Causeway threatens mangroves that Philippine fishers planted as typhoon shield

Causeway threatens mangroves that Philippine fishers planted as typhoon shield
  • The city of Tacloban in the central Philippines was ground zero for Typhoon Haiyan, one of the most powerful tropical cyclones ever recorded and the deadliest in the Philippines’ modern record.
  • A decade after the storm, the city is moving forward with controversial plans to build a road embankment and land reclamation project that proponents say will help protect the city from storm surges.
  • Opponents of the plan say it threatens local fisheries, will disrupt natural storm protection measures like mangroves, and is poorly designed as a barrier against storms.
  • The plan will also result in the relocation of a coastal village of 500 households, who have been active stewards of the bay’s mangrove forests.

TACLOBAN, Philippines — “I can’t walk but I can fish,” says 68-year old Rodolfo Deliva, a lifelong fisherman. For nearly two decades he’s relied on his crutches to get around because of a bad case of gout. Thankfully for him, making fishing nets and going out on a boat for his daily catch don’t require much standing.

Deliva lives in the village of Paraiso (“Paradise”) along the coast of Cancabato Bay in the central Philippines. Due to its marine biodiversity and sprawling mangrove forests, the bay was in 2003 declared a protected area by the Tacoloban city government, in whose jurisdiction it lies.

However, ongoing construction of a 2.56-kilometer (1.59-mile) road embankment and reclamation project, the Tacloban City Causeway, threatens to rip the forest apart and dump concrete into the bay’s waters.

Experts and local fishers say the project will compromise the bay’s fishing grounds and natural protection from typhoons. It also means the authorities will have greater impetus to enforce the eviction of the coastal dwellings that have been deemed illegal because of their proximity to possible storm surges.

Deliva and his neighbors will be forced to leave of that happens. The only option for many is government resettlement housing, hours away from the coast.

Deliva speaks to Mongabay on the 10th anniversary of Typhoon Haiyan, the second-strongest tropical cyclone ever to make landfall. He pours himself a glass of tuba, the local coconut wine, while recalling the tsunami-like waves that crashed into Paraiso, leaving their makeshift homes a pile of shattered timber and aluminum sheeting.

In the months that followed, Deliva and 500 other surviving Paraiso families returned to expand the mangroves along the bay. By their own estimates, during the past decade, they’ve added something close to 50% of the forest’s density through their planting efforts.

Since then, locals have sworn by mangroves for their protection from calamities and for cultivation of fish nurseries.

“We did this without a single cent of support from the government,” Deliva says, brooding like the gray overcast and heavy clouds above him. He says it’s unfair that having tended to the bay’s mangroves and the marine life for the past decade, they’re now going to see it all torn down.

Mangroves and a boat.
Locals have sworn by mangroves for their protection from calamities and for cultivation of fish nurseries. Image by Michael Beltran.

Paradise lost

Paraiso is hidden behind a busy highway in Tacloban’s San Jose district, reached by a narrow pathway beneath the San Jose highway. To reach Cancabato Bay, villagers built a boardwalk through a tunnel of mangrove branches and leaves. At its end is a view of the clear waters of the vast bay and the rotund roots of the mangrove forest that surrounds it.

Deliva says he doesn’t know what he’ll do next if he’s evicted. Living far from the coast with little available public transportation certainly won’t make him any less reliant on his crutches. He says he has no intention of ever retiring and plans to fish until his dying days. It’s the only job, he says, for someone with one good leg.

Besides the 500 homes threatened with demolition, citizens’ group Save Kankabatok Advocacy estimates that the livelihoods of more than 1,500 families will be adversely affected by impeded access to the bay and its compromised ecosystem as a result of the causeway project.

“When it rains hard, the bay loses some of its saltiness and some of the fish die. But with the causeway, they’re planning to dump tons of soil and concrete. That will totally kill it,” Deliva says.

The 4.5 billion peso ($81 million) causeway construction is being handled by the regional office of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH). It enjoys the backing of Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez and Congressional Speaker Martin Romualdez, both first cousins of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Roque Regis, one of Paraiso’s community leaders, says the project’s political backing has intimidated some of the locals. “That’s a big wall to climb. They’re first cousins to the president. All of us fisherfolk have that in our heads. Can we go against them?”

To reach Cancabato Bay, villagers built a boardwalk through a tunnel of mangrove branches and leaves.
To reach Cancabato Bay, villagers built a boardwalk through a tunnel of mangrove branches and leaves. Image by Michael Beltran.

Cracks in the causeway

According to the DPWH, the causeway will reduce travel time to Tacloban airport and “protect the life and property of the residents/constituents in the area from erosive tidal actions brought by weather disturbances.”

Construction began in February 2023, with significant progress expected to be achieved by December 2024. But in June 2023, the Tacloban City Council ordered a halt to construction, citing the lack of necessary environmental clearances.

The suspension was reversed in August, however, with the DPWH pledging to modify the design to include a longer bridge and a sewage treatment plant.

However, the design modifications haven’t been made available to the public. The DPWH tells Mongabay that “revisions to plans are still being discussed.”

City Councilor Jerry Uy says bureaucratic pressures from the DPWH led to the project bypassing protections over the area.

Uy says it took six weeks for the DPWH to furnish the City Council with a copy of the “voluminous” feasibility study for the project. Then, the DPWH urged the council to come up with a decision the following day because a delay would entail a “slippage” in the implementation.

While the DPWH maintains the review period was “up to the City Council,” Uy says the majority of his colleagues agreed to the quick turnaround.

“I abstained from voting. I did not have time to read the report,” he says. “But we were a minority. The majority voted to lift the suspension.”

Moreover, both Uy and Judah Aliposa, private sector representative in the Regional Development Council, say they haven’t seen any environmental compliance certificate (ECC), a clearance that a given undertaking will not cause significant ecosystems damage. Both officials say they’ve been told by the DPWH that it’s a “done deal.”

Aerial view of Tacloban after Typhoon Haiyan.
Aerial view of Tacloban after Typhoon Haiyan. Image by Russell Watkins/Department for International Development via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

The DPWH tells Mongabay that it possesses an ECC. However, Uy maintains that if one does exist, the city has yet to be furnished with a copy. Aliposa also requested a copy of the document but says he got no response from the department.

Aliposa questions the choice of Sunwest Incorporated as the project’s contractor. Sunwest is owned by Elizaldy Co, a vocal ally of the Marcos administration. It was also embroiled in a corruption scandal as the supplier of allegedly overpriced laptops for public school teachers.

Aliposa also questions the project’s purported effectiveness. “If you look at the design, the causeway is perpendicular to the flow of a storm surge. So it’s not protecting the island. The DPWH is just looking for any justification,” he says.

The DPWH says the project “will partly protect the area from storm surge,” in conjunction with a separate, already partially constructed “shore protection structure.”

Aliposa says new features to the plan such as a treatment plant are unnecessary. According to a University of the Philippines survey, Cancabato Bay is “the most species rich” in the area for seagrass beds, which act as a natural waste management system.

Fishing folks on outrigger canoes on Cancabato Bay, with the San Juanico Strait and Samar Island seen in the background.
Fishing folks on outrigger canoes on Cancabato Bay, with the San Juanico Strait and Samar Island seen in the background. Image by Bagoto via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Reclamation woes

The Tacloban Comprehensive Land Use Plan (CLUP) says the bay is plagued by a “polluted and dying biodiversity.” The causeway is the first step in a grander infrastructure plan called the Cancabato Central Business District, touted as a “more economical, more prudent, more appropriate and more productive approach” to using the segment of the bay, as it has “ceased to be a viable fishing ground.”

Regis, the Paraiso villager, disagrees. “The bay is alive. If it was dead, then what have we been catching all this time?” he says. He adds that fish caught anywhere in the San Juanico Strait, at the mouth of the bay, or even the greater Leyte Gulf, which meets the Pacific Ocean, was most likely bred within the mangroves of Cancabato Bay.

He calls the government “deaf” to their demands as none of the fishers was ever consulted for the project.

One of Tacloban’s environmental safeguards officers, Jedee Magoncia, is also one of the founders of Save Kankabatok Advocacy. He lives along the San Jose highway, a few meters from the expanse of mangroves and the bay’s shoreline.

“They’re not just taking away the fish and the fishing ground. The project will probably entail shopping malls. That means water will be displaced from the bay into the streets,” Magoncia tells Mongabay.

“Water seeks the lowest level,” he adds, warning that the dumping of reclaimed soil and concrete into 562.26 hectares (1,389 acres) of the bay will increase surrounding communities’ vulnerability to flooding.

Roque Regis, one of Paraiso’s community leaders, stands on a bridge through the bay's mangroves.
Roque Regis, one of Paraiso’s community leaders, stands on a bridge built through the mangroves. Image by Michael Beltran.

‘Building back worse’

Aliposa says the causeway is a prelude to increased infrastructure activity in the city. He says he knows of at least two more reclamation roads slated for construction after the causeway is completed.

Tacloban, ground zero for one of the world’s worst ever natural disasters, has yet to learn its lesson in the aftermath, says Eduardo Mangaoag, founder of the Climate Change R&D Center at Visayas State University.

“In Tacloban, they’re not building resilience. I don’t see any real development, only new roads. It already has some natural protection and fish nursery in the bay. But water intrusion and erosion are aggravated by the clearing of mangrove areas, because mangroves hold the soil together,” he says.

The handful of government mangrove reforestation initiatives led by the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources earlier this year have been repeatedly criticized for botched planting, where improper seedlings were planted and mismatched zonation led to very few trees surviving.

Meanwhile, for more than a decade, the national government has prioritized spending on climate-tagged infrastructure solutions. For 2024, the Marcos administration will increase climate spending by 17%, allotting a total of 543.45 billion pesos ($9.75 billion), much of it for stormwater infrastructure.

In roughly the same period of greater emphasis on climate spending, the Philippines has been ranked the most vulnerable and at-risk country for disasters by the World Risk Index.

Aliposa says the infrastructure spending spree isn’t down to faith in its effectiveness so much as it is a move for political gain and access to larger budgets.

“It’s building back worse. Elections are coming. And the best way to show you’ve done something is through infrastructure,” he says.

The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources has noted that a similar causeway project in nearby Bohol province was partly responsible for months of red tide in its coastal waters.

Jon Bonifacio of the national advocacy group Kalikasan People’s Network says the Cancabato project is an affront to the environment as well as to society.

“It entails massive economic displacement, robbing fisherfolk of their livelihoods, and that in itself leaves communities more vulnerable to climate change,” he said.

Regis, joined by Save Kankabatok Advocacy, is looking to take the matter to the Supreme Court and push for a Writ of Kalikasan, a uniquely Philippine legal remedy upholding citizens’ constitutional right to a healthy environment. Achieving this would suspend causeway-related activities. The alternative for the residents is to be relocated to far-flung areas outside the city, something that Regis says he will never agree to.

“It’s painful to think that so many leaders have come and gone, and none have ever thought of what’s best for us,” he says. “We had to do this for our village, but they only think of themselves.”

A Philippine town and its leaders show how mangrove restoration can succeed

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