MANILA, Philippines, 5 December 2011 – “We cannot really change the world, but we can change ourselves for the world,” said Arnel Alipao, an 18-year-old youth advocate from Mainit, Surigao del Norte, in the Philippines.
Arnel survived the mighty floods and landslides that battered Surigao del Norte in January of this year. Galvanized by his experiences, he is helping change his school, community and country.
He has become a passionate advocate of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) – programmes that teach children and communities to safely respond to emergency situations. He is also helping spread awareness of climate change and the need for environmental protection laws and efforts.
Surigao del Norte’s torrential monsoon rains lasted three days – a terrifying experience for the community, which had never before experienced rains or flooding of that magnitude. It was a shock, and they were not prepared.
“At one point, I had to risk crossing a flooded road against a strong current of water,” said Arnel. “This main road connects two neighbourhoods in our town. It became very dangerous, especially for children, to cross it to get home.”
Flooding brought hunger and diseases to his community. “Our rice fields were submerged in water, children got sick, and our parents were not able to harvest anything. Because we live beside Lake Mainit, our houses were also submerged in water. Classes were suspended, and our schools were used as evacuation centers.”
Inspired to make a difference
When the flooding finally subsided, Arnel was angry. “We all believe that the recent flood in my hometown was a result of climate change,” he said. “I felt we were unfairly paying for the abusive acts of others towards nature. I felt it was unjust and unfair for those who are innocent to suffer the effects of the wrongdoings of a few people.”
Arnel channelled his disappointment and frustration into programmes to help his community combat the effects of climate change.
“When I discovered that similar natural disasters are happening in other countries, I realized, like others, I am also a victim. So I asked myself, why wait for these disasters to occur and take us by surprise again?”
And so he did not wait. “When my sponsor, World Vision, decided to focus on our area as a pilot-testing site for youth-focused DRR activities,” he said, “I registered as a youth advocate and participated in the activities.” DRR activities will ensure that communities like Arnel’s are better able to cope with future natural disasters.
“Because I am still a student and an active leader in my school,” he said, “I was also able to influence my fellow officers and classmates to join various school activities, such as the implementation of a zero-waste management program.
Arnel was soon invited by other development organizations and government agencies to share his personal experiences on climate change-related disasters.
“I was a speaker at a symposium on the environment held in our school. For other programs, such as clean-up drives and tree-planting activities, I would write articles to promote greater awareness.”
Bringing his story to UN Headquarters
Arnel was invited to speak at a climate-change panel at UN Headquarters in New York City. There, he expressed his views on the need for environmentally sustainable laws and the importance of implementing DRR programs throughout the Philippines.
“If I were president or a national official of the country,” he said, “I would encourage local DRR plans following the national laws protecting the environment. I know the Philippines has commendable laws; the problem is in implementing them. I would also ban the use of plastic bags.
“I would see to it that there will be a DRR media program, either on TV or the radio, in order to keep people updated. I would also ensure that DRR is included in the school curriculum as a subject in high school and college levels.”
Asked what he would say to world leaders about his experience with climate change, Arnel responded, “If you really want to leave a legacy to ensure the health and well-being of future generations, then let our earth be a friendly and sustainable earth.”