Fronting the Weather: Filipino Urban Poor amid floods, peril

Since August 6 and 7, 2012, the Philippines has been battered by a series of flash floods and landslides caused by steady monsoon rainfall. At least 90 people have been confirmed dead, with the majority of casualties occurring in the capital region and nearby provinces. Floods have soaked more than 3 million people, and a state of calamity has been declared in Manila and nearby provinces.

The equivalent of one full month of regular rainfall was dumped on Metro Manila in just 48 hours. The torrential downpour left over 80% of the metropolis submerged in water, in some areas reaching depths of 6 and a half feet. Houses, businesses, and entire livelihoods for hundreds of thousands of people have been completely displaced. Though flood levels has subsided in much of the city, many people are still reluctant to leave their inundated properties and valuables.

The worst hit have been the most impoverished districts of Manila, where thousands of urban poor have settled in shanties along waterways and other flood-prone areas.

#ReliefPH

Relief efforts have been spearheaded by progressive people’s organizations. The patriotic alliance Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) and progressive party-list groups under the Makabayan Coalition have taken action to assist those severely affected by the rains. Relief goods and food are being distributed to flood victims. Anakbayan, a comprehensive, national democratic mass organization of Filipino youth, has reached communities currently not covered by ongoing relief and rescue operations.

Their efforts to provide immediate emergency help notwithstanding, people’s organizations decried the government’s inadequate response to such disasters. “The vulnerability of the said areas due to decades of environmental destruction have been compounded by the U.S-Aquino regime’s neglect of disaster preparedness and policies that smack of callousness against the people,” Vencer Crisostomo, national chairperson of Anakbayan-Philippines, said in an online statement.

Schools, gyms and other community centres are turned into evacuation centres. These buildings are filled to capacity, with crowds of evacuees huddling in groups outside. At least 400,000 people are currently availing of emergency shelter. Many in the centres do not have enough to eat. In many cases, these shelters are also swamped. Official government rescue operations, including boats, were insufficient to rescue the majority of affected citizens. Neighbourhood camaraderie and the utilization of nearby resources such as commercial tricycles served as many people’s sole method of aid.

Cold Weather of Austerity

President Benigno Aquino III and his retinue ventured out after the deluge, staying dry atop an army truck, smiling and waving to victims, who were standing knee-deep in the murky waters. The entourage visited several evacuation centres and distributed relief packages to flood victims.

With cold weather of austerity as his political agenda, Aquino cancelled a flood control masterplan after he was sworn into office. Dubbed “Post Ondoy and Pepeng Short-Term Infrastructure Rehabilitation Project after the two typhoons ravaged the country in 2010,” the program seems to be denied because it was brought out by the previous administration. Aquino even further refused to build a spillway that is intended to permanently prevent siltation of Laguna de Bay. The construction of a dam on the Marikina river and improvements to the Pasig and Marikina river embankments are considered top-priority projects on the list. Also on the list are improvements to Manila area storm drains. Now all of a sudden, the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) revealed that there is a PhP352 billion budget for flood mitigation set to be completed by 2035.

In conjunction with these propositions is to evict some 125,000 families currently living in Metro Manila and at least 70,000 more in areas surrounding the nearby lake. Recent comments by the president as quoted by the public works minister suggest that when time comes for action, ‘blasting’ people in slums in what they perceive as danger zones would be their call.

Echoing the cruel sentiments of the President, the mainstream Philippine media has become a cacophony of tongue-wagging, attempting to pin the blame for the crisis squarely on the shoulders of the people affected, the vast majority of whom are urban poor and peasants. Accusing the people of being “hard-headed,” “foolish”, and other derogatories for squatting on waterways, these mouthpieces of the Philippine elite refuse to acknowledge the role that their masters have played in exacerbating the conditions leading to this tragedy. Also, it must be noted that the impact of the southwest monsoon reportedly exceeded the amount of precipitation from the notorious 2009 tropical storm Ondoy. The weather bureau recorded 687mm rainfall of the latest meteorological events.

But the current reactionary government cannot pull their acts together. For one thing, efforts to forcibly relocate the steadily increasing number of people occupying vulnerable areas have never succeeded in the past. Local authorities tend to limit their social welfare function and breed informal settlers as dependents to secure their vested interests, such as to get votes during election period.

Second, it has failed to deliver a national shelter program, a key framework which the government blindly dismantled in favour of a neo-liberal, market-driven approach since the 90s. As a result, housing sector has met a paltry 26% of the target and fall short at an acute backlog of over one million units.

The government has relentlessly pursued a policy of paving way for condominium and retail development instead. Of the 15 largest malls in the world, three are in the country’s capital region. A culture of consumerism prevails making malling a way of life, mall owners as multibillionaires and developers at the helm of environmental destruction. As how the book on informal settlements, Lunsod Iskwater, puts it: “(Metro Manila) is increasingly defined by a reality of social segregation, economic inequity and political inutility. All of these held precariously together by a crumbling physical framework and the disappearance of a sense of community”.

Finally, with the country’s lack of a true nationalistic industrial character–exporting its citizens to imperialist countries for remittances, failing to equitably distribute arable land which has remained in the hands of a few wealthy families, and allowing foreign multinational corporations to reap immense profits at the expense of regular Filipinos and the environment–the Aquino administration naturally bears the brunt and should be held fully responsible for the recent events that have transpired.

Comparative satellite images (taken 1989 and 2012) of Metropolitan Manila, the most densely populated city in the world, show how much urbanization expanded in almost 25 years, bringing significant problems to the environment.

Big Plans, Not ‘Blasting’

For a country visited by more than 20 storms every year, key measures must be undertaken to avoid tragedies that may arise. Flood control can only do so much. Long-term plans for disaster prevention must be the tenet in urban and regional planning. The practice of destroying forested areas on the outskirts of Manila, especially in the Sierra Madre regions, in order to entice foreign companies in carrying out their mining operations must be put to an end. Natural catchwater basins must instead be re-planted and protected.

Artificial drainage systems, essential to disaster risk reduction, must be routinely cleaned. Dams must lower their water levels in anticipation of monsoon rains, to avoid the spillover from local dams such as the La Mesa, the floodgates of which were only opened at the last minute when it was filled to its brim. The hugely profitable Philippine telecom companies must provide free early-warning text messages to their customers to better prepare for impending calamities.

Decent, proper and adequate housing must be provided for families squatting along waterways or wherever the state deems them to be staying illegally. Demolishing their houses simply feeds a cycle through which they, or new families, occupy other neglected portions of the city. Relocating these families to remote areas without a means of livelihood is cruel and belies the government’s devotion to the socioeconomic well-being of its citizenry.

Plans to evict tens of thousands of families in the city are just the latest in a long-running series of close collaborations between the Aquino administration and real-estate developers. The documentary “Puso ng Lungsod (Heart of the City)” released by Pinoy Media Centre recently captures the struggles of urban poor families living in the face of eviction in Quezon City.

In another pocket demolition in the neighbouring Paranaque city, Silverio Compound turned into a people’s protest in April. The residents refused to give up their homes to Henry Sy, the wealthiest man in the Philippines. Police were deployed against the people, and one youth was shot dead. The proposed development bore the name Benigno S. Aquino III as a sponsor.  All over the Philippines, some 852 communities were burned down according to urban poor group Kadamay.

Dredging the Silt

Mired as the urban poor are in the deadening situation of the country, actions of solidarity to mobilize are needed to rebuild the losses and to assure sustainable deepening of political education. The only way to ensure the safety and livelihoods of the Filipino toiling masses is to advance the struggle for the cause of national democracy. The Philippines must break away from the grip of U.S. imperialism, along with local landlords, big capitalists, and their lapdogs in the corrupt machine of the Philippine government. Only then will a people-oriented development and industrialization be placed above the whims of the wealthy and powerful.

Progressive multisectoral groups in the Philippines have largely advocated for reaching out local communities of workers and urban poor, majority of whom have the most need to be involved in long-term and genuine social change, aside from the commitment to immediately donate.

Anakbayan-Toronto implores all Filipino-Canadians and friends to please give generously to relief efforts during this time of need. The Toronto chapter is also working in coordination with Migrante Canada to collect funds. Donations can be made through the following:

Anakbayan-Philippines paypal account: www.anakbayan.org/donate (click “Donate Now” on the right side of the page).

Account Name: Migrante Ontario
Bank: TD Canada Trust Acc# 06175260423
Email Transfer to: migrantecanada@gmail.com
Hotline number: 1-800-559-8092

REFERENCE:
Abon, Catherine. [2012] A Preliminary Analysis on the Impacts of Typhoon Gener and Habagat, Urban Housing and Disaster Response Alcazaren, Paulo, et al. [2011] Lungsod Iskwater: The Evolution of Informality as a Dominant Pattern in Philippine Cities. Manila: Anvil Publishing
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Landsat Missions Gallery, “Manila, Philippines” http://climate.nasa.gov/sof/#Urbangrowth_Philippines.jpg (accessed Aug 18, 2012)

Written by Dylan Hamada and Ysh Cabana

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