Once Removed and Now Returning – The Philippines in a Changing Climate

Updated: Sep 14

By Allison Gacad. Art by Alice Hackey

I was twelve years old when I first travelled to the Philippines, nearly three decades after my family had emigrated from this archipelago in Southeast Asia. My mother took my father, sister and I to her village barrio: a two hour drive from the capital, Manila into the countryside of Hagonoy, Bulacan. She had grown up here with her four siblings in a two-storey house surrounded by towering coconut and papaya trees. Okra, pepper, and tomato plants grew in the back. These were tended to by Inang, my grandmother, while Amang, my grandfather, travelled to work every day at a fish pond he managed.

My mother’s last visit had been twelve years prior for her father’s funeral. The home was later occupied by Tita Nini, my mother’s youngest sister, and her children, Nico and Mikee.

Tita Beth, my mother’s younger sister, drove us to their home through narrow village streets sandwiched by tall metal gates and concrete fences. People stared wide-eyed at the rare sight of a CRV inching its way down a road more often populated by tricycles, motorbikes, and sometimes, wooden boats.

“It’s good you came during the dry season,” Tita Beth said. “When the rain starts, you will be walking around with water up to your ankles.”

We were received at the gates with big hugs and smiles from Tita Nini and my cousins. I remember sitting by the window that evening with Nico and Mikee, chatting about the stress of school and what we wanted to be when we grew up. Echoes of the barrio chimed in through the window: women laughing, drinking cheap beer, and smoking cigarettes on the street while they could, before they would be submerged under inches of murky water.

The Philippines, like many countries located close to the equator, experiences less fluctuation in the solar energy it receives throughout the year in comparison to countries located further away from the equator, such as Canada. As a result, changes in temperature throughout the year are minimal, while changes in precipitation are more pronounced, thus dividing the year into two seasons by rainfall. Here I learnt that there were only two seasons in this part of the world: the rainy and the dry.

Today, the Philippines has a booming population of over 100 million people. My parents had both grown up in the probinsya, or the countryside, where they were raised on fish ponds, rice paddies and tobacco crops. Success often meant having to leave the country for work and send money back home to family members. According to the World Bank, there were about 2.3 million Filipino migrant workers abroad in 2018, who sent back nearly 33 billion USD in remittances, or 10% of the country’s GDP. My mother too worked as a nurse in Kuwait for nearly a decade, funneling money back home to pay for her siblings’ education, before moving to Canada.

I was born and raised in Canada. My parents eventually settled down in a two-storey townhouse in Scarborough, a neighbourhood in the land-locked city of Toronto.

On a typical summer evening in Scarborough, my parents would tend to our garden that overflowed with the tomatoes and flowers we planted earlier that spring. When we escaped the humidity in favour of air conditioning indoors, my mother would then make her weekly calls back home to Tita Nini in Sagrada Familia.

Hi Nini, kamusta ka na? May bagyo doon? May bumabaha?

Hi Nini, how are you? Is there a storm there? Is it flooding?

While the days were long and sunny in Toronto, torrential rains lashed my mother’s home in the village. During the rainy season in the Philippines, typhoons form over warm tropical ocean water, where the swirling air accumulates large amounts of heat from the sea. As a typhoon makes landfall, all of this energy dissipates as heavy rain, wind, and flooding.

“Yes, it’s flooding, up to our knees,” Tita Nini would reply, worriedly. “We can’t use the toilet, because it’s on the ground floor, and it’s flooded. We don’t know when the water will subside.”

My mother received some iteration of this response weekly. From 1971 to 2013, extreme tropical storms – classified as category 4 or 5 with speeds of over 150 kilometres per hour - have become more frequent in the Philippines, now averaging around six per year. This is attributed to rising sea-surface temperatures since the 1970s, as the ocean absorbs most excess heat from greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. This is not a phenomenon unique to the Philippines: in 2019, the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society found a global trend of increasing incidence of category 4 or 5 extreme tropical storms in recent decades.

During my early teens, I would often come home late, only to find my mother still on the phone with Tita Nini, speaking with concern and urgency.

Pwede mag tinatambakan yung bahay para tuma-taas?

Can we renovate the home to make it stand higher?

The answer was no. Each year, their home in the barrio continued to flood and it soon began to affect their health. When the house flooded, the water lay stagnant with no possibility of draining until days after the rain subsided, serving as breeding grounds for mosquitos. Once, my cousin Nico contracted dengue and had to be hospitalized for weeks.

At some point during my applications for university, my mother suggested to her siblings that they should consider selling the family home. Tita Nini was against it, and Nico wanted to live in the house once he graduated from university. But my mother said it wasn’t reasonable.

“It’s so sad,” my mother said. “If not for the floods, it would still have all the trees and vegetables. And our furniture, it was so beautiful. But now everything is gone. Not livable anymore. So much broken.”

Tita Nini was fortunate to eventually move to the capital of Manila, prompted by both of my cousins who received full university scholarships to study there. Among the residents of the barrio, only those who had the opportunity - coupled with the means to leave - left, too. In the Philippines, a 2017 study published in Population and the Environment found that migration within the country of those with higher earning potential - particularly young, educated, males - was more likely to take place in response to rising temperatures and typhoons, compared to their older, less educated, and often female counterparts.

In 2016, I left Scarborough to attend university in Vancouver, a city on the other side of Canada. Coming from a suburban neighbourhood, I was won over by the mountains, forest and ocean surrounding the campus of the University of British Columbia. It was here that I dove deep into learning about our food system, and often as the only Filipino student in the room.

When peers in class asked where I was from, I said Toronto, and if their question lingered a bit longer, I told them that my parents had immigrated from the Philippines nearly three decades ago.

“Wow, the Philippines! I had a Filipino nanny once,” was the usual response.