10 years after Haiyan, do mangrove forests protect the coastal areas of the Philippines?

Tacloban, Philippines – Twice a month for the past 10 years, pig farmer Alejandro Sumayang has planted mangrove plants along the shoreline, a few meters from his house.

By sticking a stick into the muddy ground, he creates a hole for the seedling, tying it to a piece of bamboo to prevent it from being washed away by the tide.

“It protects me,” he said, crouching down to inspect a recently planted row of plants.

The back of Sumayang’s makeshift home overlooks the Pacific Ocean in the central province of Leyte in the Philippines. Ten years ago, on November 8, 2013, tsunami-like waves triggered by Super Typhoon Haiyan struck his house in Silago, leaving only broken wooden beams amid the wreckage.

Haiyan was one of the strongest typhoons to ever make landfall. The storm that swept across the island of Leyte, razed homes and caused a storm surge that flooded entire neighborhoods, killing more than 6,300 people. The government said at least 13 million people were affected.

In December 2021, a typhoon hit Leyte again. Typhoon Rai was as intense as Haiyan.

“I would have lost my house again if we hadn’t planted anything. From a distance, we saw the waves lose momentum and break up before reaching the shore,” Sumayang told Al Jazeera.

Alejandro Sumayang is a pig farmer, but he also plants mangrove seedlings along the shore near his home [Michael Beltran/Al Jazeera]

About 20 typhoons annually affect the territory of the Philippines. For the past 12 years, the Southeast Asian archipelago has been in first place in the ranking of countries most vulnerable to natural disasters. Global Risk Index produced by the German Ruhr University in Bochum.

Following Haiyan, several coastal communities have launched mangrove reforestation efforts, arguing that nature is the most effective way to deal with the effects of climate change.

Four villages in Silago were among the first to start sowing, working with NGOs and village officials to begin planting a year after the disaster. The distinctive tuberous roots and flat leaves of various types of mangroves now cover 215 square kilometers (83 square miles) of the city’s coastal area.

The Leyte Center for Development (LCDE), a humanitarian organization that supported the planting at Silago, believes the plants helped save 2,000 coastal residents from Rai’s attack.

“This is a testament to the effectiveness of the ecosystem-based approach and it costs people virtually nothing,” said LCDE director Minet Aguisanda-Jerusalem.

“Obsession” with infrastructure

However, there was little support from any officials at municipal or higher levels.

Instead, the government supported man-made interventions, including the construction of a massive concrete sea wall in Tacloban City, the capital of Leyte.

Construction of the 16.9 billion Philippine peso ($304.5 million) Storm Surge Protection Project (SSPP) began in 2016.

The 44.48 km (27.6 mi) long concrete breakwater was due to be completed by 2020, but only 58% of the work had been completed.

Government sea wall.  The concrete is crumbling.  Someone is standing on it.  The sea is behind.
Government sea wall [Michael Beltran/Al Jazeera]

Delays result from “taking over the right of way” and fluctuations in material prices [and] request for additional tidal embankment features,” the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) regional office told Al Jazeera in an email.

In some sections of the SSPP, the wall has already begun to crack and crumble, exposing the steel reinforcing bars inside to the weather.

But DPWH is maintaining the project. The report shared with Al Jazeera recommended that engineering offices on the island “adopt SSPP standards for coastal protection across the region.”

Professor William Holden, an environmental geographer at the University of Calgary who studies the situation in Tacloban, says even when the wall is completed, it probably won’t be enough to protect the city.

“Climate change means warmer air holds more water and therefore more rainfall. Engineers cannot predict how large the breakwater that needs to be built will be. Future typhoons will eventually overshadow Haiyan,” said Holden, who suspects maintaining the SSPP will also prove costly.

Jon Bonifacio, national coordinator of the environmental group Kalikasan, fears the wall could even exacerbate the effects of climate change because it risks trapping water that enters the city during a storm and causing long-term flooding.

He also critically assesses the social costs of the project, which required thousands of coastal residents to leave their homes, cutting them off from their sources of income. He accuses President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s administration of continuing the state’s “obsession with gray infrastructure” because “it ultimately ends up displacing rather than eliminating the effects of climate change.”

Natural breakwater system

In the Philippines, 46 of the 70 species of mangrove trees and shrubs grow in the saltwater tidal flats where the land meets the sea.

While research has shown that plants help reduce the vulnerability of coastal communities to tsunamis and storm surges, they are also at risk.

Since 1920, the Philippines has lost an estimated 49 percent of its mangrove forests.

Jecel Espina-Pedel sits by the sea with his family.  She stands and holds a baby.  The others are sitting on a log.
Jecel Espina-Pedel (back right) with his family [Michael Beltran/Al Jazeera]

Professor Eduardo Mangaoang, founder of the Regional Research and Development Center on Climate Change at the Visayas State University in Leyte, urged authorities to pay attention to the useful science behind mangroves.

“The walls and bodies constitute a natural system of breakwaters protecting against strong waves. It stabilizes and holds the coastal soil together and is a breeding ground for fish,” Mangaoang explained to Al Jazeera.

In 2014, Jecel Espina-Pedel, a 14-year-old from Silago and a self-proclaimed “nature lover,” joined hundreds of others in a coordinated mangrove planting effort.

Looking out the window, she remembers how the first leaves sprouted after just six months. Within a few years, the surrounding soil was completely transformed.

“The ground turned from rocky to muddy. We saw small holes that were new habitats. We looked under the rocks and saw fish we had never seen here before,” she explained, still excited by what had happened.

Pedel comes from a fishing family. Soon they often ate shellfish for dinner and sold the rest of their catch on the roadside.

“It has many additional benefits: a food source, a scientific basis and a carbon sink. This is recognized internationally. But there is no comprehensive plan for this locally,” Gerry Arances, director of the Center for Energy, Ecology and Development in Manila, told Al Jazeera.

For mangroves to survive, appropriate varieties of seedlings must be selected and properly placed along the shore.

In 2015, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) criticized the use of inappropriate methods in a 1 billion Philippine peso ($18 million) mangrove reforestation project. In 2023, he is in favor again criticized department for repeating the mistake in Bohol and Negros Occidental.

Mangaoang attributes the success in areas like Silago to the attention of local residents who continue planting while protecting the mangroves from barnacles and other parasites.

Occurrence of small mangrove plants in southern Leyte.
For mangroves to survive, the right variety must be selected and placed appropriately [Michael Beltran/Al Jazeera]

The scientist travels throughout the region promoting mangroves. In his town of Baybay, Leyte, he finally convinced Mayor Jose Carlos Cari to support a mangrove community plan for next year, the first in the region.

Overall, Mangaoang says, community-coordinated mangrove planting “is still in its early stages.” Coastal communities have many local practices that need support. They are scientists themselves, they just don’t know it.”

“We are protected”

The government, however, continues to expand its engineering interventions in Leyte.

Construction of the Tacloban City Causeway began in February this year. According to DPWH, the 4.5 billion Philippine pesos ($81.1 million) 2.5-kilometer (1.5-mile) road will reduce travel times to the city and “protect the lives and property of residents/persons on the road.” area against tidal erosion action.”

The road embankment will be built on reclaimed land.

This involves the demolition of mangroves along Cancabato Bay, classified by the city as a protected area for biodiversity. The bay is a popular fishing spot and the density of mangroves was increased by the local fishing community after Haiyan.

“Proper planning on these issues is essential,” said Ian Fry, the United Nations special rapporteur on the protection of human rights in the context of climate change, after visiting Tacloban for the 10th anniversary of Haiyan. He called the potential loss of mangroves a “serious concern.”

Roque Regis, a Bay Area community leader, estimates that since Haiyan, their own efforts have contributed to the growth of mangroves in the Bay by an additional 30 percent. He called the government “tone deaf” for ignoring its own protections at the bay and residents’ requests to stop construction.

After the typhoon, “they displaced everyone living near the coast,” Regis told Al Jazeera. “Now they are going to do the same thing in Cancabato Bay. They want to “clean up” the area for tourists. But they are destroying our homes and fishing grounds.”

As the Philippine government’s response to the climate catastrophe is not yet complete, affected communities still believe that nature is the solution to future problems.

They plan to continue to defend the trees they believe protect and nurture them.

“When we started planting, we had doubts, saying that mangroves would be home to snakes or that they wouldn’t work. But look at us here, we are protected. It is a gift to people,” Sumayang said.


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