Sinking Land and Rising Seas Threaten Manila Bay’s Coastal Communities

Manila is one of the most vulnerable cities in the world to sea level rise driven by climate change.  But less than 10 miles north of the capital city of the Philippines, coastal communities are sinking even faster than the seas are rising because of a declining water table rather than rising seas.  

“What is being projected 50 years from now or 100 years from now for many parts of the globe is actually happening right now at even faster rates,” in low-lying areas in Bulacan Province, Fernando P. Sirinagan, director of the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute told Reuters.  

Life in on Salambao and Binuangan Islands means living with water, as is evident with these boys receiving instructions from elders attest. Credit: James Whitlow Delano
Life in on Salambao and Binuangan Islands means living with water, as is evident with these boys receiving instructions from elders. Credit: James Whitlow Delano
A fisherman navigates a raised bamboo walkway that remains above the high tide water mark connects two parts of Binuangan Island. Credit: James Whitlow Delano
A fisherman navigates a raised bamboo walkway that remains above the high tide water mark to connect two parts of Binuangan Island that have been divided by the rising sea. Credit: James Whitlow Delano

Satellite monitoring has revealed that Bulacan and neighboring Pampanga Provinces have sunk by between 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 inches (4 to 6 centimeters) since 2003 as clay beneath the provinces’ soils has compressed and stuck together when water is drawn out through wells.  

As that land sinks, climate change is melting ice sheets covering Antarctica and Greenland, and raising sea levels around the world. The U.N. estimates the global average sea level rise of 0.11 inches (3 millimeters) every year compounds the effect of land subsiding in a region that is hit by, on average, 20 typhoons annually. High tide flooding is now a daily occurrence and the region is increasingly vulnerable to bigger storm surges that can travel farther inland.  

Hanging laundry out to dry during the daily high tide flood that afflicts Binuangan Island. Credit: James Whitlow Delano
Hanging laundry out to dry during the daily high tide flood that afflicts Binuangan Island. Credit: James Whitlow Delano
A cluster of houses on post, one having collapsed, near Binuangan Island in  Bulacan Province in the Philippines. Credit: James Whitlow Delano
A cluster of houses on posts, one of which has collapsed, near Binuangan Island in Bulacan Province in the Philippines. Credit: James Whitlow Delano
The high tide comes to this house's doorstep every high tide. Credit: James Whitlow Delano
The seas rise to this house’s doorstep with every high tide. Credit: James Whitlow Delano

The Department of Natural Resources (DENR) identifies 133,400 acres of mangrove forests that fringed Manila Bay at the end of the 19th century. By the early 1990s there were just 4,900 acres of those mangroves left. By 1995, urban expansion and a complex matrix of fish ponds had shrunk the coast-sheltering forests to just 1,962 acres. The sprawling mangrove forests held vulnerable coastal soils in place, broke waves and buffered the shore from storms and provided habitats or thousands of species. But today, fewer than 1,236 acres of mangrove forests remain, leaving this low-lying coastline of Manila Bay, one of the most vulnerable to typhoon storm surges and tides on the planet. All that remains of most of the mangrove forest is a labyrinth of channels—former rivers—winding through geometric fish ponds.

A porter carries eggs from a boat to the market during a downpour.  Everything has to be shipped into Binuangan Island from the main island of Luzon. Credit: James Whitlow Delano
A porter carries eggs from a boat to the market during a downpour. Everything has to be shipped into Binuangan Island from the main island of Luzon. Credit: James Whitlow Delano
Residents of Binuangan Island navigate its narrow alleyways as the high tide has come in. Credit: James Whitlow Delano
Residents of Binuangan Island navigate its narrow alleyways as the high tide has come in. Credit: James Whitlow Delano

When flooding became an existential threat, the Philippines’ Department of Public Works and Highways built a sinuous seawall that traced the Manila Bay coastline from the Metro Manila border to the Meycauayan River in Bulacan Province, as part of the Manila Bay Integrated Flood Control, Coastal Defense & Expressway Project. Still, there are enough gaps in the seawall that some communities behind it are flooded with every single high tide.

Then there are the communities that are not protected by the seawall.  

Boats choke the waterfront on Binuangan Island, where the only mode of transportation in or out is by boat. Credit: James Whitlow Delano
Boats choke the waterfront on Binuangan Island, where the only mode of transportation in or out is by boat. Credit: James Whitlow Delano
Every square meter of space, not all dry, is covered by a building or a dock. Binuangan Island, on the left, is separated from Salambao Island (right) by a channel called the Muzon River.  Credit: James Whitlow Delano
Binuangan Island, on the left, is separated from Salambao Island (right) by a channel called the Muzon River. Every square meter of space, not all it dry, is covered by a building or a dock. Credit: James Whitlow Delano

Almost every speck of land on densely-packed Binuangan and Salambao Islands, which sit side-by-side, are covered by some kind of structure, or a stored boat. Set outside the seawall, these islands are completely exposed to whatever the ocean brings, and during high tides, very little of their land sits above the water line.  

Almost all of the older homes on Binuangan Island are already uninhabitable and inundated with seawater, regardless of the level of the tide. Newer homes are built on raised land or on posts.

Riding this road in Bulakan during high tide is likely riding out to sea.  Credit: James Whitlow Delano
Riding the road in Bulakan during high tide requires riding across the sea. Credit: James Whitlow Delano

Back on Bulakan, a cottage industry has popped up for tricycles—motorcycles with sidecars—to ferry people over flooded portions of Bagumbayan Street during high tides to dry stretches of the roadway.  

But the high tides will soon be too deep for the motorcycles, and it is an open question how long residents can keep their homes and livelihoods above water.

James Whitlow Delano is a Japan-based documentary storyteller. His work has been published and exhibited throughout the world and led to four award-winning monograph photo books, including, “Empire: Impressions from China” and “Black Tsunami: Japan 2011”. His projects have been honored with the Alfred Eisenstadt Award from Columbia University and Life Magazine, Leica’s Oskar Barnack award and other honors from Pictures of the Year International, the NPPA Best of Photojournalism competition and Photo District News. In 2015, he founded the EverydayClimateChange (ECC) Instagram feed, where photographers from around the world document climate change on all 7 continents. ECC documents how climate change is not happening “over there” but is happening right here and right now.

Travel funding for this project was partially provided by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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