The Explainer: Causes of Flooding

In the wake of any great disaster, when an entire population, rich and poor alike, considers itself the victims, somebody has to be held to account. We all like to think we’ve learned to cope without depending on government; disasters make us realize how dependent our lives and property are to the acts of commission or omission of our officials.

The problem is,  as we’ll see tonight, is that the disaster of today often has its origins in the wrong choices having been made by government and the public alike, not just in the 48 hours of the Ondoy crisis, but at times years, or even decades earlier.

Why it flooded so badly, and why, most likely, we’ll all be sitting ducks again should another great flood take place, is what we’ll be looking at tonight.

I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.




The Boston Globe’s has published amazing photos like this one, of the destruction wrought by Typhoon Ondoy.

With lives and properties so badly affected by Ondoy, much of our time and energy have focused on asking whether the official response was timely or extensive enough.

Last week, you’ll remember I discussed Task Force Ondoy, the Google Map effort of volunteers to map out the disaster. Every blue balloon here marks an emergency case of trapped people or flooded areas, reported by the public.

In contrast there’s this Google map put up by blogger Random Salt, which details the official response. Each pin marks an area the NDCC says it attended to, the different pin colors referring to different dates, and you’ll see the official response was much more limited than the emergencies reported by the public.

And the efforts of citizens to coordinate and inform, to take up the slack left by officials, continues with relief still going on and new initiatives to inform and assist, like Bayanihan Online, springing up.

Ondoy wasn’t the first typhoon to cause flooding on an amazing scale; here’s a photo published in the SkyScraperCity forums, from the first decades of the 20th Century, of the Philippine General Hospital with Taft Avenue turned into a river.

It seems every generation’s condemned to chronicling the greatest flood ever, to date. In 1943, Trudl , wife of the Austrian conductor and refugee Herbert Zipper, made this watercolor of the Great Flood of November of that year –here’s Herran, today’s UN Avenue, waist-deep in water.

Blogger Random Salt’s put up a list of the worst typhoons of the Philippines from 1947 to 2006, with Typhoon Uring in 1991 costing the most lives, 5,101 and Typhoon Ruping in 1990, being the most costly in terms of damage done at over 10 billion pesos. We have yet to fully chronicle the cost in lives and property of Typhoons Ondoy and Peping.

Tonight we’re gong to go backwards and forwards. Backwards, to one of our most popular episodes ever, on the ultimately failed ambitions of past generations to rationally plan our national capitals. The Americans, who put together the Burnham Plan, had a beautiful plan except that within three decades of it being drawn up, Manila itself had already outgrown it.

Over congestion, and problems like flooding, led to a new plan for a new capital city, and if you remember that show we also detailed the plans drawn up for Quezon City by an American consultant, Harry Frost.

You’ll recall that Frost did a thorough study of where to best locate a capital city that would have dense urban areas together with large areas of greenery for health and as we’ll see, safety.

But the plans kept being changed; where Frost had designated the National Capitol, by the postwar years, another plan altogether now designated it the Quezon Memorial. But as you’ll see from this image, even the plans for the Quezon Memorial Circle were never completed.

Places meant to be fairly spacious, like the large lot designated by Frost for the new Malacanan, became, instead, the Veterans Memorial Hospital; and the areas of park land designated in the plan were rapidly built up –with consequences that would be felt half a century after the original plans were modified or abandoned.

For example, in our urban planning episode, the national capitol, meant to be built under the 1940 Frost Plan, in what’s now the Quezon Memorial Circle, was moved under a 1950s revision, to today’s Batasan Pambansa site. Under the 1940 Frost Plan, today’s Batasan was supposed to be where the Philippine Military Academy would be established. Again, the consequences of this would be felt over half a century after the modifications were made.

The reality we live in today, with no capital master plan ever having been completed, is that we have no real capital; we have a region that serves the functions of a capital, and it’s a broad area called Metro Manila set up by President Marcos –but without a strong central authority as he envisioned it. After Edsa, the powers of the Metro Manila Authority that once had a Governor, namely Imelda Marcos, were removed. Today’s MMDA and its chairman has very limited powers but a lot of responsibility, the worst possible situation in a time of emergency.

This is something to bear in mind because, as this Newsbreak article recently asked, people are asking, who’s to blame for the flooding? There are political, natural (meaning geographical and environmental) and sociological reasons. Political reasons include the Local Government Code, which empowered local governments financially, giving them an incentive to approve, say, the building of residential villages in flood-prone areas, while the national government lacks the power to compel LGU’s to cooperate: so these are political problems. These tie in to natural problems: some areas are really prone to flooding; and sociological ones: too many people producing too many garbage, too many who are too poor to live anywhere else but in dangerous areas in times of calamity.

A few years ago, the New Zealand social and environmental historian Greg Bankoff published this feature on Vulnerability and Flooding in Metro Manila. In it, he discussed the trends that essentially made the devastation of Ondoy a disaster waiting to happen.

First, he pointed out that since 1939, the number of people living in what we call Metro Manila has risen from slightly under a million inhabitants to over 10 million as of 2000; today, of course, the figure’s closer to 12 million.

The other is a question of geography; the National Capital Region, he wrote, is situated in a semi-alluvial flood plain, straddled by Manila Bay on the West and Laguna de Bay, on the South-East. This area used to have a natural drainage system but as more people live in the NCR, the more these natural systems are modified, eliminated, or simply overwhelmed when storms come along.

Bankoff says this brings up the question of garbage. Based on 1995 figures, only 71 percent of the garbage we produce is actually taken away and disposed of; 29 percent simply stays in our communities –much of it dumped on vacant lots or thrown into waterways. So 55 to 157 tons of garbage finds its way into canals and esteros, piling up and blocking drains.

Still, Bankoff wrote, we do learn from past experiences. In 1972 there were horrific floods in Metro Manila and the government embarked on flood control in a big way. Between 1974 and 1978, seven pumping stations, two floodgates, and four drainage mains were built; in 1980 the 10 kilometer long Mangahan Floodway, of which we’ll learn more later, was begun, to channel water from the Marikina River to Laguna de Bay as an emergency drain. The Napindan Hydraulic Control Structure was built to control water, in turn, flowing out of Laguna de Bay.

But as we’ve experienced, all this effort has proven insufficient to control floods. We’ll look more closely at the reasons why, when we return.




Let’s begin with this map of Metro Manila, as published in Greg Bankoff’s article. See the grey splotches? Those are what he identified as the flood-prone areas of the Metropolis. Mainly Navotas, Manila itself, Pasay City,  Taguig, and parts of Marikina. Compare that image from a few years back to this one, put together by Newsbreak and published on The areas with blue blotches are what actually got flooded due to Typhoon Ondoy.

You might’ve noticed the flooding was even more extensive that what Bankoff expected, particularly here in the Marikina area.

Here’s the two maps, side by side, the flood-prone areas as written up by Bankroft, the actually-flooded areas as reported by Newsbreak. The first point to realize about these maps is, those who’ve studied these things and people in the area have known for ages where it tends to flood. And in fact, in the past, these natural realities were taken into account in environmental planning for cities.

Kenneth Cardenas, an MA Sociology student in UP Diliman, began an article to inquire into this situation, in his FaceBook account. He noticed in the news, for example, that  “large areas of the east bank of the Marikina River—the exact same areas that were subjected to a massive flash flood—should not have been settled in the first place. Plans that have been drawn up in 1977 called for limits on construction in these areas and public works designed to withstand even the once-in-a-century flooding.”

He also identified that in Quezon City, “a ridge along the west bank of the Marikina River, which should have been preserved as a watershed, was paved over as exclusive subdivisions (such as La Vista, Loyola Grand Villas, Blue Ridge, and Ayala Heights), schools (Ateneo de Manila and Miriam College) or settled as slums.”

In fact,  according to Cardenas, “the 1941 Frost Plan for Quezon City identified a protected area on the west bank that stretched from the Batasan area in the north down to Libis in the south.” I for one, was worried sick over a friend and his family stranded for days in their flooded house, in the vicinity of Eastwood in Libis.

But planning’s one thing; even if as far back as 1940, city planner knew where it flooded, because of geography, and planned accordingly, and set aside wide areas of greenery to serve as a natural sponge, so to speak…

…this land became increasingly valuable to real estate developers, the government units that profit from the fees and businesses these developments create, and an expanding population demanding places to live.

Cardenas says the result is this: what was meant to be park land –a healthy place for relaxation and recreation under the 1940 Frost Plan for Quezon City- has, by today, instead become a place for slums, a golf course, and villages. A density never intended by the original planners.

Which brings us to Paolo Alcazaren, who’s guested on this show, and his recent Philippine Star column on why Singapore and Malaysia were able to put in fairly effective flood-control infrastructure and we Filipinos, on the other hand, have failed. The Singaporeans and Malaysians, he said, realized the benefits of parkland and green spaces, and preserved them, precisely because of their environmental contribution to flood control. At the same time, with powerful national governments, extensive well-planned –looking ahead not 20 or 30 years but decades further than that- could be undertaken.

Alcazaren pointed out that much of our flood control infrastructure dates to the martial law era; the Manggahan floodway, for example.

Here’s a Wikipedia Map of the Flood Plain of Marikina, and what Manggahan does, the blue-green line here, connecting the Marikina River to Laguna de Bay. The problem is, if both river and lake are suddenly filled up, because the surrounding areas of Marikina –the big blue blotches here- can’t even slow down the draining of water by temporarily absorbing them, then the whole thing turns into a really big blue blotch of flooded homes.

Eugene Villar, in his popular blog VistaPinas, points out why Provident Village, the scene of so many tragic stories during Ondoy’s floods, ended up the way it did. Located at the corner of two major zigzag bends of the Marikina river, the development’s only a few meters above river level. When the river burst its banks, Provident flooded.

Returning to a finding of Cardenas, he also points out that as the middle class and upper classes look for someone to blame, the easiest thing to do is blame the poor –but he says comparing our situation with Indonesia’s is instructive. We have similar per capita income; but why is it that 41% of poor Filipinos live in slums, often in vulnerable areas, while only 23% of Indonesia’s urban poor live in slums?

Which brings us back to Provident Village, a middle class enclave surrounding by all sorts of communities, rich and poor essentially sharing the same risks –risks that planners generations ago believed no one should be allowed to take. It’s not difficult to conclude, then, that what we have here is a chronic failure of planning and resource-providing, on the part of local and national governments.

This rather confusing image shows you what the people we’ve cited tonight mean. In olden times this whole area would have been filled with creeks and with a historical tendency to flood; today it’s a big urban sprawl of shanties, gated communities, factories, roads. The areas within the magenta circles are places that flooded badly; you’ll see that in some cases they coincide with relatively new public works like this stretch of C-5 along Ateneo or down here in Libis, or this part of Imelda Avenue, that may have sliced through natural drainage or older man-made drains. What nature had designed as a kind of soggy sponge, which environmental and urban planners over sixty years ago believed should be an unbuilt, green space shielding the rest of the metropolis, has been turned by the private sector, with the OK of government, into places where the public will have to confront the problem of flooding over and over again.

So even as this Manila Times article asks, do we need to draw up a new coordinating authority, with greater powers, for emergencies, the question remains: even as local and national government registered a catastrophic failure in their response to disaster, have we, the people, actually put in conditions that make these catastrophies inevitable?

I’d like to invite you to Google this blog, Random Salt, to see how the blogger chronicled the first 48 hours of the flooding. You’ll find it informative, if horrifying, reading. And then join us later tonight, as we’ll tackle this question: with so many good plans ignored, what plans are in place to improve flood-control? And can it even be done with our existing laws and political setup?


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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