It was my first time to go to Samar and I had always wanted to go because of its unique biodiversity. The island alone hosts a variety of wildlife and flora that can be found nowhere else in the world. Considered an Important Biodiversity Area (IBA), more than 200 bird species can be found in the island of which half are endemic. Similarly, endemic plant species account for more
than half of at least 1000 plant species this island hosts.
Thus, an opportunity to map the impacts of Typhoon Yolanda on the mangroves in the hard-hit areas of Tacloban and Samar was timely and provided a perfect excuse to visit the island. Mangroves or “mangal” ecosystems are found along coasts with plants that can tolerate brackish water. They are dominated by plants or trees with broad leaves and stilt roots or pencil-like projections called pneumatophores and live-born seedlings. This ability to produce live young (technically known as vivipary) has “prevented the extinction of mangroves in the past 50 million years and enabled them to occupy tidal areas around the world.” (www.mangrovewatch.org.au)
The study team led by Dr Jurgenne H. Primavera, chief mangrove scientific advisor of the Zoological Society of London, aimed to discover how mangroves fared in the typhoon’s aftermath. The field study itself was funded by Christian Aid. The role of mangroves in mitigating impacts of storms and storm surges is well known. Our own experience shows that MacArthur in Eastern Samar and Molocaboc in Sagay, Negros Oriental were spared from devastation because of the mangroves that braved the surge that accompanied Yolanda. Areas without mangroves barricading their coastlines were turned into wastelands overnight.
Thus, it was no surprise that mangrove stands in 14 locations covered by the study “showed only partial to minimal damage, based on the presence of new shoots on defoliated branches and on branchless trunks of trees, to none at all.”
Many that looked dead (brown and dry), had shoots reaching out from the top of the “bakhaw” (rhizophora apiculata and r. stylosa) four months after the Yolanda. Recovery is imminent from the saplings and seedlings observed. However, there was severe damage observed in the mangroves in Hernani and Guiuan in Eastern Samar where Yolanda made landfall and a sample plot in Tacloban located within the direct path of the storm surge showed 100 percent mortality.
“Mangroves are bioshields,” Dr. Primavera wrote in a newspaper article. “They provide storm protection to coastal communities and habitats. While they may sustain damage, they are able to recover,” he affirmed.
With the results from the study, our team composed of representatives from the academe and non-government organizations (NGOs) appealed to President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino 3rd to protect the mangroves in Samar and Leyte. Protection calls for law enforcement, appropriate zonation for natural stands, complementary land-use such as eco-parks and a ban on the conversion of mangroves into fishponds including cutting and clearing for Cash for Work Programs.
The team also recommended the restoration of about 200 hectares of mangroves in the worst hit areas of Eastern Samar and Tacloban. And also, the establishment of coastal greenbelts covering mangrove and beach forests in at least 100 meters from shore instead of the 40 meters prescribed in the Water Code.
It wasn’t long before the hectic five days of fieldwork were over. However, those days were filled with camaraderie and hope. Plot after plot yielded evidence of recovery and accounts from residents were filled with stories of survival. The warm and friendly residents of Maliwaliw Island generously shared with us their catch for that morning and we enjoyed tremendously the paksiw na danggit, fried fish and boiled crabs that left us wanting for more. In all these, the women made sure that we remember how the mangroves saved their lives.