Philippines: A crucial first step to address Metro Manila’s floods

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A resident of the city of Manila helps clean up a creek to remove garbage that clogs drainage and waterways. (Photo: Justine E. Letargo/World Bank)
Metro Manila -- my current home -- is a metropolis of extraordinary contrast.  Referred to as the National Capital Region, it is the workhorse of the country, housing about 12.8% of the total population and producing about 38% of national GDP.  Metro Manila is a key contributor to the country’s dynamic and vibrant economy, which has been among the fastest growing in East Asia in recent years.  With glittering high rise buildings, a Starbucks on seemingly every corner, and bustling commerce wherever you look, one could be lulled into thinking that the citizens of Metro Manila all have a comfortable life.

But this is far from the reality.  When we first moved to Manila last year, my youngest daughter was startled to see during our tour of her new school, a huge shanty settlement – houses upon houses – just outside the school wall.  For a young teenager, she’s well-traveled and has lived in big, rapidly urbanizing cities in China and Turkey, but never had she seen such a contrasting patchwork of people’s circumstances, right there outside her school gate.

Of the almost 15 million people who live in Metro Manila, about 3 million live in informal settlements.  They live in houses made of tin, plywood, and plastic sheeting, many built under bridges or on stilts over creeks and rivers. These settlements are scattered around the city – wherever a small piece of land is available – and many people who live in these areas have lived there for several generations. In the last several decades, millions of Filipinos have flocked to Manila from their hometowns in the countryside or on the islands, in search of jobs and better education and opportunities for their children. Many of these settlements are in disaster-prone areas along Manila’s many waterways that rapidly flood during monsoonal rains.

Climate change is making this situation worse. The Philippines is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world.  Each year more than 20 typhoons enter the Philippines, and the damage is often extensive.  In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) – one of the most powerful typhoons ever to have made land fall – devastated the eastern part of the Philippines.  Even Metro Manila is not immune – in 2009, Typhoon Ketsana (Ondoy) made a direct hit on Metro Manila, causing more than 464 deaths and huge damage and disruption to the city.

Between June and November, it often rains in Manila. My family is lucky – where I live when it starts to rain the water rapidly rises above our ankles in the streets, but it just as quickly subsides again, as a well-functioning drainage system kicks into operation.  But for the vast majority of the city, this is not the case.  Just two weeks ago when a tropical storm passed directly over Metro Manila, many of our staff could not make it to the office because roads (and, in some cases, their houses) were flooded.

Recently I had the opportunity to visit some areas to be included in the Metro Manila Flood Management Project – a huge undertaking by the Government of the Philippines with support from the World Bank and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB)  – that will improve the city’s drainage infrastructure, clean up solid waste, and help to protect the lives and livelihoods of 1.7 million people, including many of the city’s poorest citizens who live in precarious circumstances along some of the city’s most flood-prone waterways.

Visiting the informal settler communities living along Manila’s waterways is a sobering experience.  Trash fills the waterways, and the smell is pervasive.  Small children play along the river beds just inches from the water with no fences to stop them from falling in.  Houses are built on every postage stamp piece of land – under the bridges, along the sidewalks, and just above the water line in the rivers.  Even on a dry day, the water is flowing fast and it is not hard to imagine how terrifying it must be when the water roars along those rivers during a storm.

When a disaster strikes, it is always the poor who suffer the most.  And yet in many areas, the poor are also helping themselves.  We visited a creek where programs run by the government and civil society are helping the community improve their own safety through participation in river cleanup activities, by educating them on how to better manage their trash, and by helping them plant and tend gardens along the riverbanks to keep the banks clear of informal development and improve their living environment.  Even the construction of a simple fence between their houses and the creek can go a long way to making sure that children are protected and parents do not need to worry for their safety.

There’s still a long way to go but I am really pleased that the government is taking this important step in Metro Manila and that the World Bank and AIIB have the privilege of supporting them along this journey.
Philippines: When It Rains, It Floods


Mara Warwick

World Bank Country Director for China and Mongolia, and Director for Korea

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