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10 reasons why it floods in Manila

Manila has been flooding for hundreds of years yet we never learn from the past.

Floods do not respect political boundaries and will flow from one city to the next yet we continue to address flooding (as well as all other urban problems) within the confines of individual LGUs. It does not make sense.

It’s raining season once again and we face the yearly problem of flooding in Metro Manila. I keep getting calls from broadcast media asking for interviews about the problem, its historical origins and urban redevelopment solutions. Giving these interviews I feel like a broken record enumerating the reasons for floods in the metropolis, so I figure it would be good just to list them once and for all.

This list may not contain all the reasons but these, in my opinion, are the major ones:

1. It floods because it rains; the rains and the typhoons that bring them have increased in magnitude. Yes, it’s climate change. To deny this is futile. It’s here now and it makes all historical flood levels, well, history. The paths of typhoons have also become unpredictable (not that we have enough weather men to predict them — many of our good ones have left for better-paying jobs overseas). Typhoons now cross parts of the archipelago that did not use to have them regularly and so people are caught unprepared. Despite these changes in patterns, Metro Manila still gets dumped with rain, especially since its total area, and population in this area, is equivalent to or larger than most provinces and many regions in the country.

2. It floods because of population and urbanization. Metro Manila has a population of 12 million and counting. Urbanization, specifically urban sprawl is a manifestation of all these millions living together and needing houses, buildings, roads, parking lots and infrastructure. All these cover ground that used to be open and able to absorb much of the storm water that fell on the metropolis. In our lifetimes we’ve seen fringes of the metropolis gobbled up and transformed from cogon and rice fields to thousands of subdivisions, hundreds of shops and malls, hectares of paved-over parking lots, dozens of business districts. All this hard covering serves to channel all the storm water much faster into an already inadequate drainage system designed when the reality was much more open land and much less rain. The open ground before served to mitigate the volume of rain that flowed into these drains, esteros and our rivers. We also had more plant cover and trees in the metropolis to help sop up all this water.

3. It floods because the rain comes down from denuded uplands. Metro Manila floods come from elevated surrounding regions, all the way up to the Sierra Madres. There, we have lost almost all of our original forest cover from illegal logging. All this forest cover lost makes millions of hectares of upland a bald watershed that flows freely into the metropolis. This situation is repeated around almost all major urban areas in the country. The source is upstream and this is where solutions should start, although it is among the longest-term solutions. We need to recover our forest cover to reduce the amount of rain that floods our low-level metropolis.

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4. Metro Manila is not only low but it is sinking. Ground water extraction due to deep wells is causing major areas of the metropolis to sink. The north section of CAMANAVA and the southern cities from Pasay onwards have sunk from a foot to over a meter and this has made those areas more vulnerable to floods and storm surges. Scientists have pointed to the fact that this flattening has increased the reach of storm surges from the seaside to as much as 20 kilometers inland. So we get it from both ends in a perfect storm — from the mountains and from the sea. The ground is also sinking due to the weight of all that concrete, buildings and infrastructure mentioned in reason no. 2 above.

5. It floods because we have less drainage than before. Reports have it that we have lost almost half of our metropolitan esteros and canals. We used to have over 40 kilometers of them and now we only have about 20. Many have been lost to development, disappearing without a trace (now it regularly floods where they used to be of course).

6. It floods because many of those esteros, canals and waterways of our metropolis we have left are chock-full of informal settlers. Because there are no alternatives for low-income mass housing, desperate people settle in desperate areas. These settlements have little by way of solid waste management and sewers. All these go to the waterways, filling many of them so solid that dogs can cross over them. And we wonder why it floods. Many of these drainage ways and easements were identified in the several master plans made for Manila and Quezon City. Planners had allocated as much as 50 meters of space on either side of these but greed set in and these easements disappeared and what little was left are now our favelas teeming with millions.

7. It floods because the main flood control system started in the ’70s was never completed. The Manggahan floodway was only one half of the picture. It was meant to channel floodwater into Laguna Bay. The lake was meant only as a holding area and the excess water was to have been flushed from there to Manila Bay via the Parañaque spillway. That spillway was never built. To build it now would cause trillions and urban sprawl has seen its path covered with more millions of people and thousands of structures.

8. It floods because what little left of our drains and flood control infrastructure is ill-maintained. Reaching many of them is a problem because of informal settlements. Overlapping jurisdictions of local and national agencies conspire to dissipate responsibility and funding for this vital task of ensuring our drains are unclogged and free. It’s just like homeowners not cleaning their gutters of debris before a rainy season. When the typhoons come, the gutters overflow.

9. It floods because urban development is unplanned and unfettered. Mega-developments that see clusters of 30 to 40-storey towers on retail podiums surrounded by hectares of parking cause havoc in districts planned with drainage infrastructure meant for low-density development. Because there is a lack of planning context (actually a lack of any planning at all), all drainage, road and traffic infrastructure is useless to carry the additional load — that’s why most flooded areas are also traffic-clogged.

10. The final reason it floods in this short list (and there are many other reasons) is politics. Metro Manila is made up of 16 cities and one town (Pateros). Floods do not respect political boundaries and will flow from one city to the next yet we continue to address flooding (as well as all other urban problems) within the confines of individual LGUs. It does not make sense. Politics also conspires to keep informal settlers where they are because they represent votes.

The overlapping jurisdictions is also exacerbated by another layer — that of national government and yet a third layer, that of the MMDA. The ultimate fourth layer of discord is the fact that the source of floods is beyond the political jurisdiction of Metro Manila and in the hands of the provinces around it. Any sustainable solution to flooding must be at this regional context and the assumption that, within the metropolis, governance is rationalized to address this one big problem as one effort, not the effort of 17 government units, the MMDA and national agencies. Politics has divided and conquered us… and it is also drowning us in yearly and constant floods.

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