Meet the families bearing the consequences of environmental change

For Mary Ann Remocaldo, taking out the trash is not just a simple household chore.

Dec 14, 2015

MANILA, PHILIPPINES: For Mary Ann Remocaldo, taking out the trash is not just a simple household chore. Instead, proper waste disposal has meant the difference between living normally and worrying about dangerous floods and diseases.

Until recently, the buildup of trash from other people in the streets, in the drainage system, and in their backyard was a hazard for Remocaldo, her husband and two children.

“Garbage was everywhere,” she told CNA.  

The Remocaldo family lives in Angono, part of the larger Metropolitan Manila area in the Philippines. The town, in addition to being dubbed the “Art Capital of the Philippines” for its large artistic community, is also the last city that water and roads pass through on their way down the mountains on their way to Laguna de Bay, the largest lake in the country.

But water is not the only thing that flows down through Angono. Garbage from upstream towns gets swept along with it. And with no place for this refuse to go, it created a buildup in the drainage system and along the lake that has proven disastrous for families such as the Remocaldos, whose house backs up onto the lake itself. 

“We couldn’t control the flooding because of the garbage blocking the sewer system,” she told CNA.

While the flooding created issues during normal storms, the threat reached new levels when strong tropical storms barreled through the region. During the last typhoon, water levels rose as high as seven feet, Remocaldo explained. “We had to go on boat.”

And the impact of the flooding doesn’t stop there. Mosquitoes breed when the water is high, Remocaldo explained. Additionally, rats and snakes take refuge in homes as the water levels rise. More than simply an annoyance, these pests bring the threat of disease or injury at a time when it is not possible to reach medical care.

Flooding can also lead to lost classroom time for students, impacting their education for years down the road. 

A Global Problem

The environmental impact of pollution and changing weather patterns are felt not only by the Remocaldos and their neighbors but by families all over the world, said Lori Pearson, senior policy adviser for food security and agriculture at Catholic Relief Services.

“We are seeing this in our everyday work,” she told CNA.

Communities across the world – in South America, Africa, coastal regions and even the U.S. – are seeing the impact of environmental changes, Pearson said. Among the most pressing challenges she faces in her work are shifting weather patterns, because of their compounding effects on food crops. 

Addressing these issues is a major concern not only for Catholic Relief Services, but for the Church around the globe and for the broader international community.

“The farmers that we’re seeing are facing this. They’re seeing changes in rainfall patterns, and feeling they can’t trust the rain. Either you risk losing your seed or you plant too late and miss part of the growing season,” Pearson said.

She pointed to the experience of a farmer that they agency works with in the Sahel region of Africa. He told them that “the rainy season used to be five months. Now it’s three and a half.” 

“That has a huge impact on their yield and what the can produce,” Pearson said. “When the rains don’t come, their own food supply and their income supply are immediately impacted.” 

Changing weather patterns and growing seasons, along with other factors, can cause soil degradation – soils that lack healthy organic matter for growing foods and are unable to retain much water. 

“That makes a farmer much more vulnerable to both droughts and floods,” Pearson said.

In addition, she continued, changing environments, both from shifting climates and habitat loss due to deforestation and pollution, have led to an increase in pests and diseases in agriculture and human settlements.

“There are certain plant diseases which we were not seeing before which are becoming more prevalent and they’re moving their geographic areas,” she explained, pointing to funguses like coffee rust, which devastates coffee crops in warm temperatures, and malaria. 

She also referenced a recent study by University of Nebraska senior research fellow Prof. Daniel Brooks, stating that environmental change caused by deforestation and shifting temperatures makes it easier for some insect and animal-borne diseases – like West Nile Virus and Ebola – to infect human populations.  

“What we do in Liberia impacts the people in Sierra Leone, impacts our food supply, impacts what we do in the U.S.,” she emphasized. “It’s all very interconnected.” 

This interconnection is a major theme addressed by Pope Francis in his latest encyclical, “Laudato Si” and his other comments on the environment.  

“This is one of the things Pope Francis has done so well, is connect the overall level of degradation of our world to what’s happening with climate change and our care for creation, and the poor are the most vulnerable – they’re the ones that are depending on the land, and they’re the ones that are suffering from a failure to care for the Earth,” Pearson said.

“We’re concerned about this and it’s having a real impact on people.” 

A Catholic View

The impact that changing environments and climates are having on the vulnerable makes addressing these issues a topic the faithful should consider, said Bill Patenaude, a lecturer at Providence College, author of and member of the steering committee for the Global Catholic Climate Movement. 

Patenaude likened the situation of how people treat their environment to Adam and Eve’s approach to the Garden of Eden. 

“God gave a command, a warning that certain actions come with consequences,” he said. “But Adam and Eve want the thing in front of them. They want to acquire it. They want to consume it.” They do, and there are consequences. 

“So it is with us and our consumption. Our faith and our reason can tell us that consuming a thing has consequences – or consuming in certain quantities – but we do it anyway because we want the pleasure that we associate with it.”

Patenaude challenged Catholics “to look at ecological issues – including climate change – not in a political light but in a spiritual one.” 

Like Adam and Eve, he said, humans have a tendency to “take what we want and ignore the consequences – until it’s too late.” 

While secular environmental activists may not realize it, Patenaude said, care for creation is actually tied to holiness. 

In fact, he told care for the environment and holiness should not be viewed as separate goals, but as connected.--CNA

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