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Two years after the storm

Balancing caution and ambition in a town on the brink.

© Conservation International/photo by Tim Noviello

 

By Molly Bergen + Visuals by Tim Noviello

Editor's note: This story forms part of the series “Turning the tide in Typhoon Alley,” a Conservation International special report documenting how communities in the Philippines are rebuilding from Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013 — and using the power of nature to resist stormier seas.

I rose before sunrise with a plan: walk down the beach in front of our bayside guesthouse to the fish market a few blocks away.

There was one problem: When I looked out the window, the beach was gone. The water was now lapping at the steps of the buildings lining the shore.

On that September morning, it had been nearly two years since the largest typhoon to ever hit land devastated the area around the coastal town of Concepcion, Philippines. And although Typhoon Haiyan is by no means forgotten, life goes on.

Teenagers followed the high school band through the streets. Karaoke blared from neighborhood restaurants. Drying laundry fluttered in glassless windows. Each week on market day, hundreds of people from neighboring towns converged on Concepcion to buy and sell their wares.

Down by the water, the fish market was bustling. Although fish catch has been reduced significantly since Haiyan, thanks in part to the storm’s destruction of coral reefs, the creation of more “no-take” protected areas is starting to boost fish populations nearby, helping fishers hold on to their livelihoods by a thread.

From cinderblock foundations of destroyed houses to the empty patches where trees used to be, the scars of the storm are still evident on the shores of the country’s many islands — yet the attitude of most Filipinos I talked with was surprisingly optimistic.

“Filipinos are resilient,” said Milliard Villanueva, the mayor of Concepcion. “They are highly tolerable of stresses … we call that mababaw kaligayahan [happiness from little things] in Filipino.”

 

In order to minimize damage to Concepcion from the next big storm, Conservation International is working with the Philippine government and local and international partners to develop what’s called a “green-gray” project. This initiative will combine manmade structures like seawalls with ecosystem restoration efforts seeking to rebuild a green barrier between the town and the sea.

The municipality also aims to strengthen its storm-warming system, and it’s working on a plan to relocate thousands of people currently living in the “danger zone” — identified as the area within 40 meters (131 feet) of the shoreline — that is especially vulnerable to storm surge during typhoons. However, many people are resisting the idea of relocation, preferring to risk property damage in order to stay close to the source of their livelihoods: their fishing boats.  

Another nearby development also signifies “business as usual”: the rapid construction of a coal-fired power plant on the shores on the outskirts of town, which aims to open in 2016.

“Overnight, we saw the construction of this large coal plant,” said Conservation International Philippines Country Director Enrique Nuñez. “What an irony for a poor coastal municipality that was battered by a super typhoon likely strengthened by swelling greenhouse gas emissions.”

For as much as local people are aware of how climate change impacts like stronger storms are affecting their community, they — like the rest of the world — also want a reliable source of electricity.

As Concepcion develops, its people face difficult choices every day. Many of the quickest development solutions contribute to pollution, climate change and other environmental challenges that will make life here tougher for future generations. Yet in communities plagued by poverty, pursuing a more sustainable solution with a long-term payoff often doesn’t seem like an option — at least not without help.

 

Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Conservation International’s blog, Human Nature. Tim Noviello is the marketing and communications director of Conservation International’s Moore Center for Science.

 

More chapters in this series