the government to prevent landslides have failed - but lack of money and know-how is not to blame. The logging law has been eroded by not being implemented in some parts of the country and not being properly policed in others. Reforestation is being carried out haphazardly, while communities continue to live on unsafe ground.

A Filipino man has created a short-term solution, making netting from coconut husks to anchor soil to slopes and river banks. His inexpensive invention is being used across Asia. Coupled with a concerted effort by Mrs Arroyo's government and officials elsewhere in the region to replant forests, stop illegal logging and identify vulnerable areas, the frequency of landslide tragedies can be greatly reduced.

The resources and skills to save lives do exist. All that is needed now is a genuine will.