In the wake of a storm, in the lay of the land

In the wake of a storm, in the lay of the land
By Walter Ang
December 2009-January 2010 issue
Garage Magazine

Living in a tropical country like the Philippines, one would think that we'd be used to typhoons and other natural weather and geographic phenomena like earthquakes, volcano eruptions, and landslides.

Nothing, however, could have prepared us for the devastation wrought by Ondoy and Pepeng when these two storms whipped the country in September. Ondoy is now known as the worst storm to hit the country in 40 years, dumping one month's worth of average rainfall in a matter of hours. Pepeng, on the other hand, will be long remembered as the storm that did a u-turn and stayed for almost an entire week. Manila, its surrounding cities and northern Luzon were hit badly and are still in the process of (a long) recovery.

News reports have pegged the damage to crops and fisheries in billions of Pesos. It's almost too overwhelming to imagine how much infrastructure damages could amount to. And, of course, there is no value to compare to the number of lives lost.

There is a host of factors that come into play in analyzing what has happened: weather, climate changes, inadequate civic and government preparedness, gross mismanagement of dams, pollution, unregulated real estate development and urban planning, etc.

In the context of urban planning, Manila was built on marshy land with rivers criss-crossing it. Augusto Villalon noted in his newspaper column that during the Spanish colonial era, there were efforts to build towns and cities with the local terrain in mind. Manila's various districts were built around Pasig River and its tributaries (esteros), allowing for natural drainage to Manila Bay.

By the time American colonizers took over in the early 1900s, architect Daniel Burnham created a master plan that proposed elevating the status of our esteros into romantic Venetian canals that would be used for ferrying. So far, so good.

Unfortunately, Manila was one of the worst razed cities in Asia during World War II. Reconstruction efforts that followed did not follow any master plan. Succeeding years saw the rise of homes and buildings (as well as squatters) all over the city without any regard for the area's underlying risks. For example, if the area is in a low-lying area prone to flooding or landslides, or even its proximity to creeks, rivers or dams.

Architect and environmental planner Anna Maria Gonzales pointed out in an article that many residential subdivisions have been built on former wetlands, rivers and creeks that were cemented over to become roads or create more space.

All of the experts who have shared their advice to the media all say that cementing over open spaces and natural vegetation limits the land's ability to drain flood water naturally.

All also agreed that pollution and disregard for natural resources played a very big role in the calamity. Garbage blocked channels for water drainage. Uncontrolled logging has denuded forests that now no longer absorb excess water.

We've also heard of horror stories of poorly constructed public infrastructure such as streets or drainage systems that would show damage sometimes as early as even before construction would be completed.

In an interview, green architect and urban planner Dan Lichauco noted that engineering also played an important part in the calamity. He said that the existing infrastructure that Manila has for water control and drainage "just really could not deal with that much water."

When asked by different news organizations, green architect and urban planner Felino "Jun" Palafox, bemoaned the fact that a plan sponsored by the World Bank for Manila drawn up in 1977 was never followed. He noted that the plan included proposals to construct spillways in certain areas to drain excess water from Laguna Lake to Manila Bay.

Most of the professionals who spoke to media agreed that the existing plans and infrastructures were either obsolete or no longer efficient. Lichauco said that "existing [urban planning and engineering] standards are developed based on historical and existing data and are created to withstand destructive risks but within certain parameters" and that since many of the factors (such as population, waste and, even weather patterns) are now so different from when old standards were made, "Manila will have to reevaluate and revise its standards, too."

There are calls for better management of urban sprawl (both population and property development). For creation of more accurate urban planning and zoning codes, and for stricter implementation of laws. For relocation of squatters and for home buyers to be more vigilant in selecting the location of their homes. There are calls for better garbage and pollution management. For canals to be dredged, for garbage landfills (which should be acting as draining fields) to be relocated. For people to stop throwing their trash all over the place.

Yes, there are proposed solutions, but the cry for political will and a more mindful civic response is on top of everyone's wishlist. You, Garage reader, can be part of this mindfulness, of this will. From small things like watching where you throw your garbage to actions with bigger impact, like voting wisely in the coming elections, you can perform tasks that contribute to change. Our land depends on it, our future depends on it.