Davao is a relaxed and lazy city where new SUV’s roll around town at the same pace as the beat up taxi’s and the famous Philippine Jeepeny, shuffling their passengers around sprawling streets. Thankfully Davao does not yet feel many of the negative impacts which could be expected from the million plus people packed between the steep volcanic slopes of Mt Apo and the black sands of the coastline. Local ecosystems are holding up despite extensive deforestation and that plantations have shaped the landscapes like a banana republic, the first outside Central America. Heat and humidity are major factors influencing day life. With the middle classes now almost completely living in aircon cars, homes, offices and malls it is difficult to see any carbon reductions coming from this neck of the woods. The average day time temperature hovers around 32C, but with the high humidity the feels like factor which takes the humidity and other climatic factors into account is placed at 39C. Deep volcanic aquifers provide surprisingly cold water for drinking and showers, which for those City’s habitants without aircon, including myself, is a welcome relief from the sweaty humid days.
Situated in the deep south of Mindanao an island whose history is chequered with struggles of co-existence between the ‘tri-peoples’ of the island, the indigenous tribes, Moro Clans and Christian settlers. In recent years the conflict has been focused over religious and political grounds between Christian settlers, now the majority of the population, and the ethnic Muslim communities and their struggles to express their rights of freedom to self govern and cultural dignity. Mainstream parties are involved in international sponsored peace talks. However, rogue splitter groups have broken away from peace talks and any form of coherent ideology terrorising indiscriminately and continually giving an unwanted image to the Moro community and Mindanao.
This leads to the island being continually listed under government travel advisory’s as one where all unnecessary travels should be avoided. I am here three years, and while there is until today sporadic skirmishes and even bombings, much of Mindanao is freer and safer than the streets of most large western cities.
In the late 70’s through to the 80’s the face of the conflict was different. During and beyond the ex-president Marcos martial law years, the New People Army communist insurgencies grew across the County. These possible were the darkest days for the City of Davao. The down town area of Agdao, in the early 1980’s was better know as “Nicaragdao” because of ruthless activities and clashes between the NPA and Philippine Army.
Most of this is thankfully, in the past, with the streets largely free of guns today. The journey to achieve this relative peace however didn’t pass by without drawing the watchful of eye from human rights groups over the seeming heavy handedness of the government in stamping out ‘lawlessness.’ Nonetheless the outcome is that the streets at night are safe to walk and this new found security is testified by any taxi driver collecting a new arrival from the airport who will proudly report how safe their City is today.
Before coming here, I figured Mindanao was about the size of Ireland. Whereas back home I can cross the country in an afternoon, a day or two is required for the same distance here. Protected by mountains on three sides Davao Gulf is sheltered from all but due southerly swells. So here in Davao swells and surfers are rarities. It took me over a year before I started to uncover the few local surfers. When we can we round up whoever is available and we make the long trips to the Pacific coast to get our boards wet. Habagat is the local name for the south westerly monsoon which blows across the Philippines from August to September and this is the only period when the swell comes to us here in Davao.
Unlike back home the season are indistinct and months can drift into years without variation. Waiting and watching for the return of Habagat helped me tune in with the signs from nature and to distract me from the useless diversions and distractions of modern society. Following the passing of the seasons brought me awareness of old knowledge society used to hold guardedly. Some of the old fisherfolk can still read the changes in nature signalling the arrival of Habagat as I found out during the height of the Monsoon.
For those, like myself, who have lost these skills we have the internet to try fill in the gaps lost through modern lifestyles. Habagat is a natural weak weather cycle that commences during the summer months of the northern hemisphere, when the Asiatic continent becomes warmer than the surrounding seas. As a result, a large mass of air rises, causing low pressure in the area left empty. Cooler air from over the ocean rushes towards the continent to fill in the gap. The winds rushing toward the low-pressure area, becomes the prevailing which can generate waves entering directly into the Davao Gulf.
One Sunday morning in early July, in preparation of the coming Habagat season, I went to clean up my boards. What I found has got to be one of the most embarrassing finds for anyone claiming to be a surfer. Untouched since a trip to Australia two months before, I picked up one board to see a neat pile of power behind the board. The whiteness of the pile clearly indicated it was foam. My brain struggled to figure out what was going on, when I saw ants. One after another exiting their now disturbed home, my ex-surf board. I tapped on the board and saw the little buggers tunnelling deep all the way into the middle of the board. Davao City for much of the time is an unworthy home for surf boards!
The first swell arrived in the last week of June, maybe two foot with no power, but a good start. The swell gradually built to a climax of the Habagat monsoon in mid August. Coupled with high tides drawn by the approaching full moon together they brought the full force of an angry sea upon the under prepared coastal communities of Davao.
Swell size up to 10 feet was forecasted by the wave prediction models. Nothing to raise an eye at for any coastal communities use to being exposed to lively seas, but then these soft shores lines are more use to a sea like a mill pond. The strong airflow being experience across the Philippines is systematic of Habagat when a storm is over Taiwan or hitting main land China. At that time Saomai (Juan) had just become the third super typhoon of 2006 making landfall along South Eastern China. With access to the internet the surfing community was fully aware of the in-coming big waves and high tides, unfortunately the marginalised coastal communities don’t have the same access to information.
To the credit of the local government of Davao City communities were being informed of the on coming danger and maybe that insured there was no loss of life, but for the squatter communities built along the shore line not much else could be done. A reflection perhaps of ever growing population pressures coupled with the lack of safe tenure and sound livelihoods options for many coastal communities, not just in the Philippines but across Asia and beyond. Their vulnerability to the sea was highlighted with the devastation wrought by the Asia Tsunami in December of 2004. But how quickly the focus of media attention moves on to current up to date disasters, and the vulnerable communities remain stretched across the shores at the mercy of the increasingly unpredictable elements of the sea.
This increasing unpredictability is evidence of climate change and members of the scientific community are starting to term such climatic related damages to coastal communities in Asia as the collateral damage from western emissions. Ironic isn’t it, that the less developed countries suffer the most from the benefits enjoyed by us in the developed world.
As the monsoon pounded the shores of Davao it was uplifting to see the local government coordination efforts and inspiring to see the information of the surfing community being tapped to help warn the coastal communities.
A week before I had been showing the Wetsand charts for southern Philippines to a local environmentalist and colleague of mine, Cristy Gallano. Explaining how the model predicted the wave size and tides up to a week in advance, she keenly absorbed the information and went off to report to the local community leaders the wave and tide reports. A week later as the waves were causing havoc, I got a call from Cristy asking for updated reports and if I could also report to the City Council Chair of Environment. I fed the updated report to the Councillor, and so the report began to circulate around the communities via text messaging.
About an hour later I got a call from the national TV station asking for an interview to learn more about wave forecasts. That evening the wave forecasts interview along with reports from the government weather and emergency agencies about the ongoing devastation were the main features on the evening news.
For the hardy few local surfers the high seas provided a rare opportunity to exploit quality waves right on their door steps. The coastline swings smoothly from east to west exposing about 50 km to the southerly swell which enters thru the narrow window at the mouth of the Gulf. With various choices from points and beach breaks from Digos right into the reefs near Times Beach, in the centre of the City.
Afternoon onshores made early mornings the best just after the peak of the high tides when the waves were glassy, cleanly formed and well organised. Using their second hand boards the local crew indulged themselves carving up the waves and the raw energy of the sea. The underling seascape, the corals and sand beds, cause’s the energy of the waves to be emphasised or reduced at various stretches along the coastline. So we sought out the best spots where the wave energy was most concentrated and most powerful. The irony was that the ‘best spots’ often fronted some of the communities at highest risk and who suffered the greatest losses.
The Cities beaches had fun beach breaks. These being most accessible meant they were the main spots where the locals frequented and a good spot for a surf before work, but I had a major dilemma, could I handle the pollution? The City’s water is loaded from the wastes from the million inhabitants and no sewerage infrastructure. The first morning I sat looking at the small waves puzzling, ‘at what point does it become too polluted to surf?’ I could remember from work some very poor water quality reports which I later checked and found the next beach had recorded coliforms 14 times beyond the World Health Organizations safe recreational waters. But good waves arriving at a beach normally like a lake would test any wave starved soul. I decided to test the WHO standards and using myself as the guinea pig. I can now confirm that tropical waters and urban waste definitely makes great breathing grounds for bacteria, it took over a week for the darting shots of pain in my ears to ease. The infections are reoccurring to this day.
A healthy paddle offshore were reefs with cleaner water and ripable walls at mid tide, as the tide dropped it produced sweet hollow pockets to sit in. Barrels on my door step, I laughed out loud with joy. The irony smacked in the face as just on the shoreline it also saw homes and tourist ‘nipa’ huts flattened.
Outside town is a long sweeping beach with several points, enough to carry a hundred surfers, there was five of us out. The community lined the beach to watch and cheer us. Patchie, one of the local surfers, knew some of the local fisher folk. They thanked us for coming saying “this is a Muslim area normal people are afraid, we’ll host a surfing competitions to bring people to our beach.” He was right, it is only half an hour outside the city and I had never been there before. Behind the beach their homes were flooded where the waves had breached the sand bar. Local men worked digging trenches through the sand bar to relieve the flood as if it was another normal day. Calling out the usual “hey joe” and giving advice on where to get in the water, which normally seemed to pointing us away from the best spots. I guess best spots in surfer’s eyes are the worst spots in a fisherman’s.
Their flooded homes didn’t seem bother them. But then like an after though, one elder man sitting in a shelter from the sun murmured in local dialect, something about “we’re getting hungry… for over a week our fishermen couldn’t launch their boats.” That meant no income for families already on the boarder line.
The most severely damaged community I saw personally was in the outskirts of the City. The river mouth here produced waves with a punch like the reef but keep going till your front leg got tired. Late one Sunday evening after the peak of the swell, as we approached the point I realised we were walking thru a refugee camp. When I reached the point I was confused, I didn’t recognise what I saw. The line of coastal huts was gone.
The set up of the wave was severed in two. At the outer point a short barrelling section cut short by the new flow of the river, and then again on inside the walling section ran all the way into what remained of the homes of the squatters.
Before the curved sand bar was lined with huts and homes all the way to the point. The river meandered behind the houses and entered into the Davao Gulf at the far end. The meandering river had formed a perfect sand bar. We discovered this spot last year, the form of the wave was prefect, but we hadn’t had a decent swell to prove our find. Now almost a year to the day we had a solid over head swell rolling around the point.
The night before the high tides and ruthless waves breached the sand bar where the homes stood. The result was devastation for the 70 homes. The sight was reminiscent of scenes from the tsunami of the Indian Ocean in December 2004. But thankfully here there was no comparison in scale and no loss of life, only economic.
I spoke with two elder fishermen leaning on their boats about the damage. I asked if they knew if the high seas were coming, “Yea we knew it was coming, we moved our boats up the river and on to dry land, but we can’t move our homes, no where to go.” It felt wrong to be even contemplating to go surfing. I stood back and looked around.
The threat of the damage was over, what was saved had been saved. The community had got no support and probably didn’t expect any. They were use to life by the sea, they understood the risk better than anyone. The actual physical support an individual and an outsider like myself could provide would probably be more a hindrance than a help, what they needed was land, some where to move to and still retain their livelihood from the sea. This I couldn’t provide, but I resolved to highlight their plight by writing to the local papers, and this I did.
All the same the guilt and a feeling of uselessness was there as I stood ankle deep in the water, when the old fisherman asked “adto ka (going) surfing?” I turned and look him in the eyes, he had that same tired look my father used to have. A look which can only be earned from the hard toil of manual labour, but his gaped tooth smile said it all. He held no resentment, it was a hard but good life, and yet he still wanted to see the surfing show. I smiled and put on my leash and started to paddle out.
Having just lost their homes to the sea the night before these old fishermen, their friends and families still had the heart to rejoice in the beauty of the same waves. The resilience and spirit of the community to smile and celebrate in our joyful rides was a humbling experience. At this point I realised I was truly witnessing impacts of climate change and how we all are going to have to deal with it, one by one, and each one of us in our respective communities. The beauty and power of the ocean to give and to take is something we should always respect, least we should never forget.
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