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Lost and damaged, but still fighting: intangible climate impacts on small island communities

“Loss and damage” is not only economic. Along with the loss of local cultures and values, the anxiety that comes with every storm, and the trauma of having lost a roof over their heads after each disaster can lead to extreme mental distress. The communities of Tubigon and the surrounding islands in Bohol, the Philippines discuss how they cope with many intangible climate change impacts.

Minh Tran / Published on 19 September 2022
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Minh Tran /

Laban lang! Laban lang! That is just what we are supposed to do,” J recalled as we talked about mental health and psychosocial support needs after Typhoon Odette hit her island in the Philippines in December 2021. Laban lang means “keep fighting” in Bisaya, the local language of the island.

Having lost much of their belongings to the disaster, mental wellbeing is both a luxury and a taboo for J and her community. As devastated as they felt after Odette, the emotional damage of the typhoon must be set aside to focus on material recovery efforts.

Yet, the irony of laban lang was not lost on young islanders like J. What are the costs and what are the implications on people’s wellbeing of their fight? “Forward ever, backward never,” her friend recited Tubigon municipality’s motto although with a sense of sarcasm.

The motto reflects a mentality of resilience that has been developed over the years as the islands are often hit by hazards. In the past decade, the Municipality of Tubigon has suffered four major disasters.

In 2013, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit the island of Bohol that killed 195 people, destroyed 14 500 structures, displaced 340 000 residents and resulted in the land sinking by as much as 75 cm on smaller nearby islands, including Pangapasan and Batasan. Ever since, these islands flood every month from May to August during high tide. During November to January, the floods come at night, making it even harder for people to cope. In 2016, a dry spell depleted the island’s water resource. To top it off, in December 2021, in the midst of a global pandemic, Typhoon Odette hit these islands, affecting 40 000 people and damaging 3500 houses in Tubigon.

Living with hazards

Mangroves regrowing and recovering after the typhoon

Mangroves regrowing and recovering after the typhoon. Photo: Minh Tran / SEI Asia.

To protect the islands from storm winds and waves, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources supported residents of Pangapasan and Batasan to plant mangroves in the early 2000s. With tidal flooding becoming more frequent and intense, houses themselves are elevated on coral stone or concrete stilts. Across the islands, residents built elevated classrooms, roads and expanded potted plants and vegetable gardens.

Elevated potted plants of a Batasan household. Photo: Minh Tran / SEI Asia.

From one hazard to the next, the island communities have been mobilizing and exhausting their resources to cope and adapt. Islanders are finding it ever tougher to practice their livelihoods. While seashell gleaning in shallow rockpools and intertidal zones used to be a source of income for women of the islands, land subsidence and sea level rise make this harder to do. To adapt, they taught themselves diving to continue picking seashells underwater to provide food and income for their families. In addition, the municipal government has been supporting recovery and adaptation efforts, such as by providing construction materials, building a seawall, or exploring relocation strategies.

The limits of adaptation

At the global level, loss and damage refers to negative impacts of climate change that cannot be or have not been avoided through adaptation or mitigation. Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), loss and damage negotiations have driven a focus on liability and compensation. However, loss and damage finance is also a matter of solidarity, restitution and climate justice.

Despite calls from governments and local communities, an overall financing mechanism to avert, minimize and address loss and damage is yet to become a reality. This is because of the lack of an operational definition of loss and damage, political disagreement over liability and existing international finance bureaucracies. On the ground, losses and damages are already happening, as forcefully seen in island communities like Tubigon.

Indeed, while the Philippines sees hazards like flooding and typhoons on an annual basis, climate change has increased their intensity. When Typhoon Odette made landfall, it escalated from Category 2 to 5 overnight. The early warning system was not activated as quickly, and island residents were left to cope by themselves without preparation.

An elevated house after Typhoon Odette. Photo: Minh Tran / SEI Asia.

Looking beyond economic values

“Everything was lost, from my birth certificate to my laptop,” J said. After the typhoon, when houses turned to rubble, her family moved into her grandparents’ house. Her father, a fisherman, lost his boat to the typhoon. He had no choice but to try his hand at carpentry as he tried to build a new boat using the engine that was salvaged.

We have not rebuilt our house; we do not have money to build a new house.

J, Tubigon resident

Eight months after the typhoon, her community is focused first on restoring livelihoods, the house second. It was not only a building, however, that J’s family lost to the typhoon. Storm surge and violent winds had washed away a home filled with memories, along with the security of having a roof over their heads.

It was not just the lack of financial resources that make reconstruction difficult. It took J a while to mentally come to terms with what is left after the typhoon. “I did not even dare to look at the place, to visit where our house was once.” She recounted going through her belongings days later, only to find her personal items with much sentimental value damaged or destroyed by the disaster.

Loss and damage have been on the agenda of UNFCCC negotiations since as early as 1991. What is often overlooked in the debate are non-economic ones.

Batasan’s oldest school destroyed after Odette. Photo: Minh Tran / SEI Asia.

A woman in Batasan remarked as her neighbors nodded in agreement: “Whenever I hear loud winds, like yesterday, I get scared. Is it going to be another typhoon?” Another expressed feeling exhausted of constantly having to cope with hazards.

We have not recovered from the earthquake of 2013. Since then, until Odette last year, we have constantly been in coping mode.

Batasan resident

Others were more concerned with the loss of culture and heritage. The typhoon already destroyed Batasan’s oldest school. With relocation, a recommended adaptation measure, the islanders fear further losing their way of living, livelihood and identity as fisherfolk.

The impacts of climate change and disasters cannot always be easily converted into dollar amounts. The anxiety that comes with every strong wind, the trauma of having lost a home, the stress of making ends meet, or the loss of cultures and values are some of the non-tangible losses that J and Tubigon island communities are experiencing.

While negotiators continue their dialogues at international conferences, who is accounting for losses and damages that are already taking place? While disaster response tends to focus on immediate, tangible needs, how can non-economic impacts be taken into consideration?  For the islanders, these are real questions for which they seek answers.

This piece is based on a workshop held on 22–25 August 2022 through the Strategic Collaborative Fund 2 programme to facilitate regional understanding of climate change loss and damage in Southeast Asia. Representatives from academia, civil society, local communities, governments, youth, and the private sector across the region gathered in Bohol, Philippines, an island recently struck by Supertyphoon Rai (locally known as Typhoon Odette) to share experiences and lessons learned from local indigenous communities. Non-economic loss and damage was at the heart of the conversations.

Written by

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Minh Tran

Research Associate

SEI Asia

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