Adapting to rising seas, schools on PH island move to rafters

Hannah Beech and Jes Aznar, The New York Times

Posted at Feb 25 2020 10:22 PM

The remains of a submerged house on Batasan, an island in the Philippines, where the highest point is just 6.5 feet above sea level, Nov. 24, 2019. A 7.2-magnitude earthquake in 2013 caused Batasan and three neighboring islands to collapse downward, making them more vulnerable to the surrounding sea. Jes Aznar, The New York Times

BATASAN, Philippines — When the floods invade her home at night — and they always do, a little higher each year — Pelagia Villarmia curls up on her bed and waits.

What is happening to Villarmia and her neighbors on Batasan, an island in the Philippines, is a harbinger of what residents of low-lying islands and coastal regions around the world will face as the seas rise higher.

In 2013, Batasan was convulsed by a 7.2-magnitude earthquake. Batasan and three neighboring islands collapsed downward, making them more vulnerable to the surrounding water. Now climate change, with its rising sea levels, appears to be dooming a place that has no elevation to spare. Around the time of every new and full moon, the sea rushes into people’s homes. The island is waterlogged at least one-third of the year.

A year after the 2013 earthquake, the local government proposed moving the islanders to new homes an hour’s boat ride away. Few took the offer.

This unwillingness of people on Batasan to abandon their homes — instead choosing to respond, inch by inch, to a new reality — may hold valuable lessons for residents of other vulnerable island states. Rather than uprooting an entire population, with the enormous trauma and cost that entails, the more workable solution might be local adaptations.

And Batasan’s residents have adjusted. They have placed their houses on blocks. They have tethered their goats to sheds on stilts.

The Philippines is one of the most disaster-prone countries on earth, victim to typhoons, earthquakes, floods, landslides and tsunamis, among other calamities.

On Ubay, an island of 160 residents that is 20 minutes by boat from Batasan, raised walkways connect a warren of shacks. At the primary school, the floor has been lifted higher than many adults, leaving the classrooms jammed in the rafters with less than 5 feet of space.

At the home of Alma Rebucas, thigh-high waters regularly infiltrate. She secures the family’s utensils lest they float away. Her dog and goats are swimmers. So is the cat.

Rebucas said she has no plans to move away.

“We don’t need much land,” she said. “We have the whole sea.”