By Gracie Pearsall
Located at the juncture of the typhoon belt and the Pacific Ring of Fire, the Philippines experiences more than its fair share of natural disasters. These disasters are especially harsh on the residents of Albay, a province in the Bicol region. These residents live in the shadow of Mt. Mayon, the Philippines’ most active volcano, which erupts every seven to ten years. Moreover, this low-lying region regularly experiences flooding from storm surges, and the capital city, Legazpi, sits on a bay notorious for frequent cyclones. Recently, the residents have become keenly aware of the risks that climate change presents. Yet, in the face of such perils, Albay has turned to tourism as a seemingly unlikely path to resiliency and disaster-risk reduction.
Tourism in Albay relies on the region’s unique ecology and beautiful natural features. Tourists often hike through tropical forests and hills to see the perfectly conical Mt. Mayon. Tourists also flock to swim with whale sharks in one of world’s largest pods of whale sharks, in this region. Thus, the region views sustainable practices and “green development” as investments in these attractions.
Resilience to climate change will protect the Albay environment from degradation, and ensure that tourism will remain a profitable sector. The tourism-based economic boom has alleviated poverty, encouraged further resilient development, and allowed the government to create a world-renowned disaster-risk reduction strategy.
Albay, is already at risk for sea-level rise that could flood homes and infrastructure. Climate change would bring more frequent, and more severe storms that could cause further flooding. The increased precipitation would also make the destructive lahars (strong mudflows of ash and debris) more common. Climate-induced ocean acidification, and coral bleaching events, also would threaten the food security of coastal residents. Moreover, warmer temperatures would also reduce the entire region’s agricultural productivity. These risks would compound the ever-present threats of typhoons and volcanic eruptions.
The effects of climate change will disrupt the lives of every Albayan, and discourage tourism. In 2006, Typhoon Durian hit Albay, causing Mt. Mayon to unleash devastating mudslides that resulted in massive destruction and deaths. However, the region quickly recovered by using tourism to drive reconstruction. The government built 320 km of roads that connected tourist destinations across Albay. The region needed the development of this infrastructure not only to meet the growing tourism demand, but also to provide jobs so locals could bounce back from the typhoon.
The increased revenue from tourism has helped many people escape from poverty. For example, fishermen who were once making 100 Philippine pesos (PHP) per day, now make 200PHP per hour in the tourism industry. Furthermore, investment in tourism is a more long-term recovery method, than relying solely on foreign and federal aid.
Revenue from tourism also allowed the Albay government to implement mitigation, adaptation, and disaster risk management measures. Former governor Joey Salceda developed an award winning “zero-casualty” strategy for disaster risk management. The strategy includes risk mapping, improving infrastructure, early warning systems, engineering responses, and evacuation plans that even incorporate the same roads built for “eco-tours.”
This disaster risk-reduction strategy is not only a government matter, but also a community-based one. Every household is involved in the process. Parents teach their children the village’s disaster plan, which includes a designated disaster meeting place. Schools teach children survival skills through games, thus making the entire community aware of the risks, and how to respond to them.
Similarly, the Albay government is focused on bottom-up solutions to climate threats. The government and environmental advocates often host workshops, training Albay residents on how to adapt to the changing climate. For example, as overfishing and warmer oceans decrease the productivity of the nearby reefs, many Albayans could become food insecure. To minimize this risk, activists taught coastal communities how to farm organically, so that the farmers could sustain themselves if the waters became unfishable. The ability to farm also makes communities more self-sufficient if a natural disaster were to isolate those communities. Furthermore, with the influx of tourists looking to sample local cuisine, increased food production through farming would help Albay cope with the higher demand for food.
To mitigate its contributions to climate change, Albay has invested in renewable energy and become a hot-spot for solar and geothermal alternatives. The province contributes nearly 300 megawatts of geo-thermal energy to the national grid, and has plans to contribute 350 megawatts more. The provincial government has recently planned a large solar power plant in the capital, Legazpi.
The government also took steps to protect and expand the forest – a critical area of carbon sequestration. In the past seven years, forest cover has expanded by 88% in Albay. Furthermore, the government increased coastal mangrove cover from 700 hectares to 2,400 hectares, thereby creating a crucial buffer between land and sea.
The tourism industry has driven some of these conservation efforts because the natural beauty is what draws tourists to Albay. The government’s tourist office controls the flow of tourists to prevent degradations, by creating themed tourism “lanes.” The green “eco-tourism” and blue “eco-nautical” lanes bring tourists through the most beautiful natural sites, while bypassing ecologically sensitive areas. Local guides also promote hiking and public transport to minimize tourists’ emissions during their stay.
Albay has turned its climate risks into opportunities. The region has shown that sustainable tourism not only preserves the attractiveness of the region, but also helps the area become more resilient. The region also markets itself as a climate-destination and hopes to act as a model for other Filipino provinces by creating an inter-region network dedicated to resiliency and disaster risk reduction.
Cover photo by Sir Mervs/Wikimedia (CC by 2.0): Mount Mayon seen from Camalig, Albay, Philippines.