2. Juli 2014

Visiting a Place of Horror

What a nice sunset. I am strolling along the sea on a very long stretch of beach. A perfect setting. After months of work I can finally enjoy my vacation. Not far away from the hotel, the built environment stops and nature takes over. I take a few shots of this beautiful sunset scenery, but then my attention shifts: I am standing in front of a huge banca – a traditional Filipino boat. And there is another one. And another one. As if they have been thrown from the sky, they are lying concatenated into each other on the beach. A second look confirms that they are not parked there just for the night or for repair.

Assessing again the situation and my location I am shocked: I am standing on Bohol’s Panglao Island facing East. In the early days of November 2013, Typhoon Yolanda (internationally known as Typhoon Haiyan) made impact in the Philippines. While I did know that Bohol was hit by the superstorm as well as a terrible earthquake a few weeks before that, I did not expect to run into this scene of horror. And even more: I did not imagine ending up standing right in the place that stages the disaster’s destructive forces.*

This might not sound too relevant to the reader if I would ‘just’ have been a visitor to the Philippines. However, one milestone of my work at the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has been the immediate post-disaster response work after Typhoon Yolanda (here). Nearly everyone at ADB was terribly affected by the typhoon – so much im-/material value was destroyed; so many lives were lost. Together with other organizations, government, and civil society, we have been trying to support the relief and recovery activities. And ‘at the end’ of this effort, the team I was part of was awarded the ADB’s Vice President Special Recognition for “outstanding teamwork and contributions” (here).

For a variety of reasons, ADB later decided to take on a role in further post-Yolanda activities, which was perceived by some as too small and passive. For sure, there is always a counterpart to such projects, and the Government of the Philippines cannot be seen as the best performer in many regards in comparison to its regional neighbors. But still, this Special Recognition Award by ADB’s Vice President was metaphorically hanging above my desk and my hands were tied. I could not do more in my position, even though so much more needed to be done.

As time passes, people and institutions forget and go back to business-as-usual…up to the point, when you end up facing several boats crushed into each other, forming a post-apocalyptic setting. There it was again: the unpleasant reminder of what happened in the early days of November 2013 and what has (not) happened since then…half a year has already passed! Fishermen as well as tourist boat operators depend on water-related income sources. In that sense, it was even the right choice to spend my vacation here. But once you see these boats and, also, these thousands of dead sea urchins on the beach, you realize what it meant that the strongest and second deadliest typhoon in history crashed onto shore of several Filipino islands. Mentally as well as physically it brought me back from my desk right into the space they are calling ‘the field’ in international cooperation – it actually was a place of horror. And it reminded me again that I have to do more.

It proves right to tackle the issues of urban development and disaster resilience in my daily work far away from traditional international politics. But it is not enough. Besides the technical expertise, we have to strive for an institutional change of mind. It is about making proper commitments we can live up to. I, myself, made a mistake when over-enthusiastically developing well-proven sustainable solution options for the urban realm affected by the typhoon…I would later learn what the sarcastic term ‘expectation management’ means in development assistance. But it is true. We have to face a certain reality, which can only be changed incrementally and together with many other actors whose decisions often lie beyond our impact or influence. Still, we have to try and it might help to have such unpleasant encounters as the one I had during my vacation to stay determined on course.


* While Panglao Island itself was not directly hit by Typhoon Yolanda, fisher boats were cast ashore at the island’s Eastern coast and the place was very much affected by the disaster and its (socio-economic) impacts. Therefore I changed the formulation in this article from “I did not imagine ending up standing right in the place where the worst things happened in early November of 2013” to “I did not imagine ending up standing right in the place that stages the disaster’s destructive forces”.