Published by the World Environmental Journalists EGroup
By Henrylito D. Tacio
The treasures of the Philippines are world-renowned: The beauty and productivity of the country’s landscapes, its unique plants and animals, and the vitality of its people are among its defining traits.
“But these treasures are threatened,” deplores a new report released by the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau (PRB) entitled, ‘Breaking New Ground in the Philippines: Opportunities to Improve Human and Environmental Well-Being.”
“The health and well-being of Filipinos are being increasingly compromised as the country’s cities become more crowded and polluted and as the reliability of food and water supplies in rural areas of the Philippines becomes more uncertain,” writes Kathleen Mogelgaard, author of the report.
“Declining” is how the author described the productivity of the country’s agricultural lands and fisheries. “These areas become increasingly degraded and pushed beyond their capacity to produce,” the report noted.
Plants and animals are also fast disappearing “due to the loss of the country’s forests and the destruction of its coral reefs,” it said.
“These interconnected problems of population, health, and environment are among the Philippines’ greatest development goals – including the Millennium Development Goals, which aim to eradicate poverty, improve health, and ensure environmental sustainability,” Mogelgaard pointed out.
The report noted these interconnections:
Rapid forest loss has eliminated habitat for unique and threatened plant and animal species; it has also left large tracts of land in the Philippines vulnerable to soil erosion.
The loss of nutrient rich soil reduces crop yields and contributes to the expanded use of chemical fertilizers – a practice that can, in turn, pollute water sources.
Rivers and streams also carry eroded soil to the coasts, where it interferes with fish nursery areas. “Soil runoff into fish breeding and nursery areas is one of several factors leading to the overall decline in productivity of fisheries in the Philippines,” Mogelgaard said.
Clearing mangroves for fuelwood, charcoal production, and coastline development further degrades areas important to fishing industry and leaves the coastline more vulnerable to storm surges, tidal currents, and typhoons.
The report also bared some startling statistics:
Between 1990 and 2000, the country lost more than 800,000 hectares of forests to clearing for agriculture, forest fires, illegal logging, and other factors.
More than 400 pant and animal species found in the Philippines are currently threatened with extinction, including the Philippine eagle, the tamaraw, and the dugong.
Approximately two-thirds of the country’s original mangroves have been lost.
The destruction of the country’s natural resources has led more Filipinos into poverty. “With 9.7 million Filipinos employed in agriculture, hunting, and forestry activities and another 3.1 million employed in fishing, the loss of productivity of agricultural lands and fisheries has negatively affected the livelihoods and well-being of the country’s residents,” explained Mogelgaard.
Income levels of five of the country’s fishermen live in poverty, the report said.
Another consequence: food insecurity. “The lack of a stable and reliable food supply contributes to poor nutritional status for many Filipinos, especially for children: Approximately 28 percent of children under 5 are underweight,” the report said.
Food insecurity also contributes to increases in environmentally destructive practices such as slash-and-burn agriculture (“kaingin” farming) or the use of dynamite to increase short-term fish catches.
The ever-growing population has been cited as one of the primary culprits of the rapid disappearance of the country’s natural resources. With one of the highest population growth rates in Southeast Asia (currently at two percent per year), the Philippines is projected to grow from its current population of 83.7 million to 147.3 million in 2050.
“Is it any wonder why we have fallen behind our Asian neighbors, and are likely to be left behind by the rest of developing Asia?” wondered Dr. Ernesto M. Pernia, a professor of Economics at the University of the Philippines. “We’re still debating such rudimentary matters as the population issue and fiscal deficits while our neighbors have moved on to focus on more contemporary economic concerns, such as global competitiveness, investment climate and productivity growth.”
The problem is more transparent in the cities. In 1970, 32 percent of the country’s population lived in urban areas. Today, 48 percent is crowded into cities, where housing and infrastructure struggle to keep pace with the growing numbers.
“Overcrowding and insufficient housing can be particularly detrimental to children: Studies have suggested that infant mortality rates in Manila’s slums are three times higher than in non-slum areas,” the PRB report said.
Water crisis is not far behind. “Access to clean and adequate water is an acute seasonal problem in Metro Manila, Central Luzon, Southern Tagalog, and Central Visayas,” it said.
Government monitoring data showed that up to 58 percent of the country’s water ground is contaminated with coliform bacteria, causing such diseases as diarrhea, cholera, dysentery, and hepatitis A.
Air pollution, an obvious result of urbanization, is now a reality in most urban areas. Most air pollutants come from vehicles, industry and power plants. “Airborne fine particulate matter in urban areas contributes to higher rates of pulmonary illnesses, especially among children and the elderly,” the report said.
The Philippines, it seems, is on the brink of total decay. Prof. Nicomedes Briones of the University of the Philippines at Los Baños, once observed:
“I could say that the Philippines, ad a developing and an industrializing country, is experiencing all the concomitant environmental problems and opportunities. All the major ecosystems are under various stages of stresses that threaten the welfare and livelihood of the population.”
Mogelgaard suggested: “Population, health, and the environment in the Philippines are intricately interconnected and complex. Collaborative efforts that address the complexity of these interconnections can improve Filipinos’ health, economy, and future. The challenge lies in ensuring that all Filipinos will be able to count on health and well-being for their families, their communities, and the natural resources upon which they depend.”
“There is sufficiency for man’s need, but not for man’s greed,” Mahatma Mohandas Gandi reminded.