Addressing Sea Level Rise: Importance of historical data, projections and local adaptation highlighted by experts during online forum

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During the forum on sea level rise on Wednesday, August 5, 2020, local and international experts did not veer away from an inconvenient truth: the Philippines will be severely impacted when sea levels change.

The first of a two-part webinar series, “Taking Stock: Why Should We Be Concerned About the Climate and Sea Level Changes?” featured experts from the academe, local and international research institutions, and government agencies who discussed current knowledge and impacts of sea level rise in the Philippines. The online forum was organized by the OML Center and the Climate Change Commission and its National Panel of Technical Experts (CCC-NPTE). The forum was moderated by Dr. Carlos Primo David, chair of the NPTE.

The online forum was attended by over 180 participants representing academic institutions, civil society organizations, international research organizations, local government units, national government agencies, and the private sector from various regions of the Philippines.

A Nation of Islands

OML Center Executive Director Dr. Rodel Lasco explained in his program overview that, apart from taking stock of the knowledge on sea level change, the forum aims to foster discussion among key sectors and institutions to identify key issues, challenges, and opportunities in addressing it. 

In her message to participants, Deputy Speaker Loren Legarda referred to studies that identified some cities in the Philippines as among the most exposed to a one-meter sea level rise. With more than half of our population living in coastal areas, Rep. Legarda noted that sea level rise will have devastating consequences for the country, hence the urgent need to address extreme weather and climate change-related events.

Representative Edgar Chatto, chairperson of the Committee on Climate Change and representative of the 1st District of Bohol, said that millions of Filipinos are at risk, with more than 50 percent of municipalities and almost all of the major cities in coastal zones. He said higher sea levels increase vulnerability to storm surge, causing greater threat to lives and properties. 

Impacts of Rising Seas

Dr. Benjamin Horton, director of the Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS), started off the discussions on the mechanisms of sea level changes. He discussed the impact of sea level rise on a global scale, baring scenarios should land-based ice melt. He also looked at past sea levels, noting that understanding the past provides information for the future. Dr. Horton also introduced the South East Asia SEA Level Program (SEA2), an initiative that aims to understand and integrate the internal and external mechanisms determining sea level changes in the past and changes in the future.

Highlighting cascading hazards and disasters from sea level rise, Dr. Laura David, director of University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (UP-MSI) and member of the NPTE, discussed impacts to Philippine coastal communities. Dr. David tackled the declining mangrove forests and how this will affect vulnerability of coastal communities during storms. She also discussed other effects, such as increased sedimentation and decreased biodiversity and biomass, which will affect fisheries production. Losing the mangroves, she said, would also mean a release of already sequestered carbons, perpetuating an even higher increase in temperature and therefore, sea level rise. 

Fellow UP-MSI professor and NPTE member Dr. Fernando Siringan provided the perspective of sea level rise from marine geophysics and geology, and noted factors amplifying changes in sea level such as extraction of groundwater. Based on previous sea level data, he assesses that eustatic sea level rise will continue and episodic large rises of sea level may still occur in the future, therefore making it essential for us to know the directions, styles, and rates of vertical motions of our coasts. He added that we should minimize local human-induced causes of sea level rise and that there is a need to shift the focus of development to higher grounds accompanied by continuing efforts to protect coastlines.

Dr. Enrico Paringit, executive director of the Department of Science and Technology’s Philippine Council for Industry, Energy, and Emerging Technology Research and Development (DOST-PCIEERD), looked into the available data on sea level change and how different communities deal with it. He shared that there are newer techniques we can use to refine the way we study sea level rise and its consequences to our coastal environment and that as we refine the data, we need to look at the strategies on how we can reduce impacts and risks. 

On the limits of adaptation, Dr. Ma. Laurice Jamero, head of the Manila Observatory’s Resilience Collaboratory, shared the experiences of small island communities of Bilangbilangan, Pangapasan, Ubay and Batasan in Bohol. Dr. Jamero recalled the 7.2 magnitude earthquake in 2013 which induced land subsidence in the said islands resulting in them being flooded even during normal high tides. Although strategies are being implemented, Dr. Jamero noted the challenges such as lack of funds and reluctance of locals to relocate. 

Rising to the Challenge

Representatives from the academe, civil society, and development partners were on hand to provide their reactions to the discussions and agreed that sea level rise poses catastrophic impacts and everyone must be proactive and not reactive, making this one of our utmost priorities.

Dr. Eulito Casas, associate professor in UP Visayas – Tacloban, raised the importance of visual maps showing the projections which may help local government units (LGUs) to think of proactive long-term solutions given the scenarios. He added that the UP campus in Tacloban is now in the process of transferring to a new site, away from the shoreline. 

Likewise, Atty. Josine Alexandra Gamboa, manager of government initiatives of Rare Philippines, noted the need for localized data so LGUs can take sea level rise into consideration during planning. Both agreed that responding to sea level rise is a shared responsibility of different sectors. 

In his synthesis of the discussions, Dr. Bjorn Surborg, principal advisor and cluster coordinator on Climate Change of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH (GIZ), emphasized that we need to be prepared for both slow-onset and catastrophic events, underscoring the importance of local adaptation. “Adaptation has to be local,” he said, “We need to get knowledge and understanding of what is going on to the local level,” he added. He also highlighted the importance of projections, to look forward so we can plan ahead and avoid being reactive when it comes to adaptation. Lastly, he pointed out that ultimately, “we need to hold the international community to account,” and that “greenhouse gas mitigation is still absolutely necessary.” 

In his closing remarks, Secretary Emmanuel M. De Guzman, vice chairperson and executive director of the CCC, expressed that the forum is “one important step towards broader cooperation across sectors on dealing with the increasing threat of rising sea levels to our communities.”

The forum is part of a comprehensive multi-year study to assess potential impacts of different sea level rise scenarios and associated hazards in the Philippines. The second part of the forum is scheduled for September and aims to discuss past and current efforts to address sea level change in the Philippines.

To stay updated on developments in this research and to be notified of the schedule of the next forum, follow OML Center’s social media accounts: FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn, or subscribe to the OML Center mailing list.

A recording of the “Taking Stock: Why Should We Be Concerned About the Climate and Sea Level Changes?” is available for viewing via the CCC’s YouTube channel page.

Read articles about the forum and the multi-year study here:

Climate Change Commission holds forum on impacts of sea level rise in PH” (Philippine Information Agency)

CCC, OMLC hold Sea Level Rise Forum on impacts of sea level rise in PH” (Philippine Information Agency)

Multi-year comprehensive study on impacts of climate change now in the works” (Manila Bulletin)

Philippines: Multi-year climate change study underway” (Asia Insurance Review)