The Long View: Ignoring plans has a price

The Long View
Ignoring plans has a price
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 02:21:00 10/08/2009

In 2003, the New Zealand social and environmental historian Greg Bankoff published a map of Metro Manila, with grey splotches that he identified as the flood-prone areas of the metropolis, mainly Navotas, Manila itself, Pasay City, Taguig, and parts of Marikina. That map coincides almost exactly with one put together by Newsbreak and published on showing the places that actually got flooded due to Storm “Ondoy.”

However, the flooding was even more extensive than what Bankoff expected in some places, particularly in the Marikina area. Still, the first point to realize is that those who have studied these things and people in the area have known for ages where it tends to flood. And in the past, these natural realities were taken into account in environmental planning for cities.

Kenneth Cardenas, an MA Sociology student in University of the Philippines Diliman, began an article to inquire into this situation, in his Facebook account of all places. 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 noted 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 University 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, Quezon City.

But planning is one thing. Even if as far back as 1940, city planners 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, such lands became increasingly valuable to real estate developers, the government units that profit from the fees and businesses such 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 Paulo Alcazaren, 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 park land and green spaces, and preserved them, precisely because of their 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) flood control projects could be undertaken.

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

On Wikipedia you’ll find a map of the flood plain of Marikina, and what Manggahan does, which is, to connect 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 can’t even slow down the draining of water by temporarily absorbing them, then the whole thing turns into a morass of flooded homes.

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

Let me try to describe to you a graphic provided by Armando N. Alli, focusing on the parts of Marikina and Quezon City that in olden times 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. Alli marked out areas in magenta as the places that flooded badly. In some cases they coincide with relatively new public works, like the stretch of C-5 along Ateneo or in Libis, or part of Imelda Avenue. Such places 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 60 years ago believed should be 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. The road works, for example, serve as dikes, retaining water since they’re higher than the surrounding areas, worsening the flooding.

So do we need to draw up a new coordinating authority, with greater powers for emergencies? Yes, but 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?

Many expect this to become an electoral issue everywhere in the country where floods have caused unprecedented devastation.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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