The Philippines is among the world’s top producers of seaweed, which it exports in both raw (fresh or dried) and processed forms, supplying major export markets in China, the U.S., France, South Korea and Belgium. (Photo courtesy of Ivan Romero)

Danilo Barrera was among the thousands who had to flee their homes when tropical storm Maring (international name: Kompasu) brought severe floods to the southern Palawan town of Narra in mid-October this year.

“Biglaan ‘yong pagtaas ng tubig. Simula alas tres hanggang alas kwatro (ng madaling araw), biglang akyat mula tuhod hanggang leeg. Sabi ko, ‘ano ba ang nangyayari?’,” he said.

Flooding in coastal villages had been virtually non-existent in the province until the last decade, which environmental advocates described as an escalating concern catalyzed by climate change.

In its November 2021 report, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) of the United Nations (UN) noted that climate change has increased threats in the southwest Pacific region with storms and floods that triggered death, destruction, and displacement in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Small Island Developing States (SIDS).

Map showing villages in Puerto Princesa City that are considered high-risk to storm surge. (Rendered photo from Office of City Planning and Development Coordinator)

Agricultural consequences of increased storm surge and flooding
Home to about 939,594 people, Palawan, the largest province in the country in terms of land area, ranks second as the province most vulnerable to an increase in sea level. A one-meter rise in sea level is projected to inundate 6,428.16 hectares of land, according to Greenpeace Philippines.

An increase in sea level would also mean higher hydrometeorological risk for vulnerable households in low-lying and coastal communities.

In Puerto Princesa City, Silvino G. Alcantara Jr., planning officer in the Office of the City Planning and Development Coordinator (OCPDC), said that coastal flooding and storm surge were among the top hazards identified in the city’s Climate and Disaster Risk Assessment (CDRA).

“In two to three years, expected na mataas ang pag-ulan and will most likely cause rain-induced flooding and rain-induced landslide. [Sa Puerto Princesa City], marami tayong western and eastern coastal areas. Most likely, the immediate effect [of climate change is] possible coastal flooding,” Alcantara said.

The most recent onslaught of Tropical Storm Maring in October caused agricultural damage of almost 3 million pesos in Puerto Princesa City and P82 million throughout the Palawan province, due to flooding caused by continuous rainfall.

In Puerto Princesa, a total of 47 rice farmers and 22 vegetable farmers were affected, with a total damaged land area of 48.94 hectares. They were reported to have had crops totally submerged under floodwater.

Provincial agriculturist Dr. Romeo Cabungcal said that the flooding was caused by the intensified southwest monsoon, or habagat, due to the presence of a severe tropical storm that heavily hit the agriculture sector.

Throughout the Palawan province, approximately 2,274 rice growers were impacted by the floods. Farmers in Narra, Rizal, and Quezon towns were the most impacted, with 663, 441, and 435 affected farmers, respectively. There were 199 affected farmers in Bataraza town with a total affected land area of 397.20 ha; 143 farmers in Brooke’s Point with a total damaged land area of 218.33 ha; 245 farmers in Sofronio Espanola with a total damaged land area of 348.75 ha; San Vicente has 49 impacted rice farmers with 49.75 ha of damaged land; Dumaran has six farmers with four ha of damaged land; and Roxas has 46 farmers with 41.73 ha of damaged land.

Four dead and more than 6,000 individuals in the village of Princess Urduja had been displaced when the Batang-batang river overflowed due to rain-induced flooding brought by tropical storm Maring mid-October.

Rising sea temperatures threaten seaweed farming
The UN WMO report also mentioned ocean warming, which contributes to approximately 40% of sea-level rise, altering ocean currents and, indirectly, storm tracks, as well as increasing ocean stratification, acidification, and deoxygenation.

“Ocean warming can also lead to dramatic changes in marine ecosystems and biodiversity,” the report read.

In the northern Palawan town of Taytay, approximately 204.5 kilometers from Puerto Princesa City, local seaweed farmers have noted the increase in seawater temperature that is affecting the survival, growth, and reproduction of their produce.

Locally known as “tambalang” or “agar-agar”, seaweed farming is among the primary livelihoods in the coastal villages in the municipality of Taytay.

Jhay-R Timbang, a seaweed farmer in the coastal village of Pularaquen in Taytay, said that it was their first time encountering “ice-ice”, a disease caused by epiphytes triggered by high seawater temperatures, which leads the seaweed to die.

“Ngayon lang talaga ito, dati wala namang ganito. Okay naman ang harvest namin. Akala kasi namin noon wala lang ito, pero hindi pa rin nagbago―nalulusaw ang agar-agar namin,” Timbang said.

Seaweed is a robust cash crop, which the locals usually refer to as a “floating bank account”. They have a means of income as long as they can harvest seaweed. One line can be turned into 10 lines in just six months, giving the farmers a choice of expanding their seaweed farm quickly, selling for cash, or trading for goods.

“Sa hina-harvest ko, dati nakaka -10 rolyo ako ng agar-agar para ibenta, pero noong nagsimula ‘yong ganitong sitwasyon, nakaka-apat o limang rolyo na lang ako, halos kalahati ang nalulusaw,” Timbang added.

Taytay Municipal agriculturist Hernan Fenix said sea-level rise and climate change are affecting all seaweed farms in Taytay Bay, causing them to soften and melt. He said they started receiving reports about destruction from seaweed organizations in December last year.

“Ang sea level temperature rise ay short natural phenomenon—nagkakaroon ng natural changes, katulad ng pagbabago ang klima sa ilalim ng dagat kaya nag-ooccur ang ganitong problema sa Taytay Bay,” Fenix said.

Among the seaweed farms that were affected are located in the areas of Amogues, Calawag, Tabuyo, Pamantolon, and Pularaquen.

A seaweed farmer in Taytay seeks to rescue his harvest from an ice-ice outbreak, which is produced by epiphytes and triggered by high seawater temperatures. (Photo courtesy of Rodel Dorado)

Climate action plans
In September 2018, the city government and Palawan State University (PSU) completed their greenhouse gas inventory (GHG) inventory, with an overall community level GHG emissions estimated at 356,861.55 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e).

The city’s goal is to reduce its greenhouse emissions by at least 5 percent by 2022 through effective water security and energy conservation; clean and renewable energy and sustainable urban transportation; sustainable agriculture, forestry, and land use; and zero waste (gas and waste management) and clean air.

To mitigate the burgeoning concern, the city government came up with a Local Climate Action Plan for the next three years, to be implemented from 2020 until 2023, focusing on climate-resilient infrastructure and local disaster risk reduction plans.

Puerto Princesa, the first city in the Philippines and in Southeast Asia to be declared “carbon-neutral” in 2011 using the international guidelines set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2011, plays a vital role in achieving the country’s target to reduce emissions by 70 percent as stated in the Philippines’ Intended Nationally Determined Contribution.

“Our action plans and goals include [yearly institutionalizing] programs. We have climate change tagged projects, administrative water security, and smart streetlights. City ENRO [also has plans for] a rainwater harvesting facility. It is a collaborative effort,” Alcantara added.

For environmental advocates, mitigating the effects of climate change must be systematic, with all sectors working together towards one goal—building habitable communities.

“The action plan was suggested by different offices with proponents of different projects. These are collaborative efforts. Dapat sama-sama tayo at dapat isang galaw lang tayo lahat,” Alcantara said.