As Super Typhoon Noru made landfall in the Philippines last month and people across the main island of Luzon braced for impact, the country’s largest mountain range – the Sierra Madre – began to trend online.
One image shared widely on Twitter was taken from a weather report, showing Noru moving over the range.
The Sierra Madre was “doing her thing”, said the tweet. Noru’s force appeared to be weakening.
The Sierra Madre, which stretches for 500km, has long shielded the island of Luzon, including the capital, Manila, from the worst of the typhoons that form in the Pacific Ocean. While the rugged mountain slopes can mitigate strong winds, the forests also absorb heavy rains.
The arrival of Noru, the strongest typhoon so far this year, prompted renewed calls for the protective mountain range to itself be protected from mining, logging and development projects, including the controversial Chinese-backed Kaliwa dam.
Former president Rodrigo Duterte, whose term ended in June, had argued the dam would provide a new water source to meet the rising demand of populations across Metro Manila, Rizal and Quezon.
Officials say the project will bring benefits that outweigh disruption to the environment. The project footprint is less than 0.1% of the total area of the Southern Sierra Madre, said Ryan James V Ayson, project manager of the Kaliwa Dam, at the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System. Most of the project affected areas “are already disturbed and are used for agricultural purposes,” he said.
“There are about 16 thousand trees to be affected and more than half of those are coconut trees. The rest are mostly fruit bearing trees for the livelihood of the people in the area,” he said.
Ayson added that there are communities downstream that are built on floodplains and which are already exposed to floods, but that the dam would help monitor water levels and so that people can be warned of future floods. It will be built with higher safety standards than regular structures such as buildings or roads, and a dam break scenario is improbable, he said.
Campaigners say construction of the Kaliwa dam could pave the way to further development, undermining a powerful defence against typhoons in a country that is especially vulnerable to extreme weather. It would also disturb its rich flora and fauna, and displace Indigenous communities, they say.
“Projects like the Kaliwa Dam will serve as precedents for other projects to come in, and will invariably be used as an example by other dam proponents who wish to enter the Sierra Madre area,” said Jon Bonifacio, national coordinator of Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, a group of non-government organisations and environmental advocates.
There is a risk, he added, not only of the physical wearing down of the mountain, but also of destroying large sections of biodiversity.
The MWSS has also been accused of railroading the consultation process with affected communities. Earlier this year, some indigenous leaders and elders accused the government of only allowing certain leaders to participate in negotiations before an agreement was signed. At the time, the body rejected claims that the process was unfair, and said all issues were addressed.
According to MWSS, 41 households would need to be relocated due to the Kaliwa Dam Project.
“The provisions of the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act have been strictly complied with in the acquisition of consent from the communities. The National Commission on Indigenous Peoples ensures that all procedures are properly conducted in accordance with the law,” said Ayson.
Super Typhoon Noru caused US$50.4m worth of damage to agriculture and affected 911,404 people when it struck the Philippines. Twelve people, including five rescuers, were killed and six were missing. The destruction could have been even worse were it not for the mountain range, say experts.
After Noru, lawmaker Fidel Nograles reiterated calls to pass a bill creating a government body that would be tasked with the conservation and management of the mountain range. “Sierra Madre has once again shown just how crucial it is in protecting us against extreme weather events.”
Bonifacio said there was growing awareness among the public of the need to protect the Sierra Madre, but that conservation areas across the Philippines continue to face threats.
“If the current administration is really genuine about their promise about addressing climate change, these kinds of attacks, or these kinds of projects, need to be acted upon,” Bonifacio said, referring to the government of Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who took office in June. “I’m seeing no indication of that, unfortunately, from above.”
China Energy Engineering Corporation Limited, which was selected to build the dam, did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did the Chinese embassy; however, in 2020 it defended the project, saying the Philippine authorities had ordered a critical evaluation of the project’s “economic practicality and compliance of environmental protection rules and bidding procedures”, they said.