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Learning about the HUMAN COST of climate change

By Patricia M. Bombard
March 28, 2016

Driving along Roxas Boulevard north along Manila Bay, you get a feel of Chicago’s Lakeshore Drive, skirting the shores of Lake Michigan. This is no coincidence, for the famed American architect, Daniel Burnham, planned both areas. Between inviting vistas of the bay, most spectacular at sunset, Roxas Boulevard passes hotels, restaurants, cultural and government buildings, a yacht club, and the SM Mall of Asia with its 600 shops.

Got the picture?

Now, imagine this same scene under waist-deep water driven ashore by monsoon surges, as it was in August of 2012 during an eight-day period of heavy rains. Some 95 people died in the monsoon, which also destroyed 8,428 homes and damaged 6,706. In U.S. dollars, the damage estimate reportedly reached $9.6 million. A year later, it happened again. Nearly 60 percent of the city was under waist-deep, and in some places neck-deep, water, again from record-breaking rains — more than a month’s worth in one day. Typhoon Haiyan followed in November 2013 and killed more than 6,300 people. It was the strongest typhoon ever to hit the country, and some reports said it was stronger than U.S. hurricanes Katrina and Sandy combined.

This is the human cost of climate change — the topic that seven School of Public Service students, along with their instructors, Dr. Patricia Bombard and Dr. Ron Fernandes, explored during a week-long study abroad trip to the Philippines in December. The Climate Change Vulnerability Index 2013 ranked Manila second among global cities facing “extreme risks” and the highest vulnerability due to climate change. The Manila experience was an extension of two SPS Autumn Quarter courses: MPS 511: Sustainable International Development, and MPS 520: Values-Centered Leadership.

“Visiting Manila, Philippines, was an experience like no other,” said SPS student Akshara Vivekananthan. “Prior to this trip, I had not realized that one of the most important victims of climate change is in fact people.”

She added: “I got to witness two different worlds: one that was comfortable and one that was trying to break free from poverty. The best part? Seeing these two juxtapose side by side, provided a true learning environment where what I learned in class was translated in person through the work of several nonprofits trying to achieve a greater cause.”

Our host was Adamson University, a sister Vincentian university in Manila. Pamela Mantuhac, Director of the Vincentian Center for Asia Pacific and the Office of Vincentian Identity and Mission at Adamson, served as our local coordinator.

The trip came shortly after the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, and his visit to the U.S. It also coincided with the meeting of national leaders for the U.N. summit on climate change (COP21) in Paris. With these world events as backdrop, we heard from local speakers about the issues facing Manila and the Philippines as a whole. These included Elen Estares, who trained as a climate change facilitator for the Philippines with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, and Ruel Cabile, a spokesman for Aksyon Klima, a network of civil society organizations in the Philippines that has banded together to help deal more effectively with the effects of climate change. We also heard more on the Catholic perspective on climate change from Fr. Benny Tuazon, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Manila on ecological issues.

“They are all dealing with poverty issues being worsened by the climate change issue that the Philippines is facing now,” Mantuhac said. “And all these projects are geared toward sustainable community development spearheaded by values-centered leaders.”

The presenters reported that the Philippines historically gets hit by many severe tropical storms annually but that climate change appears to be affecting the intensity, frequency and location of the storms, all of which is wreaking havoc on the country’s agricultural and economic sectors. In addition, large percentages of the 100 million Filipinos live in poverty and have little or no means to adapt to the severe climate disruptions. Speaking of its natural beauty and resources, one presenter said: “The Philippines is a very rich country with very poor people.”

“Every speaker we met with was open and honest about the problems that the people are faced with in the Philippines,” SPS student Myroslava Andrushkiv said.

Field visits put us in direct contact with the human costs of climate change and other environmental issues, and introduced us to project leaders who are making a difference, especially in the lives of the poor. Fr. Atilano  “Nonong” Fajardo, a Vincentian priest, is director of the Integrated Community Extension Services (ICES) and the Vincentian Center for Social Responsibility at Adamson University.

Under his leadership, Adamson administrators, faculty, staff, and students engage in empowerment, poverty reduction, and sustainable development projects at Southville, a relocation site on the outskirts of metro Manila. During a day trip, our group met with Cabuyao Mayor Isidro  L. Hemedes, Jr., who explained the history of Southville, a government-enforced project to relocate informal settlers living along national railway lines passing through Manila.

SPS students visited with residents to learn more about how they have benefited from the Adamson projects.  

“The experience of talking with the community residents at Southville was one of the best examples of values-centered leadership that we witnessed on the trip,” SPS student Anna Mayer said. “Even though these residents don't hold titles or traditional leadership roles, they exemplified many of the values we discussed in class and showed how strong a community can be when power is shared and leadership is a collective endeavor.”

SPS student Julieth Hernandez added about the visit to Southville: “I got to experience what empowerment means. In a period of eight years women who started cooking for the children living in the community later became teachers at the community school, and later owners of their own business. They learned how to speak English, and how to manage their business accountability and how to train other women in their community.”

We also toured government-operated solid waste management and biofuel projects adjacent to the village of Payatas, where informal settlers scavenge and sell recyclable products from a giant open dumpsite around which they have built their homes using recycled wood, roofing materials and cardboard.


This scavenging lifestyle went on for decades unsupervised until July of 2000 when heavy torrential rains caused a massive garbage slide on the now steeply sided dumpsite that resulted in 300 deaths and left hundreds homeless. After touring the site and hearing about controls put in place since that tragedy, we spoke to villagers and Fr. Aldrin Suan, CM, who has acted as an advocate for the people, on the progress of the new public/private collaboration to keep the site open and yet safe as a source of income for the villagers.

“The Payatas' trip was really fascinating and informative,” Andrushkiv said. “It showed how efficient and quickly people can work in a short period of time because of good leadership.”

Another stop was a safe house for youth operated by Visayan Forum Foundation, a non-profit organization in the Philippines addressing human trafficking. Occupants of the safe house, rescued women and one boy, ranged from 1 to 21 years of age. A social worker there told us the organization helped about 100 victims of human trafficking who were captured by traffickers from areas affected by Typhoon Haiyan.

“This trip was very emotional and heart-felt because we were able to talk to the youth who were abused,” Andrushkiv said. “Every person should be aware that this problem really exists and that we as humans should make an effort to stop it.”

We also visited three green social enterprise projects sponsored by the Villar Social Institute for Poverty Alleviation and Governance (SIPAG) Foundation, operated under the direction of Filipino Senator Cynthia Villar. These livelihood projects included a production plant where families turn waste coconut fiber into landscaping materials, a plastic recycling plant that produces children’s school desks from discarded plastic wrappers, and a water lily arts and crafts center, which has the added benefit of clearing rivers and streams choked by excessive growth of the wild lilies.

SPS student Joanna Nichols summarized her experience: “I learned about resiliency and hope from the girls and staff at the Visayan Forum Foundation.  I learned about potential and sustainable development from the Villar SIPAG Foundation. I learned about dedication and patience and from the teachers in Southville, a volunteer preschool program. I also learned about corruption, extreme poverty, and the varied consequences of global climate change. It is an experience that is hard to describe and one that I will never forget.”IN CASE YOU WANT IT:

Patricia M. Bombard, BVM, holds a Doctor of Ministry degree in Spirituality and Spiritual Leadership from the Chicago Theological Seminary and a Master of Arts  degree in Religious Studies from Mundelein College. She serves as director of Vincent onLeadership: The Hay Project, which focuses on research, education and training inspired by the leadership legacy of Saint Vincent de Paul. She also serves as an adjunct faculty member in the School of Public Service.