In the wee hours of December 5, 2012, Typhoon Bopha (locally knows as Typhoon Pablo) pounded on Mindanao, leaving a trail of destruction in New Bataan, Compostela Valley and the coastal areas of Baganga, Cateel and Boston.

I visited the area a week after the tragedy to bear witness to the destruction brought about by extreme weather events. Upon arriving at the scene, it was like entering a ghost town painted in mud.  What used to be vast lands of banana and coconut plantations are now mass graves of fallen trees strewn everywhere.  The main livelihood of Davao Oriental was destroyed in one fell swoop by Typhoon Pablo.  The massive destruction has left residents homeless and with no source of income.  According to local officials, it will take twenty to thirty years for farms to recover.  For now, everyone is on survival mode, ensuring they have what they need from day to day.  Those who have lost loved ones had no time to grieve as they were forced to deal with the bigger problem of what to do next

The end of the world

“The winds were so strong we had to lie on the ground so we won’t be blown away … I have never experienced a typhoon as fierce and strong as Typhoon Pablo,”, this was how MangRaymundo narrated his experience of the typhoon.

Theresa Obantonan of Cateel had a premonition and prayed hard the night before the typhoon came.  “We thought it was the end of the world.  It’s a miracle that we survived at all,”she said.
Marlet Balbin of Barangay Poblacion, New Bataan still cannot believe how sixty people fit in her small house which was also in ruins.  “We thought that being surrounded by mountains, we’d be insulated from the typhoons, but we were wrong.  I have lived here for several years and have never experienced anything like this in my life.The floods came so quickly, we roped in people into our house so they won’t drown,.” she recounted.  

Century Typhoon

Locals say that the last major typhoon which struck Mindanao happened in 1912. They called this phenomenon a ‘century typhoon.’  The typhoon in 1912 however hit eastern Davao, Surigao, Bohol and Cebu.  Typhoon Pablo took a different course this time year, causing widespread damage.

Tropical cyclones rarely cross areas near the equator.  Whether Typhoon Pablo was a century typhoon, it is highly likely that climate change plays a role in setting the context for the typhoons. Tropical cyclones are changing course and the unusual is becoming the new normal.   
Residents didn’t know what struck them.  Kapitana Mera of Barangay Ban-ao said they’re used to rain and tidal waves, but not for a typhoon of this magnitude.  Despite heeding the advice of local officials and preparing for the worst, everything was destroyed.  Nothing was spared. 
Children begging for food, mothers crying and grieving for their loved ones, fathers queuing for relief goods, search and rescue teams retrieving dead bodies stuck in the mud – this is life on ground zero. 

As the locals pick up the pieces and rebuild their lives, they fear for the next big typhoon that can again take away everything from them.

Beyond borders

2012 has been a year of some of the most extreme weather events in the world. While this was happening in the Philippines, the UN climate negotiations were ongoing in Doha, Qatar.

It is baffling how realities of the impacts of climate change being faced by least developed countries are not being acted upon by developing nations that are responsible for it.  It is a moral obligation that requires commitments from governments to prevent the planet from reaching the climate tipping point it may never recover from.

By doing nothing, world leaders and decision makers are guilty of robbing the future of the climate victims. 

The Philippines consistently tops global climate change indexes year on year. But even as the country tries to improve on disaster risk reduction management and climate change adaptation, this is not enough.  We are the victims of climate change – devastation, starvation, loss of lives and livelihood – how can the Philippines and the rest of the world address the biggest humanitarian and environmental threat if no international action is taken?  It is a global problem that demands global solutions.

December prayer

December in the Philippines will never be the same again. This year is full of the grief of those who lost their loved ones from Typhoon Pablo. Last year, with typhoon Sendong (Washi) was no different.

Back in New Bataan, we shared a light moment with Marlet. We were struck when she said “You’re lucky your Christmas will be fun and merry.”Thousands of families will be spending the yuletide season in evacuation centers without the traditional noche buena.

Although I am now back in Manila, their experience remains with me. In celebrating the birth of Jesus and in lighting the advent candles – the candle of hope, the candle of preparation, thecandle of joy, and the candle of love – I offered a prayer for those we have lost in the tragedies that struck the country.

Photos © Pat Roque/ Greenpeace