Ubay Island: racing the King Tide in Second Life

Ubay Island, March 2020 – click any image for full size

In October 2013, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck the province of Bohol, Philippines, inducing about 1m land subsidence to some of its small island communities. Now, the islands of Batasan, Pangapasan, Ubay and Bilangbilangan of the Municipality of Tubigon experience partial or complete flooding even during normal spring tides. Coming face-to-face with a hundred years’ worth of sea level rise, the island communities show that they are far more resilient than we think.

This is the introduction to Racing the King Tide, a film and website looking at the impact of the 2013 Philippines earthquake that was centred on the island district of Bohol had on the people and islands close to its epicentre. One of these islands – perhaps the most deeply affect of them all – is tiny Ubay, which is the central inspiration for Serene Footman’s latest region design in Second Life, and which opened to the public on March 3rd.

Called, appropriately enough, Ubay Island, the setting offers a marvellous reproduction of little Ubay – which is less than 4 acres in size – perhaps as seen in the the time period immediately after the earthquake had struck the region. As is always his way, Serene has provided a comprehensive blog post to accompany the build, and I cannot recommend enough that it should be read alongside any visit to Ubay in-world, as it really puts the build into perspective. Through his writing, Serene provides not only a lens through which to view the build, but also wider context on on the earthquake, its impact on the peoples of Ubay Batasan, Pangapasan and Bilangbilangan.

Ubay Island, March 2020

The build presents Ubay as it appears for around 130-140 days a year: flooded to a typical depth of some 45cm (1.5 ft) – although tidal ranges can make the actual waters deeper. The flooding is a combined result of both rising sea level de to climate change – and which ultimately threaten Ubay’s future – and the fact that the 2013 ‘quake saw a mean decrease in elevation of a metre (3ft) within the area where Ubay is located (an collapse that also gave rise to The Great Wall of Bohol on Bohol island itself), leaving the island’s maximum elevation when dry at just 2.32 m (7.2 ft) above the surrounding sea level.

Under the default windlight the water is a dirty, brackish grey / brown – a reminder, perhaps that flood waters can carry with them dirt, mud, animal manure and human wastes which can be hazardous to health – with wooden walk ways partially winding through the village streets in an effort to keep passing feet dry. In this, the setting has the feel of depicting Ubay not long after the earthquake struck; more recently, much has been done (starting with an imitative by the islanders themselves before they received external support), to raise the village footpaths above the average level of the flood waters.

Ubay,Island, March 2020

The landing point sits within the local school playground, a location which is both touching and somewhat ironic. Touching, as Serene has captured the graffiti marking one of the playground walls that reminds us of the lives the adults and children of the island face: This Is Where We Play. The irony is that on the actual island of Ubay, the playground was supposed to be the evacuation assembly point should the island be at risk of flooding – but in 2013, it was one of the first places to be submerged.

You might think that given the state of the island, it would have been long deserted – and you’d be wrong. Despite the earthquake, despite the continued and very real threat of rising sea levels as a result of climate change, the people of Ubay steadfastly hold on to their homes and way of life, up to and including the annual threat of typhoons wiping the village off the face of the planet.

Ubay Island, March 2020 (as it might appear under a brighter sky and the invasion of sea water)

This might sound like a case of local hubris, but it’s not. With some 74% of the population living below the national poverty line even before the 2013 earthquake, there is simply nowhere else in the Philippines where the peoples of Ubay and its neighbours can survive. This was proven in the period following the 2013 ‘quake when the 300-ish Ubay islanders were made to evacuate to the “mainland”, and almost all of them quietly moved back to island as it was the only place they could survive as fisher folk. In doing so, they have given Ubay its ray of hope.

Serene has tried to capture this sense of life as well: fishing boats lie in the waters around the village, chairs are set out on raised “porches”, ribbons festoon some of the village paths, clothes are set out to dry in the sun and breeze even as the waters pass under the lines on which they are hung, and so on. Someone has even enterprisingly set-up a stage for a music concert while boat repair yards are still in business. True, one or two liberties may have been taken (for example, the  Racing the Tide website, for example, infers that the half-submerged house that’s included in the build may be at Bilangbilangan Island rather than Ubay), but none of this spoils the setting in any way – rather, they enhance it.

Set as it is under a heavy sky, with its muddied waters and the ruins of buildings pulled down by the earthquake, and its shanty-like corrugated metal walls and roof tops, you might think that Ubay is a bit of a dismal place in SL to visit, but this simply isn’t so. Serene offers something that is once again captivating, poignant and with a depth of story behind it that should not be missed.

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