When Mary Ann San Jose moved to Sitio Pariahan more than two decades ago, she could walk to the local chapel. Today, reaching it requires a swim.
The main culprit is catastrophic subsidence caused by groundwater being pumped out from below, often via unregulated wells for homes, factories, and farms catering to a booming population and growing economy.
The steady sinking of coastal towns and islets like Pariahan in the northern Philippines has caused Manila Bay’s brackish water to pour inland and displace thousands, posing a greater threat than rising sea levels due to climate change.
“It was so beautiful here before… Children were playing in the streets,” San Jose said, adding: “Now we always need to use a boat.”
Most of the former residents have scattered to other parts of the region. Just a handful of families remain in Pariahan, which had its own elementary school, a basketball court and a chapel before the water flowed in.
These days just the flooded chapel, a cluster of shacks on bamboo stilts where San Jose lives with her family, and a few homes on a bump of land remain.
The children that live there commute 20 minutes by boat to a school inland and most of the residents eke out a living by fishing.
The provinces of Pampanga and Bulacan — where Pariahan is located — have sunk between four and six centimetres (1.5-2.4 inches) annually since 2003, according to satellite monitoring.
“It’s really a disaster that is already happening… It’s a slow-onset disaster,” explained Narod Eco, who is part of a group of scientists tracking the problem.