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'Lungsod iskwater, lungsod disaster'

CITY SENSE - Paulo Alcazaren () - March 19, 2011 - 12:00am

The Japanese, and the whole world with them, are reeling from the three-pronged disaster over the last week. The 9.0 earthquake, 10-meter high tsunami, and the nuclear plant failure have severely tested the disaster-preparedness of a country already known for their high level of readiness and robust infrastructure.

The death toll is in the thousands and damage to property in the billions. The figures on human and physical loss would no doubt be much worse if not for decades of formalized disaster-risk mitigation seen in earthquake drills and a building code that looks not only on individual buildings but also on the larger scale of city and regional planning. The Japanese have provisions such as adequate open space for refuge, zoning based on rational city planning, services and soil-bearing capacities, and road access to possible disaster zones.

All this brings to light doubts about our own preparedness when such calamities strike us (and from numerous scientific studies, they will). I was called in for several interviews on television to weight in on related matters of our National Building Code, the preparedness of Philippine cities and what steps to take to escape disaster.

Inescapable Realities

We cannot escape the reality that we are in the “ring of fire” — that belt of volcano-dotted archipelagos around the Pacific Ocean that make earthquakes a fact of life. No amount of legislation or prayers will stop earthquakes from hitting us in the Philippines. Filipinos will die from earthquakes (in fact, Filipinos are victims of calamities worldwide since there is no place now where there are no Filipinos — another fact symptomatic of our national dysfunction).

When asked how we could save lives if a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami hits Metro Manila, I answered that we could immediately save over 200,000 city dwellers from death and injury. This is a conservative estimate of informal settlers (the politically-correct term for what people used to call squatters) living in the most hazardous parts of the city — along the sea walls, ports and reclamation areas, and along the West Valley fault line. Even a tsunami half the size of the one that hit Japan would wipe them all out.

Neal Oshima’s powerful images convey the stark danger of life at the ocean’s edge.

Informal settlers are, in fact, the most exposed to natural disasters like earthquakes and semi-man-made ones like flooding. I say that because Ondoy’s wrath could have been tempered if we heeded rational planning protocols for easements along rivers, the conservation of upland forests and the provision of large open green spaces; instead of recklessly building in high-risk zones and covering every inch of open ground with concrete or asphalt.

These issues, among others, are brought up in a new book that was just launched last Thusday. Lungsod Iskwater: The Evolution of Informality as a Dominant Pattern in Philippine Cities, is a critical look at “squatter settlements,” their urban form and the historical, economic and cultural contexts that have and continue to engender them as a defining reality of urban areas nationwide.

I, along with Luis Ferrer, former dean of the College of Architecture at the UST, and Bing Icamina, and urban economist, wrote the texts. The extensive photography in the 251-page large format book was by Neal Oshima. The book was a project of the Luis A. Yulo Foundation for Sustainable Development and the brainchild of Toni Yulo Loyzaga (now the head of the Manila Observatory at the Ateneo de Manila) with the help of Ruth Roa, who sadly passed away early in the 10-year span it took the book to see light. Anvil Publishing Inc. published and is exclusively distributing the book.

New York, Manila — A Century Apart

Toni first approached me about the book project at the turn of the millennia, when the foundation had hosted a series of symposia on sustainable development. I quickly jumped at the chance to bring to the public a glimpse “how the other half” lives.

The writers and Neal Oshima were aware that the task was similar to Jacob Riis’ late 19th century exposé of the squalid living conditions in the slums of New York. Riis’ writing and illustrations in his seminal book How the Other Half Lives helped improve life for their urban poor and contributed to a movement of city-improvement that would help form the basis of modern American city planning (with ordinances for zoning and provision of complete urban services).

The book is an analytical exercise and admittedly not a fully comprehensive one, but one that hopes to bring more resources to the subject; first to look at the phenomenon of “informality” and then to provide a body of knowledge from which to craft correctives to the negative aspects of informality as well as take advantage of those positive attributes of “informality.”

This 1895 illustration clearly shows one of the first informal settlers along the train line from Manila to Dagupan.

Yes, one of the most important insights from the book and its images is that informal settlements are essentially not a scourge but a self-help solution …to the problem of society and the government not providing access to affordable housing, livelihood and basic services. This is not to say that informal settlements are the best solution, but the only recourse to millions of Filipinos marginalized by the nationwide miasma of politics, greed and a corrupted economy.

The book was difficult to write and photograph because sources for the writing was scarce and logistics to enter informal settlements in metro Manila was fraught with difficulties. Luckily Toni and Debbie Tolentino, who took over Ruth’s mantle, were able to network with the dozens of urban poor NGOs to allow the team opportunities to photograph and more importantly interact with informal settlers themselves. At the end of several years of writing and photography we were able to give award-winning book designer Felix Miguel more than enough material to craft together.

Formalizing Disasters

I do hope to highlight aspects of the book and its contents in this column in the future. Right now, we all struggling to take in the magnitude of the catastrophe in Japan and its implications to the Japanese, the rest of the world and ourselves.

Other columnists in this paper have already cited the Metropolitan Manila Earthquake Impact Reduction Study (MMEIRS) by the MMDA and JICA (Japanese International Cooperation Agency). The projections for loss of life if a 7.2 earthquake hits us is upwards of 50,000 while injuries would be over a hundred thousand.

I must point out though that the inputs to the study are close to 10 years old and that the metropolis has changed appreciably in the last 10 years — at least a million more people live in it (more potential victims), a few thousand more structures have already been added to its finite land area (it’s not just the structural integrity of your building but that of your neighbors — they could fall on you), 10 more years have added to the age of then extant public infrastructure (which, in the light of perceived corruption in the DPWH, is worrisome), a few hundred more gigantic billboards have sprouted on steel frames that do not ever seem to be maintained or repainted (and will fall in an 8.0 earthquake).

The informality that defines the communities of our urban poor also affect the rest of us, in the context of the larger metropolis. Zoning is mostly a joke and many LGU officials bend over backwards to accommodate monstrous developments without nary a thought to environmental impacts on communities. Civil defense, despite some efforts by a resource and authority-deficient MMDA, is at most token (a few dozen emergency trucks cannot cover an area larger than Singapore with a population twice that of the Lion City). LGU monitoring of structures and construction is also spotty — note the recent construction mishaps, the lack of records to show where key utilities run under the city, the in-utility of fire departments to cope (hence all the volunteer fire squads).

A map from the Ateneo’s Manila Observatory shows the damage from Ondoy and the extent of future flooding.

A Faulty Urban Memory

Add to all these, a communal short memory. We may forget the Japanese devastation …most probably in the build up to Manny Pacquiao’s fight, or the next corruption exposé. We have had several studies over the decades to warn us of the folly of unregulated urban growth. We have known about the West Valley fault line and its repercussions to city expansion ever since the plans to move the capital to Quezon City in 1949. I have a copy of a report from the UP about it to the National Capital City Planning Commission …and recommendations from the planners then to leave all of Marikina (and by implication all along the West Valley fault from Montalban to Pasig, Taguig, Parañaque, Muntinlupa to Cavite) as green and open as a limit to metropolitan growth.

The hazard maps for metro Manila and material from the Manila Observatory are in the Lungsod Iswater book for everyone’s reference. These and other maps are available from various sites on the web (just Google earthquake or tsunami maps for Manila).

On hindsight we should have titled the book Lungsod Iswater: Lungsod Disaster. In the light of all the above, the specter of climate change, the propensity of government to just solve problems with investigations and press cons, the numbness of the general public to countless woes (not just from corrupt generals), the total informality and haphazardness of Metro Manila’s planning (it won’t help that you are in a gated community if everything around you is in shambles and burning) ….if we do nothing, then we might as well pray.

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Feedback is welcome. Please e-mail the writer at paulo.alcazaren@gmail.com. Lungsod Iskwater: The Evolution of Informality as a Dominant Pattern in Philippine Cities is available at all branches of Best Sellers, National Book Store and Powerbooks.

BOOK CENTER CITY MANILA MANILA OBSERVATORY NEAL OSHIMA URBAN WEST VALLEY
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