Surging population threatens fragile Philippine ecosystems

Posted: 8 May 2009

Author: Henrylito D. Tacio

In 2007, the Philippines was home to almost 88 million Filipinos. By 2015, that figure will swell to around 100 million, according to World Development Indicators 2009, the latest publication released by the World Bank.

Presently, the Philippines is among the world’s top 20 most populous countries in the world. Some demographers believe that the surging population in the country is bad news as more and more Filipinos would suffer from poverty. The 2003 National Demographic and Health Survey indicated that poverty incidence in families with nine or more children is pegged at 57 per cent while families with only one child has a poverty incidence of only 10 per cent.

Too much people and poverty are the two leading factors cited by the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) why the country’s natural resources, despite being abundant, are compromised. “The interconnected problems related to population, health, and the environment are among the Philippines’ greatest challenges in achieving national development goals,” the Washington-based bureau states.

Denuded mangroves, The Philippines. Photo: Henrylito Tacio
Denuded mangroves, The Philippines. Photo: Henrylito Tacio
Denuded mangroves, The Philippines.© Henrylito Tacio
The rapid growth of population has reportedly obliterated the coastlines – estimated at 36,289 kilometres (one of the longest in the world). Twenty-five major cities, including Metro Manila, Cebu and Davao, lie on the coast. About 62 per cent of the Filipinos live in the coastal zone.

Damaged coasts and reefs

“The present status of coastal ecosystems in the Philippines is a cause for alarm,” pointed out a World Bank report on coastal and marine resource management. “More than 79 per cent of the nation’s mangrove forests have been converted to aquaculture, logged, or reclaimed for other uses. “Half of the seagrass beds have either been lost or severely degraded, and the rate of degradation is increasing. Beaches and foreshore area are under increasing pressure from rapid population growth and uncontrolled development, which leads to erosion, sedimentation, and water quality problems,” the report added.

Blast fishing, Bohol, Philippines© ReefBase
Blast fishing, Bohol, Philippines© ReefBase
Blast fishing, Bohol, Philippines.© Reefbase
Coral reefs, touted to be the rainforests of the sea, are not spared. “Almost all Philippine coral reefs are at risk due to the impact of human activities, and only 4 to 5 per cent remain in excellent condition,” the World Bank report said.

“The coasts are critical for the livelihood and well-being of the growing population living in coastal areas,” the PRB says. About 75% of fish caught commercially in the country spend some time in mangroves. An estimated 10-15 per cent of the total fisheries come from coral reefs.

The destruction of mangroves and coral reefs have greatly affected fish catch. “All fisheries are showing decline in total catch,” the World Bank report claimed. Estimates show that if the present rapid population growth and declining trend in fish production continue, “only 10 kilogrammes of fish will be available per Filipino per year by 2010, as opposed to 28.5 kilogrammes per year in 2003.”

The economic costs of environmental degradation of these resources are significant, according to World Bank. For instance, one square kilometre of healthy coral reef generates an average of PhP2.5 million (US$50,000) from fishing and tourism. As a whole, coral reefs contribute at least PhP70 billion (US$1.4 billion) annually to the economy.

Water shortage

Next to air, water is the element most necessary for survival. “Access to safe water is a fundamental human need and, therefore, a basic human right,” former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. A household of five needs at least 120 litres per day to meet basic needs – for drinking, food preparation, cooking and cleaning up, washing and personal hygiene, laundry, house cleaning, said the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute.

Children playing in the Pasig River, Manila
Children playing in the Pasig River, Manila,
Children playing in the Pasig River, Manila, Philippines, where factories dump their waste. © Ron Giling/Panos Pictures
Overpopulation, indiscriminate extraction, and pollution are the three factors cited by Ramon Alikpala of the National Water Resources Board why the country is having “lack of freshwater supply.” He noted that at an annual population rate of 2 per cent to 2.3 per cent, the country would be facing a water shortage by 2025. This is particularly true in urban areas. In 1991, a study conducted by the Japan International Cooperation Agency listed nine major cities as “water-critical areas.” These were Metro Manila, Metro Cebu, Davao, Angeles, Baguio, Bacolod, Cagayan de Oro, Iloilo, and Zamboanga.

“The rapid urbanization of the Philippines, with more than two million persons being added to the urban population annually, is having a major impact on water resources,” said a report released by the Manila-based Asian Development Bank. Compounding the problem is the deterioration of water resources due to pollution. “Water quality is poorest in urban areas, the main sources of pollution being untreated discharges of industrial and municipal wastewater,” the ADB said.

The ADB study found out that 48 per cent of water pollution arise from domestic use, 37 per cent from agricultural waste, and 15 percent from industrial waste. According to World Bank, the annual economic losses caused by water pollution are estimated at PhP67 billion (US$1.3 billion).

Disappearance of forest cover

Some environmentalists believe the shortfall of water supply in the country can be traced to the rapid disappearance of the forest cover. Of the country’s total forestland area of 15.88 million hectares, only 5.4 million hectares are covered with forests and fewer than a million hectares are left with old growth forests.

“Over-exploitation of the forest resources and inappropriate land use practices have disrupted the hydrological condition of watersheds, resulting in accelerated soil erosion, siltation of rivers and valuable reservoirs, increased incidence and severity of flooding, and decreasing water supply of potable water,” the World Bank report said.

Denuded forest, Philippines
Denuded forest, Philippines
Bare mountains where the forest has been felled, Philippines. Photo © Henrylito Tacio
Not only that. Forests have also provided habitat for many of the country’s biological diversity. About 76 percent of plant species are endemic (meaning they are found nowhere else in the world). The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) has identified the Philippines as “one of the most endangered of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.”

“Widespread destruction and conversion of natural habitats, overexploitation, and pollution have led to rapid biodiversity loss,” said a World Bank report. Environmentalists are not surprised to know that the number of endangered species increased from 212 in 1990 to 284 in 1998.

The deterioration of the fragile ecosystems has made Filipinos more vulnerable to natural hazards like floods, droughts, cyclones, earthquakes, windstorms, tidal waves, and landslides. “Rapid population growth, increasing population density, and environmental degradation are accelerating vulnerability to disasters as settlements encroach into disaster-prone lands,” the PRB says. Vulnerability to natural hazards has increased in many coastal areas due to the loss of coastal habitats, which provide protection from flooding and tidal waves. In upland areas, the clearing of forests for human settlement, agriculture, and timber has contributed to the severity of flash floods and landslides.

“An awareness of population trends is critical in the formulation of effective disaster prevention and preparedness plans,” the PRB contends.

Henrylito Tacio is our Contributing Editor in South-East Asia.