PERSONAL The Silence and Noise of 2018

by Howie Severino

   Howie  Severino is a Filipino broadcast journalist best known for his work with the Philippine Center for Investigative        Journalism, the Probe Team, and the GMA Network. He has worked in print, television, and online media. He is    currently the Vice President for Professional Development of GMA News and Public Affairs.
DISASTERS OFTEN often arrive in terrifying sounds — the super typhoon’s blaring monster wind, the tsunami’s rumbling roar as it nears unsuspecting villages, the earthquake’s surging vibration coupled with the shattering of glass and falling objects. In 2018, I covered a calamity whose silence was deafening. My documentary team and I had seen photos online of a ghost village in the middle of the sea, near the northern, coastal edge of Manila Bay. The sea had climbed a meter or so up the walls, the daily tides leaving visible barnacles on the sides of a picturesque chapel. This was the carcass of Sitio Pariahan in Bulacan, Bulacan, a centuries-old gateway to Manila for seafaring traders from central Luzon. Pictures from the 1980s and earlier showed a thriving island community with coconut trees, fishponds and dikes that served as walkways between neighbors, a school that drew over 200 students from surrounding islets, and the chapel whose patron was venerated across Bulacan. Only a handful of families remain, the poorest in the community who had nowhere to flee, and now occupy what is left of the land, a mound with shanties and people who would be stranded if not for their small boats
Sitio Pariahan’s chapel was once a picturesque destination during the village’s popular fiesta. | Photo by HG Severino
Most of the residents think that a storm in 2011 was the culprit, wrecking the dikes and allowing the sea intrusion. Others had heard about climate change, which is causing the sea level rise creeping into coastal communities all around the world. But as we interviewed scientists and read their findings about similar observations in many shore areas of the Philippines, it became clear that what we were seeing was a double whammy of a widespread calamity: the rise of the sea coupled with the sinking of land. The land was sinking in Sitio Pariahan and many other areas along the coast because of the overpumping of groundwater. It was happening in the flooded streets of Malabon, but also in Catanduanes and many other provinces that relied on underground supplies of water. In this part of Bulacan the reckless extraction of water was being driven by the tremendous demand for water of the fishponds. As water was being removed, the earth above the aquifers, or natural storehouses of groundwater, would sink, a catastrophic man-made geological process called subsidence. So the intrusion of the sea as a consequence of planetary climate change, which in turn is mostly caused by the burning of fossil fuels, was being accelerated by irresponsible human behavior right here at home. As I sat in a boat navigating the half-submerged ruins of Sitio Pariahan, I couldn’t help thinking that this was how a Philippine village dies. More dramatically yet realistically in light of dire scientific warnings, perhaps this was a vision of the early stages of human extinction. The eternal flooding of sea level rise was coming much earlier to the Philippines because of the abuse of natural resources. It occurred to me that of everything that I had been covering for the past three decades as a journalist, what I was witnessing in Sitio Pariahan was the greatest existential threat to the Philippines.
People here could recall tree-lined paths for visiting their neighbors. Now they’re trapped in their homes by the rising water and sinking land. | Photo by HG Severino
Yet this village as well as others in similar stages of submersion were rarely mentioned by political leaders, and hardly covered in the media. Silent and relatively slow, this catastrophe was not newsworthy, yet it was making the country uninhabitable at a speed much faster than in less vulnerable places. Just as human folly is causing it, human intervention could also arrest it, and with radical actions could even seek to reverse it. Scientists and other wise men and women have long spelled out the solutions. But it will need sweeping enterprises of cooperation and courage among many sectors, and a shift in focus of everyone, including journalists. This is the real cost of our myopic political concerns, the profanity and misogyny from on high, the personal attacks on people and institutions — tyranny and manufactured crises are sucking the oxygen of public attention away from issues that could lead to the death of entire communities. Part of this fatal distraction is the energy expended by journalists fighting the battles playing out on Facebook, the arena where the truth is devalued and fact-seekers are aggressively demonized and threatened. All that’s part of the noise drowning out any effort to elevate more meaningful conversations. Amid the din, 2019 began brightly with an announcement that Facebook is finally disabling scores of accounts in the Philippines proven to be spreading disinformation and hate. It’s a minor skirmish won, in a long struggle to win back some space and attention for threatened places like Sitio Pariahan.