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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Alcala’s floods

"Here’s former NEDA Director-General Romulo Neri."

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Alcala town in Cagayan boasts of vast agricultural lands watered by the mighty Cagayan River, the country's largest and longest waterway which meanders for more than 500 kilometers across Cagayan Valley from its headwaters in the Cordillera/Sierra Madre mountain ranges. Old folks remember that the town gets flooded every so often specially during the rainy season. But the flooding got particularly heavy last December 2019 when the municipality experienced what oldtimers described as a 100-year flood – one that occurs once every hundred years, submerging 5,000 homes in six  barangays and affecting more than 10000 families. 

Days ago, not even a year after that sad experience, Alcala's flooding got even worse when Typhoon Ulysses dumped tons of water in Region 2. Blindsiding local officials and even Pagasa as weather forecasters did not even raise the signal in the region to "must-evacuate levels," the flooding was such that it engulfed vast areas not only Alcala but towns in the entire Cagayan Valley, specially in the provinces of Cagayan and Isabela, causing 69 deaths, untold destruction to crops, infrastructure and properties and stranding hundreds of thousands of people on rooftops and in higher grounds.   

Again, as seems to be the case after every disaster occurs and before any proper investigation happens, blame throwing has filled the air. Given the enormity and suddenness of this unfortunate development, blame like peanut butter, has spread around with every conceivable villain – from kaingeros to illegal loggers and miners to rapacious developers to illegal constructions specially by the riverbanks, unwarranted dam spillage and, generally, official neglect and unpreparedness – in the line of fire. It is, of course, easy to throw gasoline into the fire, as it were, but we urge one and all to take pause and get to the facts first and look at the bigger picture. 

So before anyone gets any farther bellowing out all kinds of diatribes and proposing far out solutions, I decided to give space to a narrative on the Alcala floods shared by former NEDA Director General Romy Neri. Posted by a "Philippine native tree group," the narrative partakes of a study of that unusual phenomenon undertaken by top geologists, Dr. Fernando Siringan, a renowned river and marine geologist and former head of the UP Marine Science Institute, and his UP colleague, Dr. Keanu Jerahon Sarmiento. Commissioned by the Alcala LGU specifically to determine what caused that December 2019 flood and provide possible intervention measures on how to prevent the same from becoming a regular occurrence, this study should be a must-read for all of us. But I specially recommend the same to those in government and, yes,  even the critics to prevent them from clogging the airwaves with nonsensical blabbing. It is clear that the narrative was written by an Alcala native which makes it even more poignant and inspiring. Here goes:       

"In December 2019, the Municipality of Alcala, Cagayan experienced what they call a 100 year flood – one that occurs once every hundred years. Six barangays were totally submerged, more than 10000 families affected and more than 5000 homes went underwater. There was no typhoon signal, just rain due to monsoon, and water coming from the Sierra Madre, water released by Magat Dam, water coming from everywhere. We turned to our scientists to ask why.

"The Municipality of Alcala requested Dr. Fernando Siringan, former Director of the UP Marine Science Institute (UP MSI) and one of the country's top river and marine geologists, to conduct a study on flood and riverbank erosion on the Cagayan and Pared Riversin Alcala. From July to September 2020, Dr. Siringan and fellow UP geologist Keanu Jershon Sarmiento traveled the length of the Cagayan and Pared rivers in our town. They looked at rocks and banks, the vegetation, the meandering of the rivers, the width of the channel and flood plain, the depth of the rivers all throughout, the flow of water, the facilities and communities impacted by flood and erosion through time.

"The final study describes the confluence of factors that brings severe flood and suffering not just to the town and people of Alcala but to all towns and peoples throughout the length of the Cagayan River from Isabela to Aparri, Cagayan where the river empties into the sea.

"In Alcala, the river channel which goes as wide as 400 meters suddenly constricts to a 180-meter narrow from Barangay Tupang all the way to Barangay Magapit, Lallo. In Alcala, the Pared River coming from Baggao and the Sierra Madre meets the big Cagayan River, causing a rise in water volume and backflow at the confluence. Alcala is situated to receive 80 percent of water runoff in the Cagayan River Basin that encompasses Cagayan and Isabela.

"Mountains, slopes and watersheds in the whole Cagayan Valley have been stripped of native trees that hold soil and regulate water release. Trees are cut down and forests threatened not only by illegal logging but by agriculture in slopes and mountains, particularly yellow corn farming that kills all vegetation and weakens the soil.

"Steered by the Siringan and Sarmiento study, the Municipality of Alcala has started to implement changes. We moved the Tamban Bangkero to a more stable location upstream. We were shocked to learn that river current had eaten away at the cliff of the old Bangkero and could collapse to plunge people to the 18-meter swirling depths below."

"To save Barangay Pagbangkeruan from being taken by the Pared River, we need to create a secondary channel in a way that the impact of water on the riverbank is relieved. Then, we have to plant a 30-meter wide vegetation shield of native trees to form a belt of protection for the riverbank and community – a mighty, green wall. We had wanted to start this urgent work but the rise of river water this rainy season forestalled us. Many other places identified by the Siringan and Sarmiento study along the Pared and Cagayan Rivers require similar work."

"In the past two months, we have convinced the farmers in the 12 irrigation dam watershed areas to abandon yellow corn and to shift to agro forestry. We have started to plant native forest, flowering and fruiting trees on these watersheds that have a combined area of 300 hectares. We have engaged our 25 barangays to plant tiny, dense, native forests in their communities, using the Miyasaki method. We are set to plant native forest and flowering trees on all Alcala roadsides that span around 120 kilometers. But the biggest, most challenging work of all, the one most urged by Dr. Siringan, is the river channel widening from Tupang, Alcala to Magapit, Lallo. This work would help not only Alcala but the whole Cagayan Valley Region tremendously. This is not a new idea – this is one of the recommendations of the 1987 JICA Report on flood and the Cagayan River. Sadly, this has not been acted upon.

"My insight is that the problem of flood in Alcala and Cagayan Valley cannot be attributed to just one cause outside of us but to a complex, interrelated web, with us right at the center. It's not just about Magat Dam protocols, although in our state of despair Magat Dam is the most visible target. It's about us, it is the way we live – as if we are apart from nature, as if what we do does not come back to us- how we have cut our trees and destroyed our forests, our soil and groundwater, how we have eaten up the land with farms and buildings.

"The problem being complex, the solution is also a combination of interventions that should be anchored on science and drawn after scientists have studied the Cagayan River itself, after they have walked the banks, felt its current, followed its meander and seen it in its ebbs and flows. It is not dredging every which way. It is not putting up a dike here and there. It is knowing based on sound science, what to do and what not to do, where in the whole length of the mighty Cagayan River, the longest and largest in the country.

"I believe in Dr. Siringan. I believe in our Filipino scientists. They stand by their science and the people of Alcala are glad to lean on their strength. Here in Alcala, we will do as the study says. By God, we will do it. But I hope we do not have to do it alone.


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