Experts count down to next Philippine landslide disaster

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 March, 2006, 12:00am

Buried under metres of mud and boulders, the village of Guinsaugon in the Philippine province of Southern Leyte resembles a sodden first world war battlefield, unrecognisable from the verdant paddyfields that once spread out from the slopes of Mount Kan-abag.

Guinsaugon was yet another reminder of the continuous risk of landslides for thousands of communities across the archipelago - a danger that's becoming acute as the La Nina weather pattern of unusually heavy rainfall descends on Southeast Asia.

Environmental groups blame most landslides on decades of logging, which has stripped the country of the forest cover that once protected upland communities from mudslides during the rainy season. But the archipelago also sits on the so-called Ring of Fire, an area of intense volcanic activity and geological faults on the Pacific basin. Add the numerous typhoons that lash the Philippines every year and you have one of the world's most disaster-prone countries.

Even so, the damage wrought by natural calamities has been made immeasurably worse by the destruction of forests, mangrove swamps and coral reefs that once helped protect these islands from the elements.

In the case of Guinsaugon, two weeks of heavy rainfall loosened earth and boulders on the slopes of Mount Kan-abag, causing part of the mountainside to collapse.

A small earthquake measuring 2.6 on the Richter scale shortly before the February 17 landslide has now been ruled out as the trigger by the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology. 'This was a rain-induced landslide,' says Perla Delos Reyes, a geology researcher at the government institute. What's more, the village sat on a geological fault zone. 'The ground in the area moves around 3.7cm a year - and that's a lot,' says Ms Reyes.

Most of Guinsaugon's inhabitants perished in the landslide. The focus of an international rescue effort was the elementary school, where about 250 pupils and teachers were entombed. By Sunday, 140 bodies had been recovered, with 933 villagers missing, buried under mud 35 metres deep in places.

Although survivors were found in a collapsed two-storey building 10 days after a mudslide and flash floods destroyed the town of Real in Quezon province two years ago, killing 2,000 people, hopes have faded of finding anyone alive in Guinsaugon. 'There's nothing more we can do for them,' Southern Leyte governor Rosette Lerias told a local television network over the weekend.

This has been the worst landslide since Quezon, which environmentalists blamed on illegal logging. In 1991, landslides and floods swept away the town of Ormoc on the west coast of Leyte Island, killing 6,000 people. That logging contributed - if not caused - that disaster was vividly brought home by the hundreds of sawn-off logs in the debris that slammed into the town.

As for Guinsaugon, government environmental officials say there has been no logging there for years. But along with many other regions of the Philippines, Guinsaugon's uplands had long ago been stripped of their forest cover and replaced with coconut trees. While the bountiful buko (coconut) provides a livelihood for millions of Filipinos, the trees have shallow roots, providing little ground stability to prevent landslides.

To preserve what's left of the country's forest cover, the government has stopped issuing new logging licences. According to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), only three Timber Licence Agreements, which allow commercial logging, are being used out of 13 permits in circulation. A replanting programme is also under way.

In the mid-1970s, about 15 million hectares were forested; falling to 5.2 million in 1996. That has risen again to 7.2 million hectares, says the DENR.

The recent appointment of former armed forces chief, Angelo Reyes, to head the DENR, also suggests the governments is getting tough on illegal logging and mining. Even so, both activities are hard to police and continue apace.

Blas Tabaranza, operations director of environmental awareness group Haribon Foundation, says a mature hardwood tree can fetch up to 30,000 pesos ($4,500): 'It's clearly a lucrative trade for the illegal loggers.' Even the little that workers are paid to fell the trees isn't bad going given the pitifully low incomes of kaingeros, the slash-and-burn farmers.

The names of the illegal loggers are well known in the areas where they operate. But despite laws to protect the environment, few of them end up in court.

In the past, logging and politics were closely intertwined. A number of political dynasties whose scions are in Congress today were founded during logging's heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, when the country was among the world's top five timber exporters. The roots of industrial logging go back to the turn of the last century, when the US replaced Spain as the colonial power in the Philippines.

At that time, an estimated 70 per cent of the islands were covered in forests. Greenpeace Southeast Asia estimates only 9 per cent is left: 'We are skirting the edge of an ecological abyss,' says campaigns director Von Hernandez.

After Guinsaugon, some politicians are trying to revive efforts to impose a 25-year moratorium on logging to allow the forests to regenerate. The Haribon Foundation, for one, says such an extreme measure isn't necessary. 'We're not against logging if it's done responsibly,' says Mr Tabaranza.

But the immediate worry is La Nina. In an unwinnable race against time, the DENR is trying to identify communities at risk from landslides, flooding and ground ruptures by mapping so-called geo-hazard areas falling in the path of La Nina, which crosses Southern Leyte and other provinces along the eastern seaboard.

'La Nina is increasing the risk of landslides,' says the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology's Ms Reyes. 'Because of limited funds it's not possible to do detailed mapping for all the provinces; so we're prioritising the eastern seaboard.'

Meanwhile, communities living in potential trouble spots are being urged to look out for the tell-tale signs of landslides in the making, such as trees growing slanted on uplands - an early warning sign that the land may be moving.

'Natural events - typhoons, volcanic eruptions, flooding and earthquakes - will occur anyway,' says Thomas Crouch, the Asian Development Bank's country director for the Philippines. 'The challenge is to do all we can to figure out where and when these will occur, and then act on the information.

'Disaster mapping is a powerful management tool,' he says. 'Budget shortages have constrained the completion of the process, but the ADB is prepared to work with the Philippines on efforts like this.'

But Greenpeace and other environmental organisations are critical of the slow pace of the geo-hazard mapping of several hundred municipalities at risk from landslides, floods and earthquakes. 'This should have been prioritised long ago, especially since the danger signs have long been there,' says Greenpeace's Mr Hernandez. 'The latest disaster only shows that little progress has been made.'