‘Here we are again’

Manila finds itself under water again three years after it was hit by devastating floods.

There was a warm smile on Felino Palafox’s face as he said in greeting: “Well here we are again!”

The internationally-renowned urban planner had spoken to Al Jazeera before – under very similar circumstances. The northern Philippines had flooded extraordinarily in 2009 when a strong typhoon, at its peak, dropped over 400 mm of rain in six hours. The resulting deluge submerged 80 per cent of the capital Manila. Hundreds were killed and millions were affected.

Palafox spoke then of the reasons the city was unable to cope with so much rain. Old and clogged sewers, compromised rivers and waterways, and haphazard city planning were no match for the extreme weather brought about by global warming. It was deadly combination of pollution, over-population, and too much water.

The problems were not insoluble, Palafox said then, and he had written several proposals to government officials in the past that had remained largely ignored.

So “here we are again” indeed.

Three years later and Manila finds itself under water again. For the same reasons. Too much water. Too much trash blocking waterways, and too many people living where they shouldn’t.

For one, by law, they shouldn’t be living within 10 metres of river or creeks. But they do. In the millions. There’s nowhere else for them to go. At least that’s what they believe. When asked, many flood victims living along waterways will tell you they can’t afford to go anywhere else. Jobs are difficult to come by outside Manila, they say, so they congregate in the capital hoping to find opportunities. Most fail to do so, but live in hope. So unable to afford anything else, they set-up “informal dwellings” where they can. And local governments, for the most part, have let them get away with it. For years. These informal settlers even get to register to vote. So politicians in the running need their support. And the settlers need to have politicians in office who will let them stay put. It’s an “informal”, mutual, back-scratch arrangement.

But informal settlers aren’t the only ones too close to the river. According to Palafox, there are buildings on the presidential compound which are also in violation of river-side building regulations. “Government buildings,” Palafox said half-exasperated, “should be examples of the law… not exemptions from it!”

With some 14 million people, Manila is one of the densest cities in the world. And millions of its residents are living in areas considered hazardous. Too close to rivers, or in cramped shanty towns. A growing middle-class has also meant the city is expanding quite quickly in ways it probably shouldn’t. Structures are sprouting right on top of fault lines (yes, the Philippines is also prone to earthquakes), and water channels are being filled in or erroneously diverted to accommodate the need for more land to build on. The city has been described as a “tumultuous sea of concrete”. An example of a dysfunctional marriage between man and the environment.

At least 60 people died during this seasonal monsoon, and over 2.4 million were either displaced or had their homes damaged. But this time around, it seems Filipinos are getting tired of just accepting the cycle of rains-floods-damage-rebuild. (And many will tell you they have had to live like this for years …) No longer is the loudest clamour for aid, donations, or hand-outs. The cry now is for long-term solutions to be worked out so they won’t have to re-live this nightmare when the next torrent of rain, inevitably, comes.