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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
Bohol on holidays and for the first time I will actually travel in the
Philippines beyond my home island.
our First Aid course. What all courses have in common is a huge poster
reminding you what course you're on.
of the First Aid course was a training with the brand new ambulance car
of the Municipality of Banga
our transport was limited to the red car of our manager, Sir Galo, and
our own few
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.
cabin of the Rescue truck
that is how it works - evacuating a village
conducting the flood drill - our search and rescue team responding to
are the neighborhoods we conducted the drill in. All of this area will
deep under water in a flood, during Typhoon Frank the flood waters
reached the ridges of the houses.
a lack of mobile phone availability and unreliable electricity services
this is the most efficient way of disseminating a flood warning...
people will do the thing we trained them to do and evacuate.
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.
evacuation centre - lifestock needs to be evacuated too.
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).
day another training course. Facilitators and participants of our
Vulnerability and Capacity Assessment workshop.
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.
test on the island in the river. That's a local home.
that's another one. When it comes to a vulnerability assessment these
households top the list.
of the presentations were done by members of the BFP - the Bureau of
Fire Protection, showcasing the newest of Kalibo's fire trucks.
lots of good food is an integral part of every training session.
Breakfast, lunch, dinner and lots of sweet snacks in between.
from the rural municipality of Makato. Water buffaloes ("Anwang")
enjoying the coolness of a pond.
Buffaloes are easy to tease. As long as they are on a line.