Sunday, January 17, 2010

The safest place to be... Palawan but......

Those of us in the Philippine environmental science profession learn in undergraduate geology that Palawan is the most aseismic place in the whole country. For one thing, the island is a piece of the Eurasian continental crust that was ripped from the mainland as a result of the formation of the South China Sea more than 30 million years ago. Palawan is a continental island as compared to the other Philippine islands, which are called "oceanic" meaning their origin is from the oceanic crust. Volcanism built these islands.

In graduate school, we had to pass the master's level course on geological oceanography. I was fortunately under Dr Margaret Goud-Collins (who is now affiliated with Woods Hole) who had not a few class days devoted on how the formation of Palawan. I fact the evolution of this island is linked with the evolution of the Sulu and South China Seas. Palawan is relatively aseismic since it is far from any plate subduction zone. In contrast the islands of oceanic Philippines are seismic since they are near these zones and as a consequence, are volcanic. But before Filipinos complain of the bad reputation, the islands came to be due to volcanism. There would be no Philippines without volcanoes. Filipinos depend on their very existence in the archipelago to volcanoes.

The final exam only had one question. How did Palawan form? If that sounded easy, think again. It took me more than three hours to hand in the examination paper!

Now comes the Philippine Daily Inquirer with its banner headline on Palawan. The reporters interviewed Dr Mahar Lagmay, one of our productive volcanologists having published many scientific studies on the discipline. While it is good that the public will have an idea of that scientific fact, we have to be more circumspect. Before we promote Palawan as the next real estate, "earthquake free" development destination, let us remember that

1) Palawan has a unique biodiversity from the rest of the Philippines
2) It is also the most forested island we have left
3) Palawan has also problems with resource extraction
4) Palawan also has a water problem (which is related to rapid population growth)

With only about 682,000 people, (population density of around 47 per sq km) Palawan is the second to the least populated province in the Philippines. Only another geologically, ecologically and biologically distinct province, Batanes, beats Palawan in this category. Also Palawan is the largest province at 14,649.7 sq km.

If Palawan follows a development route that encourages migration to the island, the island's ecosystems may be stressed. As a continental island, Palawan's soils are less fertile than those found in oceanic Philippine islands. Thus the island cannot produce enough food more than the population that now exists. Ecosystem degradation in the Visayan islands have caused a lot of people to migrate to Palawan. The estimated population growth rate is close to 5%, with half of that attributable to migration. The lack of major rivers (since the island is so narrow, but long) and a distinct monsoonal climate contributes to the water problem.

Palawan thus is a threatened island ecosystem. What it least needs is the influx of uncontrolled real estate developments (with seasonal migrants Metro Manila and other urban centers) which can contribute more to the water problem as well as the waste disposal problem. While tourism can and is a real cash earner for the island economy, this has to be balanced with the aim of maintaining ecosystem integrity.

I hope the Philippine Daily Inquirer counterbalances its banner headline with one specifically discussing Palawan's threatened environment.

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