by Jon Lindley Agustin
Climate change is redefining what monsoon rains– locally known as “hanging habagat” – are to Filipinos.
For almost three days last week, the southwest monsoon submerged various parts of Metro Manila and provinces such as Cavite and Bataan. Its prolonged stay in the Philippine Area of Responsibility has resulted, according to government agencies, in the displacement of almost two million people and wreaked P1-billion worth of damage to agriculture in one region alone.
Despite it not being categorized as a tropical depression or a typhoon, the amount of rain brought by the monsoon was higher than that of the infamous Typhoon Ondoy back in 2009. The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration’s (PAGASA) Project NOAH has recorded an accumulated rainfall of 472 mm in 22 hours, more than the 455 mm brought by the storm three years ago.
But for Jose Maria Tan, president and CEO of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Philippines, the monsoon rains should not be a surprise given the change in climate patterns.
“I think this is not a surprise because of global warming,” Tan told Tinig ng Plaridel in an interview.
”Although this was not true ten or twenty years ago, the West Philippine Sea is now warm enough to be a spawning area for a phenomenon called tropical cyclo-genesis, that is, the birth of storms,” she said.
So why was the rain so heavy over Metro Manila? Tan said it is because of the so-called “Heat Island Effect.”
Urbanized regions such as Metro Manila that extensively convert water-absorbent land to expanses of concrete generate a “tremendous amount of heat” much more than before, Tan explained.
“As a result, they act as ‘magnets’, drawing in and possibly enhancing the weather systems such as cyclones and the monsoon,” he added.
The new normal
For many environmental advocates, the rains are the new normal and people must learn to adapt.
“This is the ‘new normal’. We are facing a phenomenon we never experienced before and this is happening very rapidly,” said Rodne Galicha, Philippine district manager of The Climate Reality Project (TCRP), a project founded by former US vice-president and environmental advocate Al Gore.
According to the group’s press release, extreme drought and high temperatures are felt in the other side of the world such as the United States, as opposed to the prolonged rains resulting in extreme flooding in the eastern hemisphere.
“Extreme weather conditions are becoming more evident as more heat is trapped by the thickening of the atmosphere due to high concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases,” the statement said. “As temperatures increase, more water is evaporated from the oceans into the sky.”
Galicha explained the phenomenon in a way easier to understand, comparing the situation to a person covered with a thick blanket.
“Your body stands for the earth. While it is covered with a blanket, heat will be trapped. Your blanket resembles the atmosphere,” he said. “The body’s water ‘evaporates’, and the body dehydrates, resulting in extreme drought. Because it is too hot, perspiration occurs which translate to extreme precipitation and flooding.
In a statement, Sen. Loren Legarda, a staunch environmental advocate, said that Filipinos “must realize that heavy and excessive rainfall is part of the ‘new norm.’”
Weather prediction for 2020
In February 2011, PAGASA released a study titled “Climate Change in the Philippines” which predicted possible weather conditions come 2020 and 2050.
According to the study, daily rainfall would increase in frequency and intensity in areas such as Cagayan, Ilocos Norte, Pangasinan, Nueva Ecija, Region IV-A, Metro Manila, Occidental Mindoro, and Bukidnon among others.
“Rainfall increase is likely during the southwest monsoon (June, July, August) season until the transition (September, October, November) season in most areas of Luzon and Visayas,” the study said.
Metro Manila rainfall is expected to increase by 20 percent and 30 percent in 2020 and 2050 respectively, the study added.
With Metro Manila’s baseline rainfall of 1170.2 mm from June to August, the study computed an increase in rainfall of 1178.7 mm by 2020 and 1191.5 mm by 2050.
Close to the figures, the amount of rainfall brought by the recent southwest monsoon is 40 percent of the predicted amount of rainfall by 2020.
The mean annual rainfall of the Philippines varies from 965 to 4064 mm yearly.
According to Nature Climate Change journal, a monthly journal on the impacts of climate change, the Philippines is the 10th most vulnerable country when it comes to experiencing the effects of climate change.
In ascending order from rank one, the other countries listed were Haiti, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Madagascar, Cambodia, Mozambique, Congo, and Malawi.
TCRP Climate Leader and Marinduque Council for Environmental Concerns Executive Director Miguel Magalang said disasters serve as a wake-up call for all sectors of the society to actively involve in disaster risk reduction planning and budgeting processes.
“Ultimately, the solution to this crisis is climate justice – going beyond monetizing Mother Earth – giving back what is due to nature,” said Galicha.
“Climate change changes everything. Humankind created it,” Tan said. “We started it, we can stop it. But, let’s stop pointing fingers at the monsoon. We have to start moving on workable solutions.”