No photo Lessons from the deluge
CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren (The Philippine Star) Updated October 03, 2009 12:00 AM

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There are key factors that led to the Ondoy disaster: the blockage of the storm lines leading to the floodways, the uncontrolled and uncoordinated urban development, and the presence of informal settlers.
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One day it’s bright and sunny, the next day torrential rains inundate districts east and northeast of the city center. The 24-hour rainfall recorded reached 366 mm. There was some low flooding, but by the next day, the city was back to normal. Traffic flowed regularly and public works teams were clearing debris from localized areas. The flooding that remained in a few areas totally subsided within another day. No fatalities were reported

Obviously this was not Metro Manila. The city was Singapore, in an event that happened in December 2006. That was not their highest rainfall record and the city is hit with high rainfall a few times a year in fact. I should know, since I lived there for 12 years. Their highest recorded rainfall beats ours at 467 mm. in 1969. When that happened, central Singapore, in the Bukit Timak area, and even parts of Orchard Road were flooded.

Singapore Success

Immediately after, the Singapore government set out to rationalize its drainage and flood control system to make sure that the problem was addressed. Their main river was cleaned within a decade and a citywide drainage system was completed a little after that. It must be noted that in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the Philippines was economically ahead of Singapore, which had just separated from Malaya and was hit also by the setback of the withdrawal of the British’s military base. Yet, they saw the importance of comprehensive planning and infrastructure development.

One of the things I noted when I first started working on land development projects in Singapore (and to a great extent, too, in Malaysia, which is also subject to torrential monsoon rains) was their paranoia of storm water; hence, the preponderance of drains, open canals, culverts all around. What I noticed, too, was all the large green open spaces, parks and plating verges along major thoroughfares filled with vegetation — all, I found later — functioned also to absorb rainwater aside from keeping the city cool and green.

The Singaporean concern for flooding extended much into the ’80s as their drainage infrastructure system was finally set in place (and designed for future urban expansion decades in advance). I remember that on Orchard Road, we had to design building entrances with thresholds that had floor finish elevations centimeters higher than that 1969 historical record (their highest in a hundred years). The world-famous 12-meter-wide pedestrian paradise of Orchard Walk parallel to the road is actually a humongous drainage canal underneath. It is regularly cleaned and accessible by small service vehicles.

The success of Singapore’s flood and drainage system is attributable to proper urban and engineering planning, as well as to the fact that the entire citystate, which is as large as Metro Manila, is governed by one authority and government. There are no overlapping jurisdictions or political conflicts to compromise initiatives. The concept of imminent domain, which allows the state to consolidate needed land for public purposes like flood and drainage lines right-of-ways, is well established.

Another factor is that all development, private or public, is coordinated in terms of drainage elevations to ensure proper flows of storm water. All utility lines are documented and today, completely digitally recorded and accessible in a GIS system, so their public works and well-trained (and equipped) civil defense force can monitor any anomaly.

Metro Manila’s And NCR’S Failure

It is not as if we had not previously planned for metro expansion and needed infrastructure. Architect and planner Jun Palafox, on TV recently, highlighted the fact that there was a plan prepared by government in the late ’70s to address flooding. He did not have the time, however, to elaborate fully on that plan and why it failed (aside from the implication that it was never fully implemented). More complete information can be had from the e-groups and Internet chatter of the Philippine Institute of Environmental Planners, the United Architects of the Philippines, and the Philippine Association of Landscape Architects.

UAP stalwart and environmental planner Armando Alli, along with a number of his colleagues in allied professions, has noted several key factors that led to the Ondoy disaster. They pointed to the fact that most of the flooding occurred east of the Manggahan floodway. Factors that led to this was, as many saw firsthand, included the blockage of storm drain lines leading to the floodways, the uncontrolled and uncoordinated urban development of the basin all the way and up into Antipolo and the rest of Rizal province. They noted as well the presence of informal settlements in all these areas and on both sides of the floodway.

This sprawl, Alli and his colleagues and the landscape architects’ group led by landscape architect Frederick Altavas pointed out, has reduced forest and vegetative cover and the ability of the region to absorb rainfall. Storm water management is an aspect of proper planning that environmental planners and landscape architects address in developed countries. There the importance of rainwater harvesting, watershed management, wetland conservation, and phyto-mediation (using landscapes to mitigate storms and floods) is well entrenched in governance, public planning, and private development. We have Filipino professionals here well-versed in these areas, but no one listens to them or engages them in planning; much less in implementing any of these interventions (save for a few isolated private developers).

A History Of Forgotten Plans, Shortsightedness And Unmapped Failure

Alli, Altavas, and others have also pointed out what was mentioned earlier, — that governance and political turf conflicts may also have partly to do with the problem. Pasig, on the west, is a part of Metro Manila, while Cainta and Taytay is on the west part of Rizal province. Controls on either side may not be the same or even coordinated, the presence of a Regional Development Council notwithstanding. Disaster councils at city, provincial, and national levels do not seem to be well coordinated, or even communicate with each other. Disaster councils kick in only after, the fact and evaluation and physical infrastructural correctives after disasters seem not to be a priority for them or anyone else for that matter. The DPWH seems nowhere to be found nowadays nor does anyone seem to want to get them accountable for anything at all. Our collective memories for disasters, scandals, and political plunder are notoriously short, forgotten, as some point out, when the next one strikes or holiday season comes around.

Alli, et. al, also point out that a key element in that 1970s plan was the ParaƱaque Spillway. This was to relieve the Laguna de Bai of excess water. The government could not or would not get the right of way, or the money and plan disappeared. The lack of implementation and non-use of imminent domain has led to imminent and actual disasters on a seasonal basis. Alli points out that with the eventual moving of the airport to Clark or elsewhere, the opportunity to build this spillway lies in the re-purposing of the land parallel to the existing runway.

The environmental planners point to another shortness, too — that of planning outlooks. Twenty- to 30-year outlooks are too short, they say. The 1970s flood alleviation plan is in fact obsolete as the assumptions in terms of extent of urban sprawl have changed drastically and need to be reworked for any solution to be viable. The Laguna de Bai, too, has changed in its further degradation and silting. It reportedly has a depth of only three meters when in the ’70s it was twice that and at the turn of the century was over nine meters deep — allowing large ferries to ply from old Manila to lakeshore towns as well as absorb storm water.

It must be pointed out, too, that urban growth management and land use controls were with us as early as the late 1940s when the master plan for Quezon City and environs was set up by a group of Filipino and American, architects, planners, and landscape architects. The basin from Laguna to Marikina all the way up to Montalban was already identified as a greenbelt that was to be consolidated and conserved for functional as well as aesthetic purposes. The importance of maintaining these areas as agricultural and open land was further reinforced by the knowledge, as early as 1949, that a fault runs through the area all the way to Muntipula.

This leads to the last issue we have left with the space we have in this article — that of vulnerability and hazard mapping. Our Manila Metropolitan growth has to be planned and directed within a context of highest, best and, most importantly, safest use. Mapping is a key tool. I had wanted to see a map in any of the media and government reports that showed the effects of Ondoy. No such map seems to be forthcoming as no one seems to want to take responsibility.

Mapping what happened, and documenting complete technical details will lead to identifying critical areas as well as to defining possible steps to correct problems in a geographical, rational, and scientific context, free from the conflicts of local political boundaries, private developer greed, informal settler desperation, the general inutility of government and its dysfunctional leadership.

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Feedback is welcome. Please e-mail the writer at paulo.alcazaren@gmail.com.

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