The Poor in the City after Typhoon Ondoy
The major typhoons that hit the Philippines towards the last quarter brought the worst flooding in the greater metropolitan Manila area in four decades. Wide, densely populated areas were inundated, damaging billions worth of infrastructure and affecting more than four million people. Many of those who were chased out of their homes by floodwaters have returned and started rebuilding or have relocated to new communities. But thousands remain in evacuation centers. They are the families of informal settlers living along major waterways that could no longer return to their homes even if floodwaters spawned by the typhoons have completely subsided.
In times of catastrophes, humans naturally look around for something to blame. The lack of disaster preparedness was readily blamed. Being typhoon-prone, the country would naturally be expected to put substantial resources on this. Deforestation is also one of the usual suspects and with reason, since only 30 to 40 percent of the precipitation hitting the ground goes directly to streams. Most of it, surprisingly, is taken up and used internally by plants. Some water penetrates soils and moves below as groundwater, feeding forests and replenishing aquifers. Heavy city build up, therefore, is also to blame, since water run off from wide concreted areas will need some time to find their way to the ground that will partly absorb it. In line with this, urban planners and architects began appearing on TV after Typhoon Ondoy to remind us that the subdivisions on natural catch basins are one major cause of the flooding. But the one usual suspect that will probably meet more consequence for the blame put on it are the informal settlers, also known as squatters, the homeless, who are accused of clogging waterways with their shanties.
But Manila, which lies in the Pasig River catchment basin and fed by waters from the Marikina river basin, has always been flood-prone, even when there were more forests and swamps, and less concrete, less subdivisions in natural basins, and less urban poor living along waterways. As Ondoy (international codename Ketsana) raged, Facebook users uploaded pictures showing old Manila (1910s, 1920s) submerged in floodwaters.
The Pasig River has always been vulnerable to flooding in times of very heavy rainfall and the Marikina River tributary is the main source of the floodwater. The Manggahan Floodway was constructed to divert excess floodwater from the Marikina River into the Laguna de Bay, which then serves as a temporary reservoir. But the only outlet of excess water in the Laguna Lake into Manila Bay is the Pasig River itself. In times of heavy rains, the rise of water in the Pasig River basin and in Laguna Lake, which is but a shallow lake with a mean depth of 2.8 meters, means that communities in these areas do not have much to hope for but endure the floods. Experts have revised old proposals for the construction of a water spillway from Laguna Lake to Manila Bay to cut through Parañaque instead, which is the narrowest strip of land at 8 kilometers between the two bodies of water. The spillway is supposed to have been implemented together with the Manggahan floodway but was shelved by post-Marcos administrations.
The geologic scale of the required solution to the flooding problem in Metro Manila makes the ‘squatter problem’ look like a puny diversion, and if implemented will actually make Metro Manila even more attractive to migrant workers who will then have to settle in the cities, informally.
Stop blaming the urban poor for the flood as they were blamed before for crime and blight.
According to the Laguna Lake Development Authority (LLDA), at least 400,000 squatters blocking key drainage channels of Laguna de Bay need to be uprooted in order to fix Metro Manila’s flooding crisis. These squatters are among the estimated one million people living on the shoreline of Laguna de Bay, which will stay flooded for up to five months unless drastic action is taken, according to LLDA chief Ed Manda.  DPWH Secretary Hermogenes Ebdane is proposing a review of zoning ordinances to stop squatters from clogging and rendering ineffective the flood-mitigation projects in Metro Manila and other flood-prone areas. 
That squatters clogged the waterways to cause the massive Metro Manila flooding was belied in some instances by the fact that their shanties were washed away by the floods. At the height of Ondoy, everyone with TV and Facebook watched in horror how the shanties, instead of damming up the water, were swept away by the water.
That they continue to clog the waterways, thus preventing the draining of excess water of Laguna Lake into Manila Bay, may be true and should provide an opportunity to push for housing relocations for the informal settlers. But should it be more of the same formula of relocating the informal settlers to far-away areas? But if it will be more of the same formula of relocating the informal settlers to far-away areas. It will be like moving them from a natural disaster area to economic wastelands, away from livelihoods and public services. And government efforts to keep the city free of squatters would be futile given the much larger and powerful forces that are driving urban migration and concentration of population in cities. The point is to make exits and entries to our cities accessible, rather than inaccessible, to everybody.
Why do poor people risk living in danger zones within and in the peripheries of Metro Manila? Because there is simply no other place for them in the city from where they derive a living, because the city is built up to suit the needs of the well-to-do and not of everybody contributing to its growth. The city is where people go to ‘make it’ in life, but most people have been eased out of the city even before they could get there. And so they are condemned to settle in danger zones – along the rivers, creeks, tidewater estuaries (esteros) and other waterways, and along railways, roadways or sidewalks and aqueducts, and under bridges. For the poor, these locations are better options than being far away from their occupations. Until the floods, the waterways were almost the safest place on earth; had they chosen to live on highway easements, death from trucks could have been a daily occurrence for them.
In the aftermath of Ondoy, the impression is that pollution and accumulation of solid waste on waterways are caused by the illegal settlers living along the waterways and riverbanks. It is true that the informal settlers are one source of pollution, but so is everyone else. Only 5% of households in Metro Manila have access to sewers, which means that the pollution and settled garbage in waterways and rivers are literally everyone’s sh*t. And if indeed the urban poor are singularly most responsible for the piling up of garbage in waterways, then what this means is that these communities lack access to the basic services of garbage collection and solid waste management. Without these services, garbage would pile up in the streets even in the most decent neighborhoods.
That the urban poor’s dwelling structures are not just erected along waterways but encroaching right on waterways to impede water flow might be true. But this is also an indication that, whereas there is some modicum of regulation to guide formal housing developments, nothing of the sort is provided to informal settlers. The result is the total lack of coordination, leading some squatters with no choice but to construct dwelling at the farthest edges of habitability. But if there is a government to guide them in their current plight as homeless citizens, even their temporary informal settlements can be much more orderly and safer. Of course, this might be unthinkable, since the overriding concern is that squatters are not supposed to be present on any land that is not their own. It would be like giving them some sort of tenure. Giving them some advice on how to squat and be safe would be like teaching a thief to steal and not get caught. But then squatters are not thieves, just people with no place to go, and temporary tenures can be justified as a means to encourage order, cooperation and safety in the construction of informal dwelling sites pending the resolution of the urban housing problem.
People whose homes along waterways were washed away by the floods are now being prevented to reconstruct their shanties where floodwater has subsided, ostensibly to keep them away from danger, but also to take advantage of the perception in the disaster aftermath that the informal settlers are to blame for the floods, and this is in order to pursue the social apartheid policy of relocating the urban poor to the provinces.
Can we say that those with no property in the city or those who could not afford rental housing have no right to stay in the city? Can we just leave it at that?
The issue is how to make the city accessible not only to the rich that have formal, secure jobs and own homes and businesses, but also to the large population of informal workers with nothing else to their names but their own persons. The alternative to accommodating the urban poor as an important sector of the city economy is having more exclusive urban enclaves for the middle class, complete with serene, soulless waterways and breathtaking views of lakes from their windows. Only the middle class in OECD countries can live that way. In Metro Manila, that will be a disaster even to the middle class who will then see that many of the amenities they take for granted is due to the willingness of urban poor workers to carry a low paying job or two to make the city economy run.
The idea that we should in fact ‘give back to nature’ what belonged to it (like urban waterways and swamps) sounds like an eco-fascist idea that is dangerous even to the middle class. The earth always has a use for any geologic feature on its face. We should instead engineer our waterways so that they become actually functional and better both in containing floods and in accommodating living spaces, parks, and a variety of other uses. As for the swamps converted by real estate developers, how about consolidating lands for medium-rise buildings so that the freed up lands can become forests and waters once again in the middle of the city? How about affecting also the way the middle class lives?
The flooding is natural and unavoidable, but the loss of life and damage to property is a result of our infrastructure gaps.
Academics have brought attention to the view that real estate developments impeded the flow of rain waters to waterways, and the extraordinary large amount of rains that poured over Metro Manila on September 26 simply underscored this. The Marikina River and other waterways that swelled when Ondoy battered Metro Manila are clogged not only by illegal settlers, but also by subdivisions, aggravating the heavy flooding that drowned many communities. The flood could have been lower and could have risen slowly if there were no constrictions in the waterways, according to University of the Philippines (UP) Marine Science Institute Professor Fernando Siringan. The badly hit Provident Village and the SM Mall in Marikina City are actually sitting on flood plains or flat spaces occupied by water when rivers swell, UP engineering professor Guillermo Tabios III said.
Experts also believe water spillways to connect Laguna de Bay to Manila Bay should have been constructed long time ago to mitigate the capacity of the lake to absorb floodwaters.
Laguna Lake (or Laguna de Bay), is basically a large but shallow freshwater body, with an area of 949 square kilometers and an average depth of only 2.8 meters. It drains to Manila Bay via the Pasig River via the Napindan Channel. The lake is fed by 45,000 square kilometers of catchment areas and its 21 major tributaries from the river basins surrounding it.   The Manggahan Floodway is an artificially constructed waterway that was built in order to allow water flows from Marikina River to be diverted to or from Laguna de Bay, apart from the 20 other rivers that empty into it.
The Pasig River has always been vulnerable to flooding in times of very heavy rainfall and the Marikina River tributary is the main source of the floodwater. The Manggahan Floodway was constructed to divert excess floodwater from the Marikina River into the Laguna de Bay, which then serves as a temporary reservoir. By design, the Manggahan Floodway is capable of handling 2,400 cubic meters per second of water flow, although the actual flow is about 2,000 cubic meters per second. To complement the floodway, the Napindan Hydraulic Control System (NHCS) was built in 1983 at the confluence of the Marikina River and the Napindan Channel to regulate the flow of water between Pasig River and the lake.
Pasig River winds generally north-westward for some 25 kilometers (15.5 mi) from the Laguna de Bay to Manila Bay. The Pasig River is technically a tidal estuary in that the flow direction depends upon the water level difference between Manila Bay and Laguna de Bay. During the dry season, the water level in Laguna de Bay is low and the flow direction of the Pasig River depends on the tides. During the wet season, when the water level of Laguna de Bay is high, flow is normally from Laguna de Bay towards Manila Bay. From the lake, the river runs between Taguig City and Taytay, Rizal, before entering Pasig City. This portion of Pasig River to the confluence with the Marikina River tributary is known as the Napindan River or Napindan Channel. 
The Napindan Hydraulic Control Structure or NHCS was also meant to prevent the increase of salinity from Manila Bay and pollution from the Pasig River from entering Laguna de Bay during these times of reverse flow. By closing the NHCS during times of rain, the water is effectively dammed in Laguna de Bay, preventing it from flooding the downstream portions of Pasig River and the tens of thousands of families living along the river.
According to one observer, the Napindan Channel is actually a waste of money. “It did not serve the purpose for which it was constructed as shown when Marikina River overflows, flooding the City and its neighboring towns unprecedented in its history. The theory that Napindan Channel will block the increasing salinity of the lake due to the intrusion of salt water from Manila Bay will not hold as it is a nature’s way of cleansing the turbidity of the lake and it has been always ever since.”
It may then be too much to expect Laguna de Bay to catch waters coming from Metro Manila, even with the existence of the Napindan Channel and Manggahan Floodway. During heavy downpour, coastal communities of the lake are flooded for weeks and months until the water level subsides. The water level at Laguna de Bay is at 11.5 meters during the dry season and rises to 14.0 meters during the wet season. The Manggahan Floodway did not serve it purpose of diverting water from Marikina River as water level at Laguna de Bay rose to the level as that of the Marikina River as it was during the Ondoy flooding. Blames were put on dams for releasing water and on Napindan Channel for remaining closed. But dams not releasing water and opening Napindan could have spelled greater disaster.
The construction of Napindan Channel sparked conflicts over the uses of the lake as fishing grounds and as catch basin for flood water. Saltwater is said to have a disinfecting and rejuvenating effect on Laguna Lake, enhancing the growth of fish and aquatic resources. Napindan Channel is often closed at the onset of rainy season as a flood prevention measure. But this causes the rapid growth of algae, causing bangus and tilapia grown in the area to have a muddy taste (gilik). Although Department of Agriculture (DA) Secretary Cito Lorenzo said there is still opportunity in this, citing the demand of Chinese tuna catchers for this kind of bangus as bait, he said that LLDA should coordinate with the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) on the proper scheduling of the opening and closing of the Napindan Channel in Taguig to allow the entry of seawater from Manila Bay to flow into Laguna de Bay through Pasig River. According to Lorenzo, “proper scheduling of the opening and closing of the channel will accrue to a win-win solution for both Laguna lake fishers and Metro Manila residents during the rainy months.” 
Experts are now reviving proposals for the construction of the Parañaque Spillway to unburden Laguna Lake of floodwaters. According to an urban planner, Architect Felino “Jun” Palafox, the flood map of September 1970 is eerily the same as the flooding that happened September 2009. He said constructing the Parañaque Spillway, which will allow the Laguna de Bay to directly flow to Manila Bay instead of having to pass by the already clogged Pasig River, could have prevented the flooding. Parañaque would be a logical choice, he said, as it is the “narrowest band of land” between Laguna Lake and Manila Bay at only eight kilometers.  
In a TV interview, Palafox said the proposal was to build a two-level tunnel that will drain off excess water from Laguna de Bay into Manila Bay, to prevent the flooding of lakeshore towns. The upper level would serve as road tunnel for motor traffic westward towards Manila Bay and for eastward traffic towards Laguna de Bay. From zero elevation in Manila Bay, the topography goes up 30 meters within a 15-20 kilometer distance in the Quezon City area then goes down to 1.0 elevation within a 5-20 kilometer distance in Marikina and Laguna de Bay then goes up 300 meters again to Sierra Madre Mountains up to the shores of Pacific Ocean. Palafox said the topography will really allow water to be trapped in low-lying areas near Laguna de Bay such as Marikina, Taguig and Pasig, the hardest hit areas during Typhoon Ondoy, hence the need for another waterway. He said this analysis and study only constitutes the effective flow of water and maintenance of water levels in the different bodies of water. Inputs on global warming, which will produce six to seven meters increase in tides, are yet to be considered. 
In other interviews, Palafox said the construction of the spillway was covered by two presidential decrees in 1972 and 1974. It was part of the 327 recommendations that Palafox forwarded to the government when he headed the World Bank-funded Metro Manila Transport Land Use Development Project, which covered 40 towns and cities, during the ‘70s when flood also ravaged the Marikina area. According to the original plan, the Parañaque Spillway should have been constructed along with the Manggahan Floodway, which was the only one built. The floodway aims to maintain the level of water in Pasig River. But, according to Palafox, the Manggahan Floodway is not enough because it should have been a tandem project with the Parañaque Spillway.
President Arroyo said “we should already ask the DPWH to work on the spillway” after Palafox presented his proposal, while Congress leaders expressed readiness to fund the massive flood control project in next year’s national budget at an initial P5 billion to P10 billion to jumpstart it.
Parañaque, however, is a heavily built-up area, and resolving the right-of-way issues would be astronomical. A critic of the proposal said “the project aims to build its tunnel under Sucat Road, which will presumably start near the Meralco Sucat Plant and presumably connect with the Parañaque River near the Parañaque Church in Barrio La Huerta, the diverted flood waters emptying into Manila Bay near the Chinese temple on the Coastal Road. This point is about 50 meters lower than the surface of Sucat Road. It is neither safe nor feasible to dig a trench or gorge this deep in such a heavily built-up and heavily populated area. The disruption to traffic flow and commerce would be catastrophic. The residents of nearby Posadas Village would certainly object to a tunnel being bored underneath or close to their subdivision. So would business and building owners along the length of Sucat Road.”
Unconvinced with the proposed Parañaque Spillway, others are proposing the construction of spillway and tunnel between Pangil and Paete, Laguna down to Lamon Bay. Accordingly, costly right-of-way problems can be avoided economic progress can be stimulated on the eastern section of Laguna de Bay. The tunnel or passageway, with an estimated 25 kilometers distance, may be put to another use, according to the proponents, as an access road during summer and be closed to travelers during wet season.
The geologic scale of the required solution to the flooding problem in Metro Manila makes the ‘squatter’ problem look like a puny diversion, and if implemented will actually make Metro Manila even more attractive to migrant workers who will then have to settle in the cities, informally.
The informal settlers are not the problem, they are the solutions.
There are more than 650,000 informal settler families in Metro Manila alone, according to a report of the Urban Asset Reform Program. Some of these and others outside Metro Manila that are blocking water flow out of Laguna Lake is 400,000, per LLDA figures. This is the actual number of families that will be affected by a policy of clearing the metropolis of squatters to make waterways work in preventing floods.
Using survey data of local government units and the National Housing Authority (NHA) in September 2007, the Metro Manila Inter-Agency Committee on Informal Settlers (MMIAC) puts the number of informal settler households at 544,609. The number of squatter families represents 21 percent of the estimated 2.6 million households in Metro Manila. One of every five households of informal settlers lives in danger areas such as riverbanks, floodways, roads, aqueducts, and under bridges.
President Arroyo has ordered the immediate relocation of families near waterways following the massive flooding. The MMIAC said half of the informal settlers, or more than 270,000 families, had qualified for the government’s 10-year socialized housing program worth more than P32 billion. The first available housing option is the development of off-site/off-city resettlement areas. An example of this would be the house and lot provision of the NHA costing P200, 000 per family in resettlement sites like Calauan, Laguna, in which case the government shoulders the initial costs and recovers these through affordable monthly amortization of P300 to P500. MMIAC said the government would need P3.225 billion yearly to come up with the 22,689 socialized housing units needed every year over a 10-year period. Specifically, the government needs to produce approximately 14,922 [housing units] per year over the current production of 7,767 units, according to the MMIAC report. It said this socialized housing backlog of almost 15,000 units was earlier projected and submitted to the NHA for relocation starting in 2007.  
What is wrong with the government plan?
First off, it is socially costly. The informal settlers in various areas in Metro Manila were told by the NHA long before Ondoy that the available relocations for them are in far-away Pangasinan and Cagayan. Places far-away from the economic opportunities of the cities are exactly the places migrant workers leave behind, and this remains a very powerful demographic movement that a government flood control plan may not reverse. The plan does not mention providing both housing relocations in tandem with social services and sources of income and livelihood. Indeed, providing both housing and industries in the far-away relocation sites would be infinitely costly for the government and the entire society.
There can be a better alternative to far-away off-site and off-city relocation. In-city relocation is much cheaper, both in terms of providing housing and in terms of providing access to livelihood and services. The city economy itself, as an agglomeration of industries that create jobs, will take care of the livelihood part. The cost of service provision per capita in concentrated cities is much lower than in the rural areas, whether in terms of education, health, water, sanitation, and drainage systems.
And should be possibilities for in-site housing development, too. Flood control infrastructure in some esteros and rivers to large spillways need not exclude human settlements. After all, humans are supposed to be the beneficiaries of flood control. And waterways, with their associated risks and benefits, have always been preferred for human settlements throughout world history. We should attain both city inclusiveness, one that accommodates the poor, and safety from floods. Geology will ensure that Metro Manila will still be flooded even after the last informal settler is relocated to a far-away place. But what infrastructure development needs to achieve is to make populations safe from floods. Instead of simply removing the shanty housing along waterways, we need to dredge the waterways and build real well-planned socialized housing along it with access to proper drainage and solid waste management system.
This can work only for certain waterways. And shanty dwellers from other waterways will definitely need to be relocated elsewhere safe within the city. This implies that we need to free up more idle lands for housing by encouraging land owners to give up their landholdings to socialized housing under the Community Mortgage Program (CMP) and other socialized financing programs. Taxation on idle lands and better compensation packages to landowners making their lands available to CMP can be one route towards this.
Public lands can be freed for productive uses without the socially costly relocation schemes. Aspects of the solution must include urban living spaces that economize on land through medium-rise structures with individual dwelling units and social service units for the poor. These can exist side by side with high-end commercial districts and city blocks under a policy of mixed land use and integration of commercial districts with the economy of the poor.
What would be the benefit to the rest of the city dwellers and to the rest of the city economy? Social peace and cohesion, social unity, and the enduring foundations for the economic competitiveness and growth of the city. The millions of ambitious souls who throng to the city believing they have rights to enter it and to stay carry with them the spirit of enterprise and hard work to achieve a better life.
Draining the city of its informal workers-settlers and blocking their entry will deprive the city of the diversity that comes from these populations. Under an inclusive mixed-use framework, which recognizes the importance of diverse human settlements near or within commercial or industrial districts, a city’s economy can become robust, vibrant, and competitive.
If we see them as solutions rather than as problems, what role might they take?
In shaping the policies and programs for flood mitigation and the rehabilitation of the affected families and communities, the urban poor may have to assert their role instead of this being defined for them. The aftermath of Typhoon Ondoy and the current debate over the flood crisis in the greater Manila metropolitan area should provide an opportunity for the urban poor movement to highlight its demands for the right to the city. They have to defend themselves from evictions and further marginalization from the city.
A few initial proposals are already being considered within the urban poor movements:
• Reject the government’s policy of social apartheid called ‘Balik Probinsya’ rehabilitation option for the urban poor who are supposed to be clogging the waterways.
• Emergency relocations in ‘semi-temporary’/’semi-permanent’ in-city resettlements prior to in-city housing development projects for the urban poor (‘semi-permanent’ being a term borrowed from the Quezon City government).
• Implementation of 20% allocation of housing developments for socialized housing, starting with the disaster victims displaced by the flood from waterways and danger zones.
• Adoption of medium rise buildings for socialized housing in the context of mixed uses of urban spaces, including the mixed use between flood control infrastructure and socialized housing (like waterways with embankments fortified by Medium Rise Buildings or MRBs).
• Implementation of local-labor-intensive public works to include the clearing of waterways, sites preparation and construction for temporary relocations and for permanent socialized housing projects, as well as for community infrastructures that mitigate disaster vulnerability.
• Implementation of flood control infrastructure gaps of the metropolis, also to create more jobs.
These will have to happen in all Philippine cities.
 Among these are the Pagsanjan River which is the source of 35% of the lake's water, the Sta. Cruz River which is the source of 15% of the Lake's water, the Balanak River, the Marikina River, the Mangangate River, the Tunasan River, the San Pedro River, the Cabuyao River, the San Cristobal River, the San Juan River, the Bay, Calo and Maitem rivers in Bay, the Molawin, Dampalit river, Dampalit, and Pele river, Pele rivers in Los Baños, the Pangil River, the Tanay River, the Morong River, the Siniloan River, and the Sapang Baho River.
 The MMIAC report was one of the documents submitted by MMDA to the Supreme Court on Oct. 13, 2009 in compliance with the tribunal’s December 2008 decision ordering government agencies to clean up Manila Bay . The Supreme Court, in its landmark decision, specifically ordered the MMDA and the Department of Public Works and Highways to dismantle structures and other encroachments on all waterways leading to the bay and to report to the tribunal the progress of their compliance.
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