It is with a heavy heart I have gone about my business at the climate negotiations in Warsaw each day knowing that about 12 million people are affected by the recent devastating Typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda.
Historic in its scope, meteorologists, including experts from NASA, concluded that it is the most destructive and powerful tropical cyclone to ever make landfall (it made a total of six landfalls). It is hard to imagine that such an intense storm (stronger than Katrina or Sandy) would not leave death and destruction in its path, even with the best preparations in place.
Despite the pre-emptive evacuations, Haiyan’s devastation claimed thousands of lives. According to the U.N., the current death toll is 4,460. About 12,501 are injured and 1,186 still missing according to the Philippine disaster council. About 3 million people have been displaced, with about 400,000 living in more than 1,186 evacuation centers.
The images on TV are heartbreaking and the stories of death and destruction brought chills and intense emotions. I, like Filipinos and people around the world, am heartbroken at the images and stories from survivors of this horrifying event. A mother being told by her daughter to let go and save herself. A child walking aimlessly after losing her entire family. A father unable to save his family. A picture of a family huddled together in death and stories about death in evacuation centers. In many islands, villages and municipalities, more than 90% of homes and infrastructure were destroyed and people have nothing left to go back to. These are not just stories. These are grim and shocking realities.
Hearts the world over go out to the Philippines. We see an outpouring of support and sympathy, from government aid to kids donating their pocket money and selling lemonade and cupcakes for the victims. Everyone is talking about what has happened — Typhoon Haiyan has opened the eyes of the world to the impacts of climate change.
We ask ourselves if our experience is the new norm. Since 2009, the Philippines has experienced 17 of history’s worst typhoons in terms of casualties. The Philippines has been reeling from disasters one after another. Last October, Bohol Island in central Philippines was devastated by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake and now by Haiyan: a double whammy. According to the United Nations report, the Philippines ranks as the nation third-most at-risk from climate change in the world, ranked behind the South Pacific island nations of Vanuatu and Tonga. Similarly, the Germanwatch 2014 Vulnerability Index ranked the Philippines second for weather related losses in 2012.
While our country is very vulnerable to natural calamities or disasters, many of my colleagues in the Climate Commission and in civil society find it difficult not to relate the Haiyan tragedy to the climate change debate and how it impacts ecosystems, human communities, livelihoods and eventually the well-being of Filipinos.
Let me share with you a story of hope in the midst of this tragedy. Oriental Mindoro Province is located in the Verde Island Passage and is part of the Sulu Sulawesi Seascape. Although it was not the region worst hit by the super typhoon, it was nonetheless gravely affected. No casualties were reported in the Province according to Governor Umali, a long time partner of CI-Philippines. Plans were in place and they did their pre-emptive evacuation even before the storm struck. In our community project site in Oriental Mindoro, our community partners also did their share of pre-emptive evacuation.
CI-Philippines works with partners to find solutions to reduce the risks of climate change by promoting ecosystems based approaches to adaptation and demonstrating the importance of natural systems to help coastal communities protect life and property and adapt to rising sea levels and storms. Rehabilitation of mangrove areas in the Verde Island Passage is one important adaptation solution coupled with disaster management planning. In areas where Typhoon Haiyan passed through in Northern Samar, villagers credit that mangrove restoration with saving lives and their economy.
Not everywhere was so fortunate. On Camotes Island, for example, all 500 houses were destroyed. While thankful that their lives were spared, people have to return with a grim realization that they have lost everything that adds to their well-being as individuals and as a community — their homes, valuables, businesses and sources of livelihoods. I personally view this as qualifying the people of Camotes Islands as climate refugees and the mayor now talks about the challenge of relocating the residents.
Typhoon Haiyan has cast a long shadow over the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties, which is currently holding its 19th session (COP 19) in Warsaw. It is probably the same feeling a Jedi from Star Wars gets when he says he felt a huge disturbance in the Force. Many of the delegates here in Warsaw feel the disturbance in the Force as stories about this “climate change-related disaster” continue to be amplified with regularity by global TV networks.
In the words of Philippine lead climate negotiator Yeb Sano, this event is a “sobering reminder to the international community that we cannot afford to procrastinate on climate action and that Warsaw must muster the political will to address climate change.” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that Typhoon Haiyan puts “an anguished human face” on climate change and he hopes that “all tragic devastation would really give us a wake-up call.”
The well-being of Filipinos and of others across the globe whose lives will be impacted by climate change are being eroded by the world’s failure to come up with a significant and binding action to address climate change. How many more wake-up calls will it take before political leaders are inspired to act? How much more must we negotiate at COPs before realizing that we are facing a global challenge requiring a global solution?
Climate talks should serve as an opportunity to negotiate an ambitious deal to set the framework for a drastic reduction in emissions, along with action to adapt to the unavoidable impacts of climate change. However, despite the stark and unfortunate backdrop that Haiyan represented at the negotiations, progress has been slow.
Among the issues under discussion in Warsaw is loss and damage. Countries are negotiating the possibility of establishing an international mechanism to look at the increasingly severe impacts of climate change and the various options nations and communities have to recover from irrecoverable losses to livelihoods, resources, infrastructure and cultures due to climate change. Negotiations on loss and damage have a clear link to disasters like Haiyan.
At this point, it is unclear if the needs of developing countries will be met with clear commitments from developed countries. While there remain many areas of divergence, I am optimistic and inspired by the overwhelming support the Philippines delegation and I have received in Warsaw.
I hope that the goodwill will be matched with a clear way forward on loss and damage — with a global institutional arrangement that systematically addresses the science and options for preventing and compensating losses and damages, and recovering from the impacts of climate change that are too severe to adapt to. I am also hopeful that those countries with the means and responsibility to do so will begin to mobilize and deliver adequate and additional finance to the Green Climate Fund and the Adaptation Fund so that countries like the Philippines can strengthen and scale up urgent and immediate adaptation action.
I continue to ask myself as a conservationist, a development worker and a Filipino, “What is the capacity of our communities, our institutions, our infrastructure, our economy to withstand and absorb the impacts of these extreme events (super typhoon category) when it is somehow becoming the norm these past few years?” Our people may no longer be capable of tolerating more Haiyans; we need a favorable outcome as the Warsaw talks conclude this week, and therefore, may the Force be with us all.
For those who wish to help the victims of Haiyan, you can channel your donations through World Vision Philippines Foundation, Christian Aid, Care or Oxfam-UK and many other organizations in the US supporting the relief efforts. These groups have offices in the Philippines and will accept and acknowledge your donations even in the U.S. Their websites have important information that you would need.
On behalf of the CI-Philippines staff, partners and the Filipino people, we appreciate your kindness and love.
Enrique A. Nunez is the Country Executive Director at CI-Philippines and a member of the Philippines national delegation to the UNFCCC COP19.