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Taming the fury of flood and the greed of man

(Article published in the May 18,2011 issue of Manila Standard Today) 

The grim report of the Office of Civil Defense (OCD) Officer-in-charge Director Ronald Flores said it all: Typhoon Bebeng left 13 people dead, displaced 21,320 families or 111,473 persons from 150 flood and landslide-stricken villages in 17 municipalities, five cities and six provinces in Bicol Region, Eastern Visayas and Metro Manila.  Bebeng was a wake-up call for Metro Manila, roughing up Manila Bay as violently as its floods shook the hearts of its many inhabitants who bore fury of the storm’s wrath. 

According to Nathaniel von Einsiedel, a Fellow at the Institute of Environmental Planners, in his article “Flooding in Metro Manila: Can It Ever Be Solved?” published recently by Tao Pilipinas, an NGO magazine and from which I draw heavily for this piece, Manila is no stranger to floods; floods has been part of the city’s daily life since at least the 19th century.

Fast forward to the past 50 years or so. In the ‘50s, areas below the flood line of 1.25 meters above sea level, such as Tondo, Sampaloc, and Sta. Mesa, and low-lying areas in Quezon City, were regularly flooded. Urbanization in the hills east of Manila and the structures along the banks of the Pasig River severely restricted the width and depth of the tidal channels. Within 10 years, almost 70 percent of the city was subject to floods of 3.6 to 4.5 meters in height.  In the squatter area of Tatalon, the level reached 6.1 meters at one time.  To blame were the fast pace of urban expansion, particularly paved roads and building complexes that enlarged impervious surface areas, the deforestration of Marikina and Montalban watersheds and the encroachment upon and even disappearance of esteros (of about 21 kilometers which could have been waterways) restricted the dispersal of flood waters and focused their flow on the unfortunate low sites.


By 1970, floodwaters had turned brown and murky indicating that the already serious soil erosion had worsened; silt and garbage clogged whatever remained to be water-passable, making floods a daily fare for those in Malabon and Navotas as well as in the lower areas of Manila, Quezon City, Pasay and San Juan. 

Laguna Lake, one of Manila’s receptacles, started showing wear and tear in the ‘80s.  Its holding capacity, on account of the deposited silt, was reduced by 64%; the increase in waters rushing down from the bald watersheds in turn raised the lake’s level by 2.7 meters.  What used to be agricultural lands in Marikina, Cainta, Pateros and Taguig were turned into residential subdivisions.  It was not surprising that typhoon “Meding” in 1986 caused floods that covered about 104 square kilometers, translated for our better appreciation, to over 16% of Metro Manila.

The ’90 saw more of the same, only this time, worse, particularly for those in the south and south-east and, in the north, the cities of Caloocan, Malabon, Navotas and Valenzuela.  The heavy rains of July 28, 1995, May 28, 1996 and August 18, 1997 trapped vehicles all night; at the same time giving Metro Manila numerous cases of cholera, leptospirosis, and other infectious diseases.

And, as for the first ten years of the new millennium, the floods are still too fresh in our collective memory to require retelling.  More productive will be to examine the reasons why Metro Manila is perennially flooded.

 Undoubtedly, as pointed in the UNDRO report I had given exposure to in my previous pieces, the combination of  topographic, hydrological and meteorogical conditions predispose Metro Manila to frequent flooding.  But over and above nature risks, Metro Manila is made all the more vulnerable by human activity. 

These activities include, not necessarily in the order of the degree of their rapacity, (a) rapid and massive rise in the size and density of the population; (b) improper land management and environmental protection; (c) inadequate solid waste management; (d) overdependence and reliance on infrastructure and technological solutions; and (e) lack of coordination, if not cooperation, among the public agencies responsible for flood control and disaster management.  There is no need, at this time, to go into the gory details.

What is heartening to note, though, in the von Einsiedel article is that while the situation is serious, the prognosis is not hopeless.  “…if Metro Manila is to develop as a flood-free mega-city [and not just espouse the useful but short-term strategy of disaster preparedness], its 17 component cities,” claims von Einsiedel, “need to look beyond the confines of their respective jurisdictions and accept the fact that they are parts and parcels of a single floodplain, a vast urbanized drainage basin which does not respect political boundaries.  If this acceptance is achieved, then the preparation of an ecologically-based regional plan can proceed.  Unless this happens, Metro Manila will likely not only remain vulnerable but even become highly susceptible to more frequent and severe disasters in the face of climate change.”

 The man who can and ought to make that crucial acceptance by the component cities happen is, I believe, my former student and internationally recognized public official, Atty. Francis Tolentino.  He was able, at least in the roads where I personally drive my run-down car, able to facilitate the flow of traffic; he ought to be able to minimize, if not totally eliminate, the flow of flood in Metro Manila.