On 22 October 2009, the President of the Philippines, Gloria Arroyo, established a Special National Public Reconstruction Commission to look into the causes of the massive damage inflicted by Tropical Storm Ketsana and Typhoon Parma, estimate the costs of recovery, and recommend actions that need to be taken to hasten the reconstruction and rehabilitation of affected areas and communities. As it directs the process of rebuilding, the Commission has to ensure that reforms are set in place to transform the conditions that made such significant losses of lives and property possible. The ideas generated from the reflections and discussions of researchers, scientists, urban planners, policymakers, civil society actors and other concerned sectors in the days and weeks following Ketsana’s and Parma’s onslaught could serve as good starting points for the Commission as it maps out the interventions it needs to undertake.Urbanization in Metro Manila: prosperity or tragedy?
The deluge spawned by Ketsana has reminded the residents of Metro Manila that the urbanization of the metropolis must take into account the natural systems and processes that support the continued settlement of the city. Metro Manila lies in what is essentially a floodplain, bounded by the Meycauayan-Tullahan river basins in the north, the Marikina river basin in the east, Manila Bay in the west, and Laguna Lake in the southeast. As such, at least 20 percent of the city is naturally prone to flooding, owing to the location and elevation relative to sea level of certain areas. However, some areas which were not prone to floods in the past have become susceptible to floods over the decades due to a variety of factors.
The demand for more land to accommodate the city’s increasing population has led to the settlement of areas prone to hazards, and although these locations have previously been identified in various reports and studies as being unsafe for human settlement, a combination of corruption, poor planning, limited resources and lack of political will allowed these areas to be built on and occupied. As such, numerous gated communities, as well as squatter colonies, have sprung up in low-lying areas, along river easements and waterways. The situation has been made worse by the paving over of large tracts of land for property development and infrastructure projects, reducing the capacity of natural systems to absorb rainfall and surface run-off. Some real estate developers have even altered the course of waterways along their properties to maximize the available land for sale, while some misguided local officials have allowed existing drainage systems to be filled in to create more space for the construction of streets, schools and commercial buildings.From dumping of wastes to climate change
Unregulated quarrying and forestry activities in the watersheds at the periphery of Metro Manila have also led to the accumulation of significant amounts of sediment in the city’s major waterways. Coupled with the estimated 3,000 cubic meters of garbage that are illegally disposed of daily into the rivers and canal systems of the metropolis, the siltation impedes the natural flow of water outlets and reduces their capacity to channel excess rainfall away from the interior of the city to the sea. The large volume of trash in Metro Manila’s waterways also hampers the operation of the pumping stations that discharge floodwaters into the Pasig River and Manila Bay.
Changing climatic and geophysical conditions are likely to aggravate the flooding that Metro Manila residents periodically experience. As far back as 1991, scientists had already noted that the mean sea levels at Manila’s South Harbor were rising at an annual rate of three millimeters. Some experts believe that this is a consequence not only of global warming, but of the subsidence of the land around Manila Bay due to excessive groundwater extraction. Such factors increase the possibility that disasters similar to the one spawned by Ketsana will occur again in the future.A proactive approach: disaster risk management
Metro Manila’s recent experience proves that adopting a proactive approach is the best way to prepare for and mitigate the impacts of such extreme events. This was the perspective adopted by the organizations and local stakeholders involved in disaster risk management (DRM) when they formulated the Disaster Risk Management Master Plan (DRMMP) for Metro Manila in 2005 and 2006, based on the earthquake scenarios developed for the Metro Manila Earthquake Impact Reduction Study. The Metro Manila DRMMP pinpointed ten priority elements that would lead to the establishment of a sound institutional and legal framework for an effective DRM system, and fully integrate DRM into the ongoing governance, and developmental processes in the metropolis. These key points are:
- Strengthening the Metro Manila Disaster Coordinating Council;
- Promoting the adoption of disaster management ordinances by each city and municipality;
- Promoting the revitalization of barangay disaster coordinating councils in each city and municipality;
- Institutionalizing DRM within local government framework and financing;
- Enhancing lateral and vertical inter-agency and inter-governmental communication and coordination;
- Enhancing the legal basis for DRM at the national level by updating/replacing Presidential Decree 1556;
- Promoting policies that encourage implementation of DRR and developing mechanisms for mainstreaming DRR within local government functions;
- Promoting local government mitigation planning through existing planning tools;
- Conducting training needs assessments and developing capacity building programs;
- Strengthening the level of barangay preparedness for disaster response and relief.
At the time they were formulated, the recommendations of the Metro Manila DRMMP were not pursued because focus had shifted to disaster-stricken provinces such as Albay and Southern Leyte. However, the recent floods have underscored the importance of working towards the achievement of the objectives and priority actions stipulated in the DRMMP. Some of the specific recommendations for reviving the plan are:
- Updating the Metro Manila DRMMP by adding hazards such as floods and climate change;
- Developing a comprehensive plan for the rehabilitation of squatter areas, taking into consideration such socio-economic issues as livelihoods, mobility, etc.;
- Formulating a Metro Manila-wide Structure Plan to guide government policy in managing urban growth;
- Reviving the Regional Cities Development Plan to reduce urban growth pressure on Metro Manila;
- Revising the Comprehensive Land Use Plans and Zoning Ordinances of local government units to make them more risk-sensitive;
- Strengthen regulatory processes and enforcement procedures, including inter-agency coordination;
- Strengthen institutional technical capacity in DRM, particularly at the local level.
The events of the past few weeks have highlighted the risk that Metro Manila faces from floods and other hazards. Greater effort needs to be made by the international community to strengthen the capacities of governments and communities in developing and implementing creative and practical strategies that increase the resilience and coping capacities of cities to disasters. As Dr. Fouad Bendimerad, EMI Executive Director and Chairman pointed out in an ADB Forum last month, making cities resilient require more than just an infrastructure response, but equally important are the social, environmental and institutional aspects that need to be addressed.