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May 2014


May has given me a pretty good start here in the Philippines. Last week has been quite eventful. With Thursday being a public holiday and at the same time the day of fiesta in three Municipalities. Highlight of the week though has been the 5 day 'Bayani Challenge' (=Hero Challenge) in Libacao. The Bayani Challenge is an event organised by the Gawad Kalinga organisation. The main idea behind it is that an army of volunteers goes out to remote communities to use their man power to help the communities recover from the still visible wounds left by Supertyphoon Yolanda in November. The location for this challenge was Libacao, the most remote Municipality in the entire province, high up in the mountains, only accessible by a rough dusty dirt road following the mighty Aklan River into a green world of tropical vegetation. Libacao had been right in the path of Typhoon Yolanda.
Jayfree and the volunteers went up there on Thursday already to participate all 5 days. I only joined them on Saturday early morning, not really sure what to expect. But it sounded cool. I would be there for three days. The experiences we had there are best explained in pictures:

As vehicles are in limited supply in remote areas they are being used to the limit of their capabilities. With people travelling on the tray, on the roof, often hanging onto the back and the sides.

On my first day of the Bayani Challenge we planted trees. From morning till afternoon. During the heat of the tropical mid day sun and through the refreshing tropical downpours. The tree planting activity was really well organised, some team members using the available crow bars and spades to walk ahead and dig hole after hole after hole along the dusty street. Others placed the little trees in their plastic bags next to the holes. One after the other. And after them an army of volunteers followed, freeing the little trees of their confining plastic bags and releasing them into their freedom by planting them into the little holes with bare hands. 1000 trees got planted during that day. They are not just road side trees to look nice, they are also fruit bearing and therefore useful for hungry people. They are erosion protection for the side of the road during the tropical deluge this area goes through every wet season. Their roots will protect the road from becoming a landslide. They will provide shade to rest in. And most importantly will act as wind breakers in Typhoons. From a Disaster Risk Reduction point of view one of the most effective activities.

The remoteness of Libacao becomes clear in this picture. Lots of green, misty mountains and one big river. You see the little white spots in the distance on the right hand side of the river? That is downtown Libacao. Also visible is the extend of flooding the river and the town experience on a regular basis. What you see here as gravel beds will be a torrent river after only a few days of rain. Apart from Libacao Poblacion (=downtown) there are numerous small villages (Barangays) in the area, some of them so remote that only 6 wheeled army trucks can reach them, crossing the river many times. Others, like Dalagsa-an can only be reached by foot on an 6 hour hike along the river. When the water level rises the hike will be impossible and these villages are cut off. It's right then when Disaster Management becomes a nightmare and my assignment in establishing an early warning system becomes all the more important.

Anwang, the local working animal.

The way people live in the Libacao area. This photo is taken in Poblacion Libacao, not far from the town centre. Houses are made of bamboo and coconut lumbers, held together by fishing line and small nails. Roofs are made of palm leafs. Often there is no road access. Can you imagine what happens if a 280km/h Typhoon comes through here? If the whole town is built this way, where would you go for shelter? Typhoon Yolanda has been through here 6 months ago. Although houses are repaired, many of them are still leaning at precarious angles. And debris from the Typhoon is still scattered around them. Also still visible are the blue patches of tarps from the United Nations brought up here after Yolanda by a Canadian Air Force relief helicopter.

During our time in Libacao we stayed in the Elementary school. Just sleeping on the concrete floor in one of the class rooms. Also in the school they had this little monkey. The poor animal was all by itself in a cage on a chain. More than happy to play with us when we came to feed him every now and then.

This black truck is not a wreck, no its one of only two trucks in the Libacao area and belongs to the local government. During the Bayani Challenge we used it to transport away the debris we cleared from the area. You can actually see the sky through the tray where the rust has eaten away the 10mm or so on steel. The truck has been through a lot. But trucks are essential items on short supply so even on life support this truck will need to keep on going.

Posing in front of the recently re-painted town hall. On the top left hand corner of this picture you can see right through the corner of a roof that's been partly blown off after a Mango tree fell on it during the last Typhoon.

Posing in front of the second of two trucks owned by the Libacao local government. On the left hand side is Captain Pepito, the founder of the Seals Rescue organisation in the province. One of the most impressive personalities I have ever met.

Public transport in Libacao

Dinner at the river. Rice chicken and fish. Served on Banana leaves. Eaten with your bare hands. No washing up required and everything is fairly shared.

On the second day the organisers of the Bayani Challenge arranged the 'Amazing Race Libacao', just like the one you know from television. Just smaller. There were five teams with five team members each and five checkpoints, all related to local traditions in Libacao. This photo shows our team, the Amazing Seals just before the start of the race.

Racing through the dusty streets of downtown Libacao. Yep, this is the town centre. Although it was late afternoon at around 5 o'clock the heat was still almost unbearable. And running was hard work.

As the little orange sign shows this was one of the checkpoints of the Amazing Race. The goal was to create a 2m long twine out of that fibry stuff you see here.

Just taking a minute to relax on one of the checkpoints, exhausted, wet but happy.

Another checkpoint activity during the Amazing Race - cooking of a traditional meal. Chicken inside the hollow stem of a green bamboo, cooked over an open fire. We had to start the fire, know the recipe, find the ingredients and cook it all up.

The scene of the cooking checkpoint, the river would be just to the right of this photo.

Instructing the rooky - this friendly lady showed me how to turn some stiff natural fibres into a beautiful long twine. It looks so easy when she does it but believe me, it's not. When I did it, everything kept on getting terribly tangled, ripping apart and ended up in a big mess. Fortunately the friendly lady kept checking on me and with a laugh got me back on track many times.

Day three started on the river. Which also functions as a motorcycle highway. During times like these when there is no rain the river is actually shallow enough to walk through. Or ride a motorbike through. Often motorbikes and people crossing on small bamboo rafts, really only a few lengths of bamboo bound together with strings. School kids from the other side often have to walk through the river to get to their school in Libacao. During the rain when the river floods, a treacherous adventure. There is no bridge or ferry anywhere near here. The last attempt to build a bridge just a few km upriver from here was destroyed by Typhoon Frank in 2008 while still in construction. Leaving behind a wrecked concrete bridge which has not been resumed building since.

Us painting a manual flood gauge on this concrete wall. It seems to be far from the river. But in a serious flood the water easily goes over this concrete structure. The flood gauge will give us some valuable data about the water level changes during a flood which can be compared to other readings of manual or automatic gauges downriver from here.

Well deserved rest after a hot few hours of working outdoors - a small restaurant serving Halo Halo, an icy refreshment snack.

At the end of the activities all the volunteers helping out were treated to a Boodle Feast, a long table where food is served on banana leaves and shared by everyone.

The very end of the Challenge the volunteers were addressed by Senator Ferdinand Marcos (junior). Does this name sound familiar to you? Yes indeed, this is the son of the former president Ferdinand Marcos who ruled the country dictator-style for 20 years until ousted by a people-power movement and exiled to the US. And yet again, his son got elected as a federal politician into the senate. And yet again a Ferdinand Marcos will contest the next presidential elections. History repeating itself? We shall see.


As we continue into the hottest season in the Philippines another eventful week has passed. Marked mostly by a rather sad event, the drowning of a 10 year old girl that our rescue team was called upon for response. It was the second drowning incident in less than a week, the first being an incident at the ocean beach with four casualties, three of them did not survive. But the girls story was different.
We got the phone call at 2pm on the day but the girl has disappeared in the river at 9am already. She was playing in the Aklan River with her younger cousin when she lost her footing and was swept away by the river. At the time it was high tide but at the location they were at the water level would only be around half a metre. And during high tide the current of the river is not strong at all. But however, the girl disappeared and her young cousin was so distressed that only five hours later he told someone. The rest of Tuesday, Wednesday and much of Thursday our rescue teams spent combing the Aklan River and the ocean beaches for her. It was the first time I have been involved in a search of that nature.
Mostly the Aklan River is shallow enough to walk through during low tide. Apart from a few sections. So most of our search was done walking in the water. But also during low tide the current is strongest. And there are just too many tree roots in the river. As the story goes, a few years ago the river was much much narrower than it is now. The major floods in recent years eroded the soil away along both river banks, resulting in a shallow but wide river. And what used to be trees and forests along the river bank are now dangerous roots and fallen trunks in the riverbed. Many invisible under water until you bump against them in the current. Any of these roots could provide a lethal trap for a girl drifting in the water not knowing how to swim. So we checked every one of them. Due to the lack of equipment we had to check all of them manually. Depending on the water depth by just feeling along the roots with our hands and feet. At the deeper sections using a long stick while holding onto the trunk under water in order to not being swept away.
The most distressing part for me though - the family of the girl. Her cousin, the one she went swimming with, joining us every day. Other family members watching from the banks, urging us to continue searching even though we combed everything already, even though it was getting dark. Many of their family friends and members of the community around the incident areas joined us in the river, searching.
Result: the little girl is still missing as of today, all the search effort failed so far to bring any evidence to light.

The rest of the week was much pore positive. Thursday night was bowling night. Team Australia, consisting of five Aussie volunteers, vs Team Philippines, consisting of just as many Seals volunteers. It was good fun, bowling for over an hour. Team Australia finishing just a few points ahead of Team Philippines.

We also had two more community education events, a general orientation about disaster risk reduction strategies with students of the Aklan State University. And on Saturday one of my favourite activities - part one of a flood drill exercise. It's one of my favourite because it involves the community at absolute grass root levels. In the villages. This time in the Barangay Tinigao, not too far from Kalibo. Usually a two day event, one day for orientation and checking out of the area, the second day for conducting the actual flood drill. The flood drill program is run by the Philippine Red Cross and our office is only supporting. But it is a great bunch of people to work with and good fun. And also at times shocking of how much devastation a flood can bring and a tale of resilience of how even the extreme flooding is seen just as a natural thing to happen and not as a disaster by the people affected. Tinigao gets flooded quite a lot. During Typhoon Frank in 2008 the water went over the roof of the single story houses. During Typhoon Quinta in 2012 the flood level went up to the top of the window frames. Not a single area in the entire Barangay not flooded. Nowhere safe to go. It's hard to believe when you look into the faces of our participants and the kids playing around in the classroom. They would all have experienced both these extreme floods and all the regular ones in between.

The next week will be more of the same. We will conduct the drill in Tinigao. It will be a scenario when the flood alarm will be sounded, up to the levels where people need to evacuate. Evacuation will be monitored, also the management of the evacuation centre. All performed by local Red Cross and rescue volunteers from the Barangay. We will also confront them with rescue scenarios, accidents, casualties and lots of fake blood.

But for now, it's only relaxing. I am writing this on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. It's much too hot to go outside, much too hot to do anything really. Most of the life in Kalibo dies down during the mid day hours. But it's bearable with a lot of fresh water melon and an electric fan, sitting in a rocking chair. It's easy to love the life in the Philippines.

Missing person search - you can see how wide and shallow the Aklan River is. But still, Many people drown in this river every year. Many more go missing and are found only much later, trapped under debris in the riverbed. 

View along the Aklan River at our search area. If you follow the river around that right bend at the end in the picture you would be almost at the ocean. Being so close to the river mouth means that there is a big difference between high tide and low tide here. During high tide the elevated ocean level 'dams' the river which results in an increased water depth by around 1-1.5m but a reduced flow rate, it almost feels like swimming in a lake. Whereas during low tide the water level is much lower, many 'islands' appear in the river bed. But the current is much stronger, it easily wipes you of your feet. This picture was taken around the high tide mark.

Waiting for news - Jayfree briefing the Police and Ambulance officers. In the background you see the Aklan River at low tide, featuring many temporary gravel islands.

Thursday night bowling

Orienting students at the Aklan State University in Disaster Risk Reduction

Our venue - the Aklan State University at their New Washington campus

Another orientation - this time about flood preparedness in an elementary school class room in the Barangay of Tinigao

Our 'clients', the population of Tinigao listening to our presentation

The combined team of Red Cross volunteers, Seals Rescue volunteers, Provincial and Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction Officers in Tinigao

Fiesta time - weekends are there to relax and have fun.

Although Karaoke (or the Philippino version of it: Videoke) are quite common, it was the first time we actually came across it since our training days in Manila.


The last week has been crazily busy with work commitments. And that's a good thing because after all work here is fun. Monday and Tuesday we trained some 70 people in First Aid. And on the side we organised another flood drill in another Barangay. Wednesday we conducted the actual flood drill. Thursday and Friday we trained another 30 people in VCA - Vulnerability and Capacity Assessment. And even on Saturday we had to give a presentation in a school about Disaster Risk Reduction. It is indeed the last week of school holidays here before the new school year starts. And traditionally during that week every school recruits their own army of volunteers, mostly parents, who clean up the campus, do minor repairs and in general get the school facilities ready for the students to return. At the awards ceremony ending this week of volunteer work they treat their volunteers with a day of presentations. One of them came from us.
There is no need to bore you, my brave readers, with too much details of the working week and all the training courses. But still, this week had an impact on me for various reasons.

All of these courses and presentations were held outside Kalibo, I did indeed not spend even one day in our office last week. The two big training courses included participants of all the 17 municipalities of our province of Aklan. Meeting them all in our training venue in the University Campus in Banga was kind of cool. Because I started realising how many of them I already knew. Some from work because our office is a supervising and advising agency for the municipal disaster offices. But many others I met outside work. There were a few of the guys we met at the Amazing Race in Libacao a few weeks ago. Others I met while drinking beer with a Peacecorp volunteer in Kalibo. It's a small world out here. But I notice how much easier it is now to get things done while I know people. And we know some of each others stories as well.
Knowing people is a key in the Philippines. You never introduce yourself, you always are introduced. If you don't know anyone to introduce you to others, you will have problems connecting to people. That's why a critical mass of known people is needed in order to get things done. And this week feels like I achieved just that. After three months in the Philippines.
During the VCA training we also arranged a field test. Let me explain the VCA process quickly. The purpose of VCA is, generally speaking, that our office needs to know where vulnerable people live and the nature of their vulnerability (such as regular victims of flooding, elderly, disabled etc.). And also where people with certain useful capabilities live and the nature of their capability (such as Search and Rescue Training, First Aid etc.). At the end of the process we will have a hazard map in GIS outlining priorities for training, disaster preparation and response. In order to get the base information, we developed a questionnaire to interview every single household in the province. Not us interviewing them but the guys from the local municipal disaster office. And those are the guys we trained this week on how to conduct these interviews. And in a field test we did make them conduct these interviews with our office accompanying them and watching over their shoulder. To see how our questionnaire works and how it can be improved before it is rolled out province wide.
In the process I went with my interviewers to visit three families in a disaster prone area. And that was probably the most interesting thing happening this week. The families we visited chose to live on an island. Inland. An island in the river. One side of the island is the mighty Aklan River. The other side a small overflow channel that's usually dry but that does fill quickly if the water level in the main river rises. What it basically means is that these houses, even in a minor flood, are cut off by deep fast flowing water all around them. While the river level rises to finally consume the entire island. A Flood Rescue nightmare really. In order to protect themselves from minor floods all houses are built elevated, on stilts, hovering above ground by approximately 1.5m. During the interviews we learned about their stories. How in 2008 during Typhoon Frank the water not only went over the roof of the houses but it took the houses with it. Bamboo houses are no match for the muddy floodwaters rushing down from the inland mountains. Back then there was no Flood Warning System so it's sheer luck that everyone survived. Some by climbing up onto the highest mango trees and waiting for the flood to go past. With their babies. Just imagine your young family sits on a tree that is itself an island surrounded by torrent flood waters. You climb higher as the waters rise, hand the baby to the other family member who climbed up first. While underneath you a brown current sweeps away your house and shakes the tree. All you can hope for is that the tree will be high enough to keep you out of the water. And you can hold on during the strong winds of the dying Typhoon. Because you know you're on your own. There are no rescue helicopters. There are not even rescue boats. Once you're cut off you're cut off. You're cut off many times a year. And you never know the full extent of the flood. People tell you these stories as if they're talking about someone else, or a movie. Me personally, I don't understand why people choose this of all places to live. In the middle of a flood prone river. But they do not have anywhere else to go. So they dig in, against the odds. With their children playing around us while we're conducting the interviews in their leaning bamboo houses. Looking up, most of the roofs are new corrugated metal with a logo of an international aid organisation on it. During Typhoon Yolanda all roofs here have been blown off. Around the houses are plantations of peanuts and Calamansi (a local variety of limes). That's the income. If the crop survives the floods.
Another thing I noticed on myself during this busy week - I absolutely and sincerely love my job and my life here. It has been without doubt the busiest week since my arrival. But working with the people here somehow charges my internal batteries. To a degree that at the end of the day I feel full of energy. It feels like something had been done during the day. And most of all, however much work there is, there is never any stress. I remember so many days back home in Sydney when I would come home from work completely deflated, ready to do nothing but watching TV and fall asleep. There were times when this felt like the normal thing to do, the inevitable life. The Philippines taught me differently. Here it's often hard to tell where work ends and leisure begins. We often sleep or nap during work. We have heaps of breaks and eat enormous amounts of food. But then we also often work on the weekends. A one hour presentation somewhere might end up a half day fiesta of eating, singing, praying, dancing, sightseeing, talking to people. Is this work? It doesn't feel like it. And most of all, work here makes sense. I guess just as much as it makes sense in Australia. But here you see the immediate consequences, you feel the results of your work, straight away. People, both workmates and general public are getting excited to do our work, our training, our drills. And so compared to my job back home, work here is really hands on. If you ask me, I love it, love it how things are done here. Often chaotic on the surface but with a deep respect for each other underlying everything.
Not sure if it's due to the incredibly strong catholic belief most people in Aklan follow. But looking after each other, having respect and helping each other out are the first and foremost priorities in all my dealings with people. And that's in all walks of life, not just at work or in training courses. It is evident in road traffic. Which keeps flowing, miraculously, given the chaotic impression you get from the sidelines. But once you're in the flow you recognise. That no one needs to stop at busy intersections because people move slowly and move aside to make room for others to enter their road. So no one needs to stop. Whenever I turn into the tiny laneway to my home from the major road I need to cross a seemingly endless stream of tricycles. As soon as I indicate and turn my handlebars a tricycle will slow down enough to leave a gap for me to squeeze through. All happening in a slowly moving crowd of tricycles and motorbikes. Same in the market, people respect each other. Here you don't need to worry about being ripped off. Regardless if you are local or tourist, the price is fair, the first price they tell you already is. You can negotiate only minute amounts, you might as well not. And people talk to you, remember your name and your story, there is lots of laughter with you. They let you try things and test things. And it is just such a pleasant experience. I love the market and really go there every single day.
Next week will be an interesting one, it's not a full week for me at work. On Thursday my friend Judith from Sydney will arrive here in Kalibo for holidays. At the same time delivering some donations from Australia to the our office. Judith and me will then go to the island of Bohol on holidays and for the first time I will actually travel in the Philippines beyond my home island.

Conducting our First Aid course. What all courses have in common is a huge poster reminding you what course you're on.

Part of the First Aid course was a training with the brand new ambulance car of the Municipality of Banga

Whereas our transport was limited to the red car of our manager, Sir Galo, and our own few private motorbikes.

During the flood drill on Wednesday we incredibly encountered this, the offficial rescue vehicle of the Barangay. The handwritten paper sign on the wind screen actually says it. For me it's a miracle that this thing actually moves. But it does. And yeah, it is the rescue vehicle... The Barangay has three of those, all in the same condition.

The cabin of the Rescue truck

And that is how it works - evacuating a village

Still conducting the flood drill - our search and rescue team responding to simulated emergencies.

These are the neighborhoods we conducted the drill in. All of this area will be deep under water in a flood, during Typhoon Frank the flood waters reached the ridges of the houses.

Due to a lack of mobile phone availability and unreliable electricity services this is the most efficient way of disseminating a flood warning...

...and people will do the thing we trained them to do and evacuate.

A simulated rescue scenario during the Flood Drill. Seeing this photo you need to imagine the ambient temperature of around 35 degrees, the water temperature around the same and near 100% humidity.

In the evacuation centre - lifestock needs to be evacuated too.

As we trained them to do people bring their essentials with them in an evacuation. As you can see in this picture essentials for many people include statues of Christ (in front of the blue plastic container) and of 'Santo Nino', the Infant Christ and patron of our province (top centre of the photo).

Another day another training course. Facilitators and participants of our Vulnerability and Capacity Assessment workshop.

During the field test we came across this beautiful one. A fighting cock. It is still a tradition here in the Philippines to have cock fights, a practice declared illegal for animal cruelty in most western countries.

Field test on the island in the river. That's a local home.

And that's another one. When it comes to a vulnerability assessment these households top the list.

Part of the presentations were done by members of the BFP - the Bureau of Fire Protection, showcasing the newest of Kalibo's fire trucks.

Eating lots of good food is an integral part of every training session. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and lots of sweet snacks in between.

Scene from the rural municipality of Makato. Water buffaloes ("Anwang") enjoying the coolness of a pond.

Water Buffaloes are easy to tease. As long as they are on a line.

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(c) 2014    marco hoffmann