Typhoon Odette (international codename Rai) devastated parts of Visayas and Mindanao in December last year.
The typhoon, which nearly reached the super typhoon category, caused severe and widespread damage, killing at least 409 people and causing at least 39.3 billion pesos, or $794 million, in damage.
The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Administration said Odette falls under the “typhoon category” with its maximum sustained winds of up to 120 mph, while the “super typhoon” has a maximum sustained wind speed of more than 140 mph.”
While Odette’s impact on people and the economy can be measured in numbers, the same cannot be said of ecosystems and all-important wildlife, which are equally vulnerable to such natural disasters.
Powerful typhoons like Odette, causing widespread forest destruction, landslides and flooding, pose a serious threat to wildlife and people.
Forests are home to plants and animals. Their ability to protect the country’s already threatened wildlife depends on their ability to withstand the devastation.
A healthy forest ecosystem or coastal and marine habitat means that plants and animals are safe and healthy, even in the worst weather. But for those in an already degraded ecosystem, wildlife is always at risk.
No scientific study
The lack of empirical data before or after the occurrence of such a natural disaster is due to the lack of comprehensive studies on the impacts of natural disasters on habitats and wildlife in the Philippines.
The same could be said of its neighboring countries in Southeast Asia.
In the Philippines’ case, a Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) official said local government units (LGUs) are being tapped into due to limited resources in monitoring typhoon impacts on wetlands, caves and other ecosystems.
Anson Tagtag, OIC department head of DENR’s Biodiversity Management Office (BMB) Division for Caves, Wetlands and Other Ecosystems, said when it comes to natural disasters, wetlands and caves have two positions.
Wetlands, for example, are seen as buffers for natural disasters like floods, Tagtag told BusinessMirror Jan. 18.
“Wetlands are water basins and flood reservoirs. Like river systems, when left intact or cared for, these wetlands store water [that help in] prevent flooding,” he said in a telephone interview.
On the other hand, Tagtag said that when wetlands are already being disturbed by humans, those ecosystems’ ability to hold water is compromised, leading to massive flooding.
The same goes for caves.
“The dynamics of cave systems depend on the natural vegetation. If the vegetation atop the burrows is already ruined, water can easily slurp through the ground, eventually affecting the burrows below.
Important ecosystems are monitored by the DENR-BMB, but there is still no scientific study on the impact of a devastating typhoon like Odette.
As part of DENR-BMB’s Wetland Management Program, which aims to manage and conserve key ecosystems, Tagtag said the first step is to identify the wetlands, conduct a physical assessment and learn about the ecosystem services they provide.
“We already have a map of wetlands in the Philippines, but due to limited resources we are prioritizing what can be managed. Of course we want to manage them all, because that’s our goal. But then we identify priorities that we can manage,” he said.
No impact study
Wetlands are sometimes subsumed in protected areas such as Lake Naujan.
The Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary and all Ramsar sites are under surveillance, he said. However, there is no comprehensive study of the impact of every catastrophic event or natural disaster.
“I don’t remember if we did it [an impact study of natural calamities]. We control and monitor in wet areas. For caves, I mean the managed caves, there is regular monitoring,” added Tagtag.
“Through our partnership with LGUs, we can know through monitoring when there is a disruption. We have more than 3,000 caves in the Philippines but only about 700 are classified,” he explained.
He said the practical thing about monitoring important ecosystems is partnering with communities.
Ecosystems preserved “a must”
Tagtag stressed the need to conserve wetlands, caves and other important ecosystems, saying their ability to cushion the impact of natural disasters and protect plants and animals depends on their condition.
“Of course, when rivers silt up, their capacity decreases. This leads to flooding, which can affect wildlife,” he explained.
“The best way to use natural resources is not to use them at all,” he said.
No dedicated research in AHPs
Executive Director Theresa Mundita S. Lim of the Asean Center for Biodiversity (ACB) said even in other countries there are no focused research studies on the impact of natural disasters in the Asean Heritage Parks (AHPs), which represent the best of the best among the protected areas in South East Asia.
However, Lim, a former director of DENR-BMB, said natural disasters always have direct impacts on natural ecosystems and wildlife.
Lim said there had been a plan earlier to conduct a study on the impact of natural disasters on a selected area and the wildlife that thrives there.
Not enough literature
The plan, she said, was developed by Dr. Arvin Diesmos, head of knowledge management at ACB, formerly with the National Museum of Natural History, but there was not enough literature to base the plan on.
Still, Lim said it probably needs to be a long-term study, but she said now is a good time to start supporting ACB.
“I think this is a good time to start and ACB can support such an initiative,” she said.
A question of resilience
“But of course these disasters always have an impact on wildlife, on natural ecosystems. The question is how quickly they can recover, or if they can recover at all. That’s what we call ‘resilience,’” Lim told BusinessMirror via Messenger on Jan. 17.
Lim said ecosystems that are still intact or healthy can recover faster.
On the other hand, she said wild animals could grow denser to protect themselves from areas hit by the storm, citing, for example, the movement from the eastern part to the western part of a large forest along the east coast.
Fulfill ecological function
Lim said that when wildlife survives the wrath of natural disasters, they continue to perform their important ecological function, helping to restore forests — home to plants and animals.
“If the pollinators and seed dispersers survive the wrath, they will continue to perform their ecological function and restore the forest in time for the next storm,” she explained.
“But as you know, the state of ecosystems accessible to humans isn’t that pristine anymore, and so wildlife’s range to seek safety is already more limited than ideal,” she noted.
Complicating matters is the frequency of natural disasters, “which makes them even more vulnerable,” she added.
“But if we are aware of the thresholds, that is, conserving enough high-biodiversity protected areas to maintain their ecological functions, then we not only have more resilient protected areas and wildlife populations, but also more resilient communities and infrastructure,” she says.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons