Floating Houses as Climate Adaptation Strategy for the Manobos

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Floating Houses as Climate Adaptation Strategy for the Manobos

Adaptive management has been used as a paradigm to respond to uncertainty about the future impacts of climate change. An essential component of adaptive management is learning through time and modifying responses to new knowledge or new technologies for a more efficient or adequate response. The flexibility to change decisions over time is vital to a successful adaptation.

In Mindanao, the Manobo Indigenous People live and thrive on a vast wetland despite facing numerous storms and floods yearly. However, in recent decades, they have observed that these extreme events, such as storms, are getting stronger due to climate change. 

The Manobo community lived in floating houses in the Agusan Marshlands of the Philippines. The Agusan Marshland, also known as the Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary, is nestled in the midwaters of the Agusan River, the Philippines’ third largest river basin, located in the eastern region of Mindanao Island.

Significance of the Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary

According to a 2023 study published in Nature, 3.4 million km2 of global wetlands were drained for human use between 1700 and 2020, affecting GHG fluxes, flood control, nutrient cycling, and biodiversity.

However,  the Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary is “still the Philippines’ least-disturbed freshwater wetland with a complex network of lakes, rivers, marshes and ponds that hold it all together”, according to a Mongabay article.

It adds that the wildlife sanctuary “covers an area almost five times the size of Manila at 19,196 hectares (47,434 acres) spanning six municipalities and 38 barangays (a local, territorial unit) in the province of Agusan del Sur in northeastern Mindanao. It is home to a vibrantly rich biodiversity that hosts, more or less, 1,100 species of flora and fauna with 314 endemic species recorded” (Cabrera, 2023).

Recognising the importance of the Agusan Marsh to biodiversity and its function in climate mitigation and adaptation, it was declared a Philippine Protected Area in October 1996, has been listed as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention since November 1999 and was declared an ASEAN Heritage Park by the ASEAN Center for Biodiversity in November 2018, the article says.

Manobo floating community vulnerable to climate change and biodiversity loss

The study, published in the International Journal of Development and Sustainability, notes that due to the Agusan River Basin’s vast land and fertile soil, people are lured to use the land for agriculture and tree plantation.

The expansion of agricultural activity, specifically crop production like corn, rice, and palm, is encroaching upon the river basin, threatening its habitat and biodiversity, highlighting the need for a policy review to balance food production and biodiversity conservation.

The Agusan Marshland is facing similar threats. The marsh is seeing palm oil plantation developments, a growing trend in the region. This is attracting farmers to convert their underused farmlands into oil plantations.

According to the Sustainable Management of Peatland Forests in Southeast Asia, 4,000 hectares of the 19,196 hectares of marshlands “may be declared as Alienable and Disposable for irrigation peatlands, which means it “may be converted to agriculture without any kind of land suitability assessment”.

The uncontrolled spread of water hyacinths, free-floating perennial aquatic plants in the marsh, is choking waterways and making it difficult for communities to navigate the lake on their boats.

Climate change threatens to upend the Indigenous People’s way of life

A Climate Tracker article discusses the challenges the Agusan Marsh communities face from deforestation activities and the worsening impacts of climate change. Some areas of the marsh have dried up due to the build-up of silt from illegal activities in the upland.

Climate change is also exacerbating these effects and the transformation of the marsh. Jurgenne Primavera, an Agusan-born scientist and wetland expert, says that heavy logging and deforestation in the area are worsening the floods affecting the communities surrounding the Agusan Marsh, its river tributaries, and the Agusan River. Excess moisture from heavy rains now flows unimpeded into the marsh.

Another resident says that climate change is now erasing the clear pattern between the wet and dry seasons, making climate highly unpredictable and affecting the timing of their planting. Fishing in the marsh is also getting more challenging due to the proliferation of water hyacinths; studies show that agricultural runoffs and nutrient-rich sediments trigger the breakouts of these water hyacinths.

Despite the challenges these floating communities face from land use change, deforestation, sedimentation, and expanding agriculture, worsened by climate change effects, leaving the area is not an option for many because they consider themselves stewards of the marsh, which is deeply ingrained in their culture.

Developing and poorer countries are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change due to their high dependence on natural resources and limited capacity to cope with climate variability. However, their lack of resources also pushes them to be more creative and resourceful in their responses.

Critical studies on climate adaptation underscore the importance of incorporating flexibility into adaptation plans. This flexibility is crucial as it allows for responding to unexpected events as they emerge, thereby building adaptive capacity for responding to climate change.

Climate adaptation means taking action to prepare for and adjust to the current and projected impacts of climate change. In simple terms, countries and communities must develop adaptation solutions and implement actions to respond to current and future climate change impacts.

The BBC featured the floating houses of the Manobo community in the Agusan Marshlands as a climate adaptation solution that contributes to the resilience of the Indigenous community against floods and extreme weather.

Click the link to learn more about the Philippines’s Manobo community floating houses.


Mejia, G. (2023, December 6). The houses built to survive floods. BBC. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20231130-the-floating-homes-built-for-floods

In Agusan Marsh, climate crisis, other threats upend Manobos’ way of life. (2024, February 19). Climate Tracker. Retrieved from https://climatetracker.asia/in-agusan-marsh-climate-crisis-other-threats-upend-manobos-way-of-life/

Cabrera, J. (2023, July 26). Philippines’ largest freshwater wetland and Indigenous livelihoods face multiple threats. Retrieved from https://news.mongabay.com/2023/07/philippines-freshwater-wetlands-and-indigenous-livelihoods-face-multiple-threats/

Threats related to Peatlands in the Philippines. (2024). Sustainable Management of Peatland Forest in Southeast Asia. Retrieved from http://www.aseanpeat.net/index.cfm?&menuid=87&parentid=69

The floating houses that are resilient to extreme weather. (29 May 2024). BBC. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/reel/video/p0hzf8lg/the-floating-houses-that-are-resilient-to-extreme-weather

Fluet-Chouinard, E., Stocker, B. D., Zhang, Z., Malhotra, A., Melton, J. R., Poulter, B., … & McIntyre, P. B. (2023). Extensive global wetland loss over the past three centuries. Nature614(7947), 281-286.

Varela, R. P., Fernandez, E. V., & Degamo, J. R. S. (2013). Agricultural development and habitat change in the Agusan River Basin in Mindanao, Philippines. International Journal of Development and Sustainability2(3), 2020-2030.

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