When Tita Nina texted me in Boston a few weeks ago to talk to you about climate change & water security, I was speechless for a few seconds. I thought about it and said to myself, “My God, individually those are two of THE most pressing and difficult issues of our time and I’m going to talk about them together? And in the context of our vulnerable Philippines at that!” I’ll have to admit that, despite my initial apprehensions, preparing for this has been a most interesting journey for me. Reading up and writing during the wee hours of the morning as I recovered from East Coast jet lag was brutal, but immensely rewarding. I especially love it when a journey leaves me with more unanswered questions from when I began. That’s precisely the nature of this combined topic.
Every night as we watch the news we see the effects of just 1°Celsius of warming wreaking havoc all over our world. The record hottest years and months being recorded all over the planet, the widespread heatwaves, wildfires, droughts being experienced with regularity.
The yearly visits of one in 500-year floods in the Atlantic and similar intense typhoons in the Pacific. The breakout of many kinds of vector-borne diseases like dengue as well as the prospect of massive species loss, a million warns a recent United Nations (UN) Biodiversity Report, just in the coming decades.
I’m sure some of you have come across accessibly written articles on the five mass extinction events that have occurred on Earth over the last half a billion years. Two of them, The Ends of the World by Peter Brannen and Pulitzer prize-winning The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert are great reading but I wouldn’t advise you read them as antidotes for jetlag. That’s because they’re hard to put down and terrifying. You come away understanding how fragile our planet’s living inhabitants can be when factors come along to upset life’s finely balanced carbon cycle. All five mass extinctions have that element, possibly even that of the Cretaceous which exterminated the dinosaurs.
Brannen’s book calls particular attention to the deadliest of the five mass extinctions that occurred in the Permian-Triassic period 252 million years ago. This was one that killed 96% of all life on earth. The suspected trigger is volcanic activity from what he calls Siberian Traps--burbling pools of lava that burnt through organic deposits of coal, oil and gas deposited over hundreds of millions of years prior. The traps burnt through 5 million square kilometers, releasing massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This isn’t too different from what we’re doing today. However, we’re reminded that this all occurred over thousands of years. Today we’re doing it more efficiently, scouring the bowels of the planet and deep oceans wherever we can find it and burning it ten times faster than the natural processes occurring during the Permian. All in just a matter of decades. (Note: 85% of the carbon in the atmosphere was burned just since the end of World War II.) As one of the scientists quoted in the book says “whether it’s volcanoes or Volvos, same thing”.
If we want to understand how the planet is changing, how fast it’s happening, and specifically what effect it will have on water and water security, where do we look? We all know that the amount of water on our planet is fixed and has been for the last four billion years or more. It just gets rearranged depending on the prevailing temperature. Thus, the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” for climate change is what’s happening to the cryosphere, our world of ice at the poles: Arctic, Antarctic and, what’s loosely dubbed our third pole, the Himalayas.
Scientists and the general public are only beginning to understand how the poles will react to a changing climate. For centuries they have always been inhospitable regions, impervious to extended observation to outsiders. But warmer temperatures are fast changing that. The Arctic and Antarctic are heating up much faster than anywhere else on earth and the last five years have been among their warmest on record. Both the Arctic and Antarctic are losing land ice mass as a whole, which are contributors to sea level rise. Ninety percent of glaciers are shrinking worldwide including a majority of those in the Himalayas. The Extreme Ice Survey of well-known photographer James Balog has beautifully documented through a series of time-lapse photography in ice regions over the last 12 years the rapid shrinking of these glaciers. The HD documentary Chasing Ice captures his efforts quite stunningly. I highly recommend you all see it.
For reference, here’s a table that captures the major components of the cryosphere and how much potential they have to raise sea levels. Note that sea ice and ice shelves are zero because they already displace their volume in the sea and like floating ice cubes do not raise levels when they melt. Ice shelves, however, despite the small sea level volumes inherent in them, hold back glaciers from sliding into the sea and if they break or calve--as they say, this paves the way for glaciers and ice sheets behind them to slide in.
For reference, I’ve also included an informative diagram of the climate change feedback loops and the many complex interrelationships that affect the world of the cryosphere as well.
One worrying part of this diagram relates to the boxes showing the melting of Permafrost. In the past, many thought of Arctic Siberia, Alaska and Northern Canada as “unbroken deserts of ice and thin soils dotted with sage”. The discovery of abundant fossils of mammoths and other large grazing mammals now paint a different picture of once “fertile grasslands rich with herbs and willows”. The consequence is that Arctic permafrost is much richer in carbon and methane than scientists once believed. (Note: as a greenhouse gas, methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.)
Globally permafrost holds a gargantuan 1,600 Gigatons of Carbon/Methane (the atmosphere currently contains 850 GT, the world emits 40 GT/yr., remaining budget for 1.5°Celsius is about 570 to 770 GT) and scientists now suspect that for every 1°Celsius of warming in the planet’s average temperature, the permafrost could release the equivalent of 4-6 years’ worth of coal, oil and gas emissions. That’s 2-3 times more than what they believed just a few years ago. If we don’t stop further warming, the effect of permafrost could be like adding the emissions of another China (13.2 GT/yr.).
The upshot of all this is that we may have to cut emissions eight years sooner than the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report suggests if we want to keep warming to just 1.5°C. Permafrost occupies an area twice the size of the entire United States and we’re only discovering now how fragile and destabilized the landscapes that surround it really are. Many of them known to have melted only inches a year are now subject to “abrupt thaws” as rapid as 10 feet in days or weeks. The threat of runaway warming is real and most climate models to date have not factored these in. The excellent cover article of National Geographic this month tells this story quite disturbingly.
These all have major implications for sea level rise. The IPCC projects in their 5th (and latest) report published in 2013 that sea levels could rise a maximum of 3 feet, two inches. As a point of reference, 100 million people worldwide live within 3 feet of mean sea level. Note however that the report issued in 2013 did not yet take into account massive melt occurrences in the entire surface of ice sheets in Greenland the year before and various new findings on the fragility of the West Antarctic ice sheets. The IPCC is known to be ultra conservative in its pronouncements and systematically errs on the side of “less drama” as many have criticized. The fact that real-world melt is happening much faster than climate models have predicted shows how little is known of the cryosphere or how conservative to a fault scientists have become. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)’s James Hansen (one of the first and the few scientists who has been boldly sounding alarm bells on climate change since 1979) published a paper in 2015 saying we could see as much as nine feet of sea level rise by 2100. (Food for thought: 125,000 years ago during the last Interglacial period, when temperatures were very similar to what we have today (1-2°Celsius) sea levels were twenty to thirty feet higher. 3-3.3 million years ago when atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were like todays sea level was 20 meters higher (66 feet)).
Globally, climate change is projected to widen the variability of precipitation patterns with dry regions and seasons getting drier and wet seasons and regions getting wetter. Also, given that 90% of the world’s glaciers are shrinking and losing mass rapidly this will have a severe impact on the 240 million people directly dependent on glacial water melt for their freshwater needs and more than 1.9 billion indirectly dependent on them through their outflows. As glaciers melt, at first water flow paradoxically increases but then a peak flow is reached after which it recedes sharply and ultimately dies away. Water managers have to be aware and know when that is reached and how to manage future water needs accordingly. It’s expected that one-third to two-thirds of glaciers will be lost before 2100.
Sea level rise and flooding will also dramatically increase saltwater intrusion into aquifers and freshwater lenses. Salinization of soil will also become a problem for coastal areas. In some areas like Miami, sewage and septic tank systems are already in danger of being affected by flooding and rising sea levels.
Thermo-Haline circulation is what powers our global ocean conveyor belt shaped by temperature (thermo) and salinity (haline). Our extreme weather and precipitation patterns are a result of disruptions here too. The frequent heatwaves and droughts in many parts of the world are likewise a result of these events. These weather-related events are now termed “threat multipliers” which make dangerous social and political situations even worse.
The one million Syrian immigrants flooding Europe since 2011 were fleeing a civil war made possible by one of its worst droughts in the last 500 years. The drought of 2006 killed 85% of livestock and caused the failure of more than 75% of farms in the years leading up to 2011, forcing 1.5 million farmers and their families to migrate to urban areas in search of livelihoods that didn’t exist. Although the Syrian civil war had many proximate causes, extreme weather events like this severe drought created the incendiary environment for conflict. The wave of populism and border tightening throughout Europe was heavily shaped by this mass migration. Which also raises the troubling question: what will the rich (with massive carbon footprints) do as more desperate communities (with tiny carbon footprints and least responsible for all this warming) come knocking on their doors in search of safety and security? And I think we can see the answer.
In the words of Mohamed Nasheed, former President of the Maldives which is the most vulnerable nation to sea level rise: “You can drastically reduce your emissions so that the seas don’t rise so much…Or when we show up at your shores in our boats , you can let us in…Or when we show up on your shores in our boats, you can shoot us. You pick.”
The World Bank and the United Nations (UN) separately estimate that there could be as many as 140 to 200 million climate refugees in the next 30 years. The high end of the UN projection fears as much as one billion or more vulnerable poor who will have little choice but to fight or flee. Syrian immigrants flooding Europe is just the beginning of a phenomenon that could be 200 times greater. Today however, people displaced by climate change have no legal status or protection and under international law there is no such thing as a climate refugee.
So how will climate change affect the Philippines?
We’ve been tagged among the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change. We’re already seeing the effects of stronger and more frequent typhoons, sometimes slower moving and increased precipitation levels. We’ve also seen years of drought and lack of rain.
However, even without the effects of climate change Mega Manila is beset by unabated urbanization, a haphazard buildup of infrastructure, cities and mayors not planned by a strong central body, traffic nightmares caused by parking on public roads, bad mass transit, too many cars, too little roads. Major flooding with even minor storms caused by:
Many areas of Metro Manila over the period 1979-2009 have sunk anywhere from 27-53 inches mostly because of over-pumping of groundwater. If current rates of extraction continue, the ground surface will drop by another meter or 39 inches.
Radar images of 2003-2009 showed hotspots of Metro Manila being: Navotas, Malabon, Caloocan, Manila, Guiguinto, Marilao and Meycauayan. In the South they are Muntinlupa, Las Piñas, Biñan, Dasmariñas and Rosario, Cavite. Ground subsidence is highest in Marilao, Meycauayan and Caloocan.
National Water Resources Board (NWRB) data shows 8 critical areas where too much lowering of the groundwater takes place:
UP National Institute of Geophysical Sciences professor Mahar Lagmay in a paper in 2011 recommended the following:
NWRB imposed a moratorium on new wells in 2004 but their 100- person staff to police the whole country makes all this a tall order.
It’s good to remember that Tokyo, Japan over the last century has sunk more than 15 feet and today is protected by very expensive dikes and flood protection projects like huge underwater cisterns. Jakarta did not learn from Tokyo’s lessons and has been sinking 10 inches per year. Today, 40% of Jakarta is below sea level and it’s expected that 100% of it will be in a few decades. President Jokowi has just announced his desire to move the Capital to East Kalimantan in Borneo.
The similar problem of serious land subsidence in Metro Manila caused by over-extraction of groundwater only means that climate change and sea level rise will compound our problems of flooding and water security. We must find solutions that tackle them in an integrated manner.
With the Metro Manila water crisis last summer the interrelationship of these concerns are now coming to the fore. Climate change will bring the country more extreme and variable levels of precipitation. But as we’ve seen, freshwater is scarce and must be treated as precious resource. If this is what’s coming we should be ready to harness it to our advantage. But our current infrastructure, policies and practices aren’t geared for this. I’m sure the two experts that follow me can discuss these in greater detail but let me however lay some of them down just as food for thought:
The last five years have been the hottest since record-keeping began in the 1880’s. It’s clear that we’ve already departed the world as we knew it for thousands of years and have now entered a new one filled with a great many unknowns. Although we should try to anticipate as best we can how to adapt to what’s coming, we must place an equal effort to join the community of people, cities and nations fighting to keep the planet livable for the generations yet to come. We are living through what will be history’s greatest paradigm shift. We no longer have a choice. It means radical changes in where and how we get our energy, what we eat, how we live, where we get our water, how we use it—in short, everything. Most importantly, it also means a departure from the mindless consumerism and unbridled capitalism of the world today; the relentless pursuit of bottom-line, shareholder value and GDP growth above all else. This endless obsession brought us so called material and technological wealth, but it’s destroyed a lot of what we should’ve been valuing more and unjustly left too many behind. Similar to others before it, like slavery or the divine right of kings, the world’s current paradigm has run to the end of its useful life. It’s about to give way to something new. Throughout time, transitions like these are never easy or bloodless; never underestimate inertia and interests invested in retaining the status quo. But what excites me is that within our lifetimes we will see history’s greatest paradigm shift unfold before our eyes and we have this one great opportunity to be a part of it.