New leaves have sprouted on the topmost layer of the mangrove forest, creating a green canopy above the barren branches and gnarled roots. In the vast coconut plantations, the towering trees are lush once again, their dried fronds littering the ground. Rows of corrugated tin roofing gleam in the noonday sun and the occasional pounding of hammer on wood punctures the silence, as coastal fishing villages start rebuilding shanties that were washed away when super typhoon Odette slammed into Siargao Islands last December 2021.
Seven months on, the popular tourist island has staged a remarkable rebound, with resorts and visitor destinations welcoming guests once more, bravely fighting off the trauma from the disaster and slowly recovering from the tragedy.
In the island barangay of Caub, where scenic limestone outcrops attract dozens of tourists, many local residents sought refuge inside caves, their traditional hiding place during storms, said 44-year-old fisher Joselito Tarepe. In his native Surigaonon language, he calmly recalls the frightening scenes from the storm. “I saw a huge rock roll down the hill. There was an entire coconut tree that got uprooted and the howling winds swirled it around like a toy,” he said. Tarepe has been fishing for octopus since he was 16 and has observed that storms are getting stronger in recent years, but this is the worst he has experienced so far.
Caub barangay captain Raquel Barquilla still shudders when she recalls the afternoon of December 16 last year, when a dozen members of her family had to rush to the second level of their two-story house as seawater started flooding the ground floor. They watched in horror as typhoon Odette tore the roofing of the covered court in front of them, and panel after panel was blown off by fierce winds. The following day, she had to take a sedative to get some sleep after villagers trooped to her house asking for food and water, everyone dazed and shocked to see the población of Caub looking like a bombed-out war zone.
In the town of General Luna, the main tourist area in Siargao, business owner Kim Honasan said old-timers recall the last major typhoon in the mid-1980s as a very strong one, but having experienced several storms in Luzon, he was not too worried when he first heard about the approaching typhoon. But as the warnings grew more strident, he started moving his family from their beachfront home to the second floor of their restaurant along the road, and finally, to a friend’s house in a hilly area.
“Big mistake!” he said, after realizing that the wind gusts were a much bigger threat than the waves. Packing wind speeds up to 250 kph, Odette blew out the room air conditioner and glass windows, sending torrents of water inside. For several hours, only cushions and surfboards piled against a bunkbed and the toilet protected 16 people from ferocious winds.
It took them three days to get down to the town center because all the roads were either destroyed or blocked by electric posts and fallen trees. “Kung gaano ka-beautiful ang Siargao (how beautiful Siargo is), oh my God, after Odette, it was unrecognizable. Puro basura (pure garbage), from the sea and the main road,” Honasan said. The devastation was so bad that even after a few weeks, he would still miss the path going to his house because most of the landmarks were gone.
Signs of recovery
In the last three decades, Siargao has become a mecca for surfers from all over the world who flock to Cloud 9 and other beaches where the swells from the Pacific Ocean roll towards reef shallows and the rocky shoreline. Most of the holidaymakers stay in General Luna, where entrepreneurs like Honasan have set up restaurants and resorts, and shops, all of them ravaged by typhoon Odette which caused an estimated P20 billion in damage in Siargao.
Initially, Siargao residents were told it would take six months before power and communications would return to normal, but after a month, mobile phone signal was back, said Honasan. “Kasi ang dami ngang may investments dito yung (because there are so many investments here,) recovery [was] super fast,” he said. “And a lot of these people, hindi lang investment (not just investment). Dito nakatira (They live here). This is home. Yung experience nga namin (that's our experience), if a super typhoon was not enough to kick us off the island, nothing will,” added Honasan, whose restaurant Kanin Baboy was obliterated by Odette.
Half a year on, General Luna is bustling once more, with pandemic-weary tourists flocking to resorts and eateries that have managed to reopen their business. Construction of new tourism establishments that had been going on before the typhoon resumed, along with renovation of shops and other buildings that were partially destroyed by the disaster.
Driving along the circumferential road of Siargao, however, the remnants of the typhoon’s destructive force are still everywhere. Roofless and hollowed-out buildings seem to have been abandoned, while toppled trees and poles litter the slopes and shoreline.
At the municipal hall of Del Carmen, visitors are greeted by piles of soiled records and a jumble of furniture, in stark contrast to its sparkling and tidy interiors before the typhoon. Inside her office, Municipal Environment and Natural Resources Officer (MENRO) Gina Barquilla moved her table towards the center, as the concrete wall behind her had collapsed, bending inwards at an awkward angle. Their ceiling is gone, revealing a mass of tangled wires. She says the typhoon has taught them to design their offices to suit local conditions, observing that the lightweight material for the ceiling was not suitable for places that are vulnerable to storms. Even the island’s evacuation center turned out to be inappropriate for Siargao, which is within the Philippines’ typhoon belt, as the roof caved in when Odette pummeled populated areas and the last refuge that evacuees could find was the building’s toilet.
Despite the wide swathe of destruction, Del Carmen Mayor Alfredo Coro II believes “we did something right” in preparing for the storm, with Siargao recording a minimal death toll of 15 out of 200,000 residents. Many coastal villagers have reported that the island’s extensive mangrove forests protected houses from huge waves, lessening damage and casualties.
In barangay Caub, which is part of Del Carmen, fisher Tarepe shared a fishing vessel with neighbors to continue making a living after the typhoon, before managing to gather enough wood to build his own boat. At P200 per kilo of octopus, he earns up to P2,500 on a good day.
Decline in coral cover and fish abundance
To assess the impact of the typhoon on Siargao’s marine resources, the international conservation NGO Rare commissioned the Marine Environment and Resource Foundation (MERF) to survey the damage last March, comparing the condition of previously studied sites before and after the storm. The results, released in August, painted a bleak picture for many marine protected areas (MPAs).
Live coral cover declined sharply in all sites, with Odette’s waves dislodging even massive corals in Siargao’s shallow reefs, such as those in Barangay Caub. One of the worst hit was the town of Burgos, on the northeastern tip of the main island, where coral cover was reduced to 10 percent from the previous 50 percent, indicating the brutal strength of the typhoon’s waves. But in General Luna, where the fringing reefs also face the Pacific Ocean like Burgos, the damage was much lower. “This could be attributed to corals being accustomed to strong waves. They are exposed to swells coming from the Pacific on a daily basis. As a result, corals in this area have adapted to such harsh conditions,” the report said. (See Table 1.1)
Fish populations suffered a significant decrease in almost half of the surveyed sites, both inside and outside MPAs. Barangay Caub was again hit hard, with fish abundance reduced to half after Odette and the biggest decline recorded in commercially important species. Researchers also noted a “very alarming” decrease in fish biomass in the town of Pilar, where “the reef was almost deserted with fewer individuals per species encountered during the assessment.” Anecdotes from fishers indicated that the temporary lifting of the ban on fishing inside MPAs in some towns after the typhoon, an emergency measure arising from limited food resources, could have contributed to the decrease in numbers and sizes of fish. There was also weaker law enforcement inside municipal waters after patrol boats were destroyed and most personnel also became typhoon victims. (See Table 1.2)
On a positive note, at least three study sites recorded higher fish abundance after the disaster. Researchers observed that Typhoon Odette’s strong waves may have brought nutrients from deeper waters, resulting in the increase in population of plankton-eating marine life. This could have a long-term impact on Siargao’s reef fisheries and explains the higher fish biomass inside MPAs in San Benito and Socorro towns where such species were observed in abundance.
Compared with other popular tourist destinations, the entire Siargao island group holds a unique identity as a priority site for conservation because of its terrestrial, wetland, and marine ecosystems, with a high proportion of plant and animal species found only in the area. One of the initial sites included in the country’s Integrated Protected Areas System, it was proclaimed as the Siargao Islands Protected Landscapes and Seascapes (SIPLAS) in 1996 covering all nine municipalities and 48 islands within Siargao and Bucas Grande. Marine areas comprise a huge section of SIPLAS, at 76 percent, making its coastal resources a major focus for protection.
In the management plan for SIPLAS, municipal fisheries in the towns of Burgos, San Isidro, Pilar, and General Luna were seen as highly vulnerable to climate impacts that include warmer temperatures, sea level rise, and storm surges. Due to their low elevation, with the highest point topping at just 300 meters, the majority of the land area in SIPLAS faces the risk of flooding from ocean swells. “Even assuming a conservative scenario of 0.5-meter rise in sea levels, close to one-third of the built-up areas in Siargao Islands will be inundated and about 80% of the existing mangroves will be submerged. Overall, this will impact food production, infrastructure, livelihood, and properties of local communities,” according to the assessment report.
Adapting to climate change
With scientists warning of more frequent and stronger typhoons as a result of the climate crisis, Siargao’s stakeholders are looking at nature-based solutions to deal with its impacts.
Del Carmen, for instance, is actively campaigning for its 4,000 hectares of mangrove forests to be included in the global listing of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. During the celebration of International Mangrove Day on July 26 last year, the local government of Del Carmen joined the National Research Council of the Philippines (NRCP) in presenting the recorded 110 species of plants and 403 species of animals found in the mangrove forests. The field surveys that were conducted and funded by NRCP, which is part of the Department of Science and Technology, found 14 species of plants and 56 species of animals that are endemic to Siargao.
“The results suggest that the mangrove forests of Del Carmen host a diverse assemblage of organisms both for terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Hence, future recognition as a new wetland of international importance will reinforce sustainable conservation and protection plans for these treasured mangroves,” the NRCP report said. Some of the data in the study have been used to create educational materials, such as a Grade 1 book on Bakhaw (Mangroves) that was launched early this month.
Del Carmen occupies almost one-third of Siargao’s land area, the largest municipality in terms of size. In 2016, it became the first local government to avail of the People’s Survival Fund from the national Climate Change Commission for its field school for fishers and farmers, which aims to share knowledge on weather patterns that affect livelihood practices.
In the wake of typhoon Odette, one of the challenges for Siargao’s officials is the directive from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to strictly observe “no-build zones” near the sea and rivers due to the risk of floods and storm surges. On the island of Caub, Barangay Captain Barquilla said typhoon Odette served as validation for the government’s warning that seawater can go up to 40 meters inland when there’s a storm, as she experienced in her own seaside property. She is negotiating with the DENR to begin the measurement from the seawall in front of Caub, or else she will have to tear down half of the concrete and wooden house. At least 192 out of 500 families in Caub are slated for relocation as their houses are too close to the sea. All over Siargao, local governments are scrambling to relocate around 1,000 families that are affected by DENR’s restriction, said Mayor Coro of Del Carmen.
Although parts of their concrete seawall crumbled during the typhoon, Barquilla believes the structure is still their best protection against storms because it helped save houses, including her own. While waiting for the national government to provide an estimated P50 million to rebuild the seawall, she has mobilized the villagers to repair its cracks using discarded shells and doing cleanup and community gardening to augment food supply.
In General Luna, entrepreneur Honasan is also pushing for seawall construction to protect their beachside property. “Even if you put a breaker and mangroves, it's still porous, so it will slow it down but there is still erosion,” he said. Taking advice from a California architect, he said, “At some point, there has to be a seawall here, hanggang saan mo gustong tumigil ang tubig (how far do you want the water to stop?).”
Mayor Coro disputes the idea though, saying, “We cannot fight the oceans.” He said resorts in other destinations such as Boracay and Bantayan island have had to comply with the law due to the worsening impact of climate change.
For their MPAs, however, barangay captain Barquilla is advocating natural regeneration of the coral reefs. This is welcome news for fisher Tarepe, who said their fishing grounds along the rocky shoreline had been damaged by artificial reefs put up by the government in the past.
The researchers from MERF, along with their local government and NGO partners, have also warned against a new national government program to undertake coral restoration using transplanted materials. While the strategy may help damaged reefs to recover, it can also destroy the source reef and introduce fewer species to the target area. It would take millions of pesos per hectare to rehabilitate corals through transplantation, but the high cost cannot be justified due to low chances of success, the MERF report said. Allowing for natural species richness to rebound through time is the best option, and with stronger typhoons expected in the future, “frequent severe disturbance may result in reefs adapting to such by growing more robust lifeforms that are less susceptible to wave mechanical damage.”
Mayor Coro says the Caub MPA had been recovering naturally for seven years before its coral reefs were damaged by Odette. During the MERF survey, divers found plenty of new growth on the bed of dead corals, indicating the path to recovery, and patches of damaged spots. However, the storm surge toppled massive colonies of branching corals. The survey team urged the resumption of strict protection inside MPAs to speed up rehabilitation.
To keep algae from occupying dead reefs, which prevents natural regrowth of coral larvae, fishers were urged to refrain from catching herbivorous reef fishes such as parrotfish. The MERF team also encouraged donors to equip municipal fishers with boats that can go to deeper waters so they can fish in the open sea where commercially important species such as sailfish and yellowfin tuna are abundant, allowing nearshore fisheries to recover faster.
As the island continues rebuilding efforts, pollution from resorts and households may affect the recovery of marine ecosystems, the survey team noted. Mayor Coro says Del Carmen has the only septage treatment plant on the island so far, making waste facilities a potential priority for government assistance.
A day after the typhoon, Honasan recalled that a lot of choppers arrived to fetch stranded residents. “Dahil maraming bigtime na dito nakatira, kanya-kanyang sundo (because there are many bigwigs here, everyone will pick it up),” he said. With so much at stake, he feels the private sector will have a major role in charting the future of Siargao. “Yung titimon kung saan pupunta yung island will be the business owners na residents, yung nakatira talaga dito (those who will decide where the island will go will be the business owners who are residents, the ones who actually live here),” says Honasan, who has been living there since 2017.
Mayor Coro recognizes the aspirations of migrants who have made Siargao their home. “People who live in islands, we have a different outlook in life. We are resilient in a way because there is a level of contentment, we are in the dream that others want and spend their whole life trying to achieve,” he said.
With tourism fast becoming a major draw, Del Carmen is encouraging homestay programs and looking for corporate partners that can help manage their mangrove boardwalk. However, the mayor cautions against industries that could harm Siargao’s natural assets, especially its watersheds and marine life, as construction for a cruise ship and cargo terminal is starting to carve a gaping scar on the slopes near the town of Dapa.
Instead, Mayor Coro is making use of his computer engineering background to develop what he calls “blue e-commerce” through information technology hubs that would complement tourism in a protected landscape. “There’s a very big market, it’s low carbon, and it’s something big that can be replicated elsewhere,” he said.
This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was first published by SunStar Davao on 3 October 2022 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Some mangrove trees that were rendered leafless when typhoon Odette swept across the Siargao Islands last december have yet to recover from the disaster / Credit: Yasmin Arquiza.