State of the Environment 2013

July 30, 2013

Mr. President,

We open a new congress with much fervor as we take on the role of representing the varied issues and challenges that our citizens expect us to address through legislation. And though we have different advocacies, I wish to enjoin everyone, my colleagues old and new, to take a closer look at the state of our environment and how it is intrinsically linked to climate change—the greatest humanitarian and development challenge of our time.

Working our way backwards, let us look at one of the most visible outcome of the degradation of our environment – the increasing impacts of climate-related disasters.

Mr. President,

Evidence from the IPCC Special Report on Extreme Events or SREX[1] suggests that climate change has changed the magnitude and frequency of some extreme weather and climate events.

We are all aware that typhoons are normal occurrences in a tropical country like the Philippines, with some 20 heading our way every year. But lately, the occurrence of destructive torrential rains has been increasing even with the absence of typhoons.

This means that the heavy and excessive rainfall we are experiencing is part of what climate scientists call “the new normal,” which leads to some weather extremes that are more widespread and harder to predict.

Secondly, the SREX also found that even without climate change, disaster risk would continue to increase in countries like the Philippines, as more people and assets are exposed to weather extremes.

As an archipelago, 70 percent of the cities and municipalities in the country are in coastal areas, and as a 2013 World Bank report revealed, 74 percent of the country’s population is vulnerable to the impact of natural hazards.

If we think we have problems now, we should be more wary of the future. For example, the international bank HSBC has predicted[2] that the Philippines would leapfrog 27 places to become the 16th largest economy in the world by 2050, driven by an increasing and productive population – up to 70% more Filipinos by 2050.

However, if we do not manage our environment well, and make our urban and land-use-planning risk-sensitive, this increase in population and economic activity would translate to an equivalent increase in exposure to disasters.

Our environment and the ecosystem services it provides support human life and provide the basic materials for our economy, such as food, fuel and clean water. It also sequesters carbon emissions, regulates erosion and landslides, and reduces floods.

Mr. President,

In terms of legislation, we have enough laws and policies needed to help us achieve sustainable and disaster-resilient communities.

We have the Philippine Environmental Impact Statement System, Marine Pollution Control Law, the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Ecological Solid Waste Management Act, Renewable Energy Act, Environmental Awareness and Education Act, Climate Change Act, the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act, Toxic Substances and Hazardous and Nuclear Wastes Control Act, the Act Creating the People’s Survival Fund, among many others. The number of environmental and climate change laws, however, is no guarantee for effective action. In fact the UN has lauded the country’s laws on climate change adaptation (CCA) and disaster risk reduction (DRR) as the “best in the world.[3]” However, the UN also noted that the challenge is to translate national policies, plans and programs into local action with measurable gains.

It is now more than 12 years ago since we enacted the Solid Waste Management Act, but the National Economic and Development Authority noted that in 2012, only nine out of 17 local government units (LGUs) in Metro Manila have submitted a solid waste management plan, and only 414 of 1,610 LGUs nationwide, or only 25.7%, have complied with the national plan.[4]

We need to ask why some LGUs can comply with the law, while others cannot. We need to understand what enables action since only through effective enforcement that these laws gain their true meaning.

It is in this light that I will push for an environmental audit of those mandated by the above laws, to identify where implementation can be supported and how to remove barriers to implementation.

Mr. President,

There are things that we are doing right to protect our environment, but there are still many areas that need to be improved. For example, the air quality of our country is still dirty but gradually improving. In 2004, the total suspended particulates in our air was 145 micrograms per cubic meter.[5] By 2011, the TSP level was 99.

The state of our forests needs to improve. According to the DENR, of the country’s total land area of about 30 million hectares, only 7.168 million hectares, or 24.27 percent, are forest covered. The ideal should be at least 12 million hectares or 48 percent of the total land area.

The past three decades have seen the rapid decline of the Philippine coastal ecosystem, which also needs to improve — 70 percent of the mangroves and 20 percent of its sea-grass have been destroyed; nearly 90 percent of coral reefs are under threat; and biomass of coastal fish stocks now stand at only 10 percent.[6]

To improve the situation, we need to start looking at how existing initiatives like the National Greening Program and the Integrated Coastal Management Program can be implemented fully.[7]

In parallel, we need to look at how sometimes a greener approach can be a more resilient approach. For example, instead of spending US$ 6.8 billion in drainage improvements, New York invested US$ 5.3 billion in green infrastructure – permeable pavements, more green areas, and other measures to address drainage capacity. Green infrastructure acts like a sponge – absorbing and regulating peak water flows.

Mr. President,

What we need is a “can-do” attitude that is positive and focuses more on what can be done, instead of what should not be done.

We need to promote a new approach in dealing with climate change and disasters that would not only protect our environment, but would also reap development benefits. To adapt to the new normal requires from us a change in perspective, a change in mindset, a change in the way we think and the way we do things. In essence: Building resilience should be an attitude.

With resilience as an attitude, advancing climate change adaptation throughout the country could pay off.

A new study done by Environmental Business International, Inc. estimates that in the next seven years the annual market for “climate adaptation services” will grow by 12 to 20 percent per year, becoming a $700-million annual market in the United States, and $2 billion globally.

With resilience as an attitude, disaster risk reduction is not a cost, but rather an investment that brings benefits now and in the future.

The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is presently developing a compelling narrative that demonstrates the contribution of disaster risk reduction (DRR) investments into sustainable development. In the case of Pakistan, JICA has calculated that if DRR investment is ensured, approximately 25 percent more economic growth is projected for the year 2042 compared to the case without DRR investment.

Mr. President,

With resilience as an attitude, we appreciate ‘the glass is half-full’ instead of ‘half-empty.’ We can, therefore, promote the scaling up of existing national programs to rectify the social and economic structures that breed disaster risk and trap the poor in the vicious cycle of risk and poverty.

With resilience as MY attitude, I, therefore, propose that we examine how the government’s social protection programs, in particular the Conditional Cash Transfer and other poverty reduction-related initiatives, can be scaled up to not only address the structural poverty, but also build resilience against the recurring impact of natural hazards, which may well be holding them to the very poverty we are trying to address in the first place.

With the support of this august chamber together with the University of the Philippines, we will also help establish the biodiversity and resilience center to help the Philippines and other countries, which are vulnerable to disasters. We will be at the forefront of strategic planning and operations that will address the adverse effects of climate change and prevent disasters.

I strongly believe that scaling up our social protection program, with more innovative means to build the resilience of poor families, would deliver the genuine reduction in poverty that the Aquino Administration longs for.

We cannot let disasters keep the poor forever poor. We cannot let recurrent disasters take away from them their lives and the little that they have in life. Social protection should effectively address the underlying causes of their poverty, reduce their vulnerability, and build their strong resilience against disasters. If we wish the poor to enjoy their rightful share of the fruits of development, then building resilience must be at the heart of the country’s social protection program.

Mr. President,

While heavy and excessive rainfall is part of the new normal, we cannot remain passive to the growing risk that disrupts our social and economic activities. We cannot always have flooded streets, heavy traffic, and stranded commuters in the metropolis, or washed away houses, collapsed bridges, displaced families, and devastated farmlands, in every intense rain or typhoon.

Let us learn the lessons from our past. Let us reduce the vulnerability and exposure of our people and our economy to the impact of natural hazards. Let us intensify our efforts in disaster prevention, mitigation, and preparedness. Let us be more proactive and more effective in reducing risk.

As we pursue the path towards sustainable development, I am confident, that with the attitude of resilience and a strong resolve to make a difference for the Filipino people, we will be able to weather the many challenges of our fast changing environment.

Thank you, Mr. President.