Between Typhoons and Relocations, a Life Defined By Outside Forces

Manila | 01/08/2013 9:30am
Purple Romero | Informal City Dialogues

Many of Manila’s informal settlements are in low-lying areas and vulnerable to flooding. Photo by Sustainable sanitation via Flickr Creative Commons

Evangeline Bondoc, 62, still shudders when she thinks about the putrid water from a nearby river that crashed through her home on September 27, 2011. The surge from Typhoon Nesat tore her house apart as if it were made of matchsticks, and sent her and her family scrambling for their lives.

“Our house was ruined, the ceiling destroyed,” she says, standing outside her two-story home, a slapdash shanty of plywood, rusting iron sheets and tarpaulins. Pails and blue water containers are scattered about the periphery, and tattered sacks have been fashioned into a makeshift cover for what could have been a veranda. Motioning to her green wooden gate, Bondoc says, “This was ruined to pieces.”

Nesat was a harrowing storm for all of Manila. It left dozens dead and plunged large swathes of the city of nearly 13 million into darkness. But in Malabon, where Bondoc lives, floods happen even on the sunniest of days. The city — one of 16 cities that make up Metro Manila — sits below sea level and is surrounded by water; even an unusually high tide can flood it. Bondoc’s neighborhood of Bangkulasi faces a river colored coal black by garbage and waste discharged from factories. This fetid mixture of industrial chemicals and trash is the toxic brew that inundated her house that day.

Bondoc is one of the estimated 104,219 informal settlers in Metro Manila who live in what the government has declared to be the city’s “danger zones.” These settlers have constructed their houses near the many creeks, rivers, and estuaries of this waterlogged city, making them vulnerable to natural disasters — and not only themselves, but the city at large. Their presence in the danger zones diminishes the capacity of waterways to discharge water from rivers to lakes, a crucial component in mitigating the effects of flooding. So when tropical storms Parma and Ketsana hit the country in 2009, the slums erected along Manggahan Floodway constricted the 260-meter structure down to 220 meters, significantly blunting its effectiveness. Those storms displaced 300,000 families, including thousands of informal settlers.

Settlers face a daunting choice: stay in homes susceptible to flooding, or leave the city. Photo by Sustainable sanitation via Flickr Creative Commons

Officially speaking, this vulnerability to flooding is why the Manila government has pursued relocation efforts more vigorously than many other cities with informal settlements, though pressure from developers who want to build on the land where the slums exist, of course, is almost certainly a big part of the redevelopment equation. Like many slum dwellers here, Bondoc herself has been relocated before. In 1997, she was given a spot in a housing project developed by the Department of Public Works and Highways. The house was in Bulacan, a province two hours north of Metro Manila by public transportation.

Bondoc was only in her new place for three months, however, before she and her husband sold it for $500.

Her reason is the same one that nearly all settlers offer: they couldn’t find work in the boonies. Bondoc’s husband is a construction worker, and there are always more projects available in the city. So they returned to Malabon, where they and other formerly relocated residents built another slum. This is the story of modern Manila: Sisyphean government efforts to make people move to places where there is no work, followed by the relocated residents promptly moving right back to the city and rebuilding anew.

Ramon Espina from the Community Organizers Multiversity says the problem will never go away as long as the urban poor are not involved in decisions about their own relocation.

“It’s not a bad thing to relocate people,” says Espina. “The thing is, they are not consulted on where they want to be relocated.” That decision falls to a mishmash of government agencies, primarily the National Housing Authority (NHA), the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC) and the leaders of local government units such as mayors and governors.

The HUDCC is the umbrella agency that coordinates the financing, production and regulation of housing programs. The NHA is responsible for the direct production of houses. And the LGUs identify the informal settlers qualified for the socialized housing program before providing them basic facilities and developing the land-use plan.

The above government bodies, however, often choose less-than-ideal relocation sites, like Montalban, Rizal, a geohazard zone, and far-flung provinces like Bulacan and Cavite. And though the NHA provides relocated residents with job-training programs, Espina says this isn’t enough — families with already limited finances can’t simply start from scratch. According to the study “The Case of Metro Manila, Philippines” by environmental planner Junio Ragragio, the urban poor live on a monthly income of $50 to $80 from contractual jobs, employment as household help, construction labor and vending.

The obvious fix, says Espina, is in-city relocation. “In-city relocation is not a government expense but an investment,” he says, adding that people need not be provided job-training programs if they can hold onto their current jobs.

The government has flirted with this solution. President Benigno Aquino III promised in 2011 to shift his administration’s focus to in-city relocation, providing $1 billion for the relocation of 100,000 informal settlers living in danger zones. A year later, however, offsite relocation was put back on the table. Now a massive plan to relocate half a million residents to the region’s rural outposts is in the works — a scheme that would strand those residents two to four hours away from the city.

Filomena Cinco, president of Nagkakaisang Mamamayan ng Legarda (United People of Legarda) said they are not against relocating the residents, but that those residents need to be included in the resettlement planning process to ensure that they will not be forced to leave the cities they depend upon for their livelihoods. “This is a huge project that must involve urban-poor settlers in planning,” she says.

Otherwise, many of them will almost certainly end up like Bondoc did in Bulacan: isolated, unemployable, and forced to return to illegal settlements in the city. Bondoc says she’s been an informal settler in Malabon since 1990, and in the absence of better solutions, expects to remain one.

“There’s no work in Bulacan,” she says matter-of-factly. “Life is way harder.”