“Even if the government manages to make the waterways as wide as one kilometer and as deep as 10 meters, if there is street-level flooding, everything would be useless.” – Geologist, Agham member Ricarido Saturay
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
SITIO MILITAR, Quezon City – Nida Naños, 54, is tired of being blamed by the government for everything – from supposedly not paying their taxes to the flooding that the urban poor reportedly cause Metro Manila.
“We are living in what they call ‘squatters area’ because we cannot afford to pay the monthly rent of apartments and condominium units. If we have that ability, do you think we would rather that we live here? They are only saying these things to us because they have the money,” Naños told Bulatlat.com.
“But what if we switch places? I think that they would fight for their right to shelter and livelihood in the same way that we are doing now,” she added.
Naños and her family was a victim of the defective agrarian reform program in the country. She and husband Solomon received a parcel of land back in their province in Camarines Sur through the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program; but the absence of government support – financial, technical and material – to farming left them heavily indebted to Likas, a non-government organization.
Manila, on the other hand, looked promising to the Naños family. Solomon left their province and worked in Manila as a construction worker. With no prior experience or needed skill in construction, he ended up working as a peon or one who does the menial but physically hard jobs and even running errands. His meager salary, about $3.5 a day, was not enough to cover his needs and support his family back in the province. In 2003, Naños and their children joined Solomon in Manila and resided in Sitio Militar, a community along Dario River, one of the tributaries of San Juan River.
Naños “bought” their house for $930 from its previous owner, who agreed to be paid in installment and only when and if they have the money. Naños said it was a better deal than renting a small room for about $23 a month. Until now, Naños said, she still needs to pay $465.
But the recent pronouncements of the Aquino government that it would prioritize removing the houses of urban poor families residing along waterways caused a lot of worries for Naños. Removing the houses of urban poor families along the eight major waterways would supposedly resolve the perennial problem of flooding in Metro Manila.
The President, himself, recognized flooding as a problem that needs to be addressed when he delivered his fourth State of the Nation Address.
“The problem is, in addition to the lack of adequate drainage, certain structures were built, obstructing these drainage systems, a situation compounded by the trash of those living around it. To solve this problem, we are coordinating with our LGUs (Local Government Units) to safely and successfully relocate our informal settlers,” President Aquino said.
But Naños is determined not to leave their home and their livelihood in the community. Her husband Solomon has already quit working as a construction worker and is now selling pineapples and watermelons along the streets of Quezon City, where he earns about $7 a day. While Naños works as a household help in a nearby village. Relocating would, she added, give them a roof over their heads but nothing to eat.
“Those who are already here are being relocated back to the province. Those who are in the provinces are trying their luck to find work in Manila. We are going in circles. And it is getting confusing,” Solomon said.
Naños does not believe that they are the ones to be blamed for the flooding in nearby communities. She said that the river used to be deep despite the homes that were built on the riverbank.
A riprap was constructed sometime in 2005. But after Typhoon Ondoy in 2009 that brought heavy flooding in Metro Manila, village officials proposed the construction of another riprap, this time to widen the river. About 3 meters was chopped from their home when the new riprap was constructed in 2012.
The river was indeed widened. But Naños said it became shallow. “The rubble of the old riprap was dumped into the river. The scrap from the homes they demolished also went to the river. Even the unused stones for the new riprap were dumped into the river,” she said.
“It was better before when the river was still narrow but deep,” Naños said, “Today, even light rain would cause flooding in our area. This is their project. And now, they are telling us that this is our fault – that it is our garbage that is blocking the river.”
University of the Philippines professor, geologist Ricarido Saturay shared the same view that the urban poor are not to blame for the floods.
In a leaders’ forum held in Quezon City, Saturay shared that in order to address the perennial problem of flooding in Metro Manila, one needs to look first into how and why flooding occurs. He said that during a rainfall, the flow of water may go through three processes: evaporate, sipped into the ground water and remain on the ground, ending up as runoff water or flood water.
In an urbanized area like Metro Manila, where most, if not all, the streets are cemented, most of the rainfall ends up as runoff water. The runoff water would then find its way to lower ground, the speed of which depends on the resistance, which is caused by rough surfaces.
Saturay pointed out that it is a common misconception that flooding begins along esteros or creeks.
“Everything in the watershed contributes to flooding,” he said, adding that the watershed is a catchment or a basin where water is temporarily stored before it flows to the waterways. In fact, he said, metro residents who do not reside along waterways may have a bigger responsibility than those living along it.
All garbage, whether from homes along esteros or not, go to waterways, Saturay said. It is just easy to blame them for the garbage because they are living where it usually gets stuck.
Saturay said it is easy to put the blame on the urban poor residing along waterways because they could easily be seen. “But what about what is underneath?” he asked, referring to the poor drainage system in Metro Manila.
He said that along the San Juan River, most residents they talked to said that during heavy rainfall, the streets are easily flooded even when the river has not yet overflowed. “This is called street-level flooding,” he said.
Saturay said this is also true for places where floodwater goes up and subsides fast. “This means that the drainage is too small for the heavy flood water to flow into it. But slowly, it is being carried out.”
He challenged the Philippine government to prove their claims that demolishing the houses of the urban poor would resolve or mitigate the flooding in Metro Manila. “Even if the government manages to make the waterways as wide as one kilometer and as deep as 10 meters, if there is street-level flooding, everything would be useless.”
Removing the ‘risk’ factor
Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said, in a Philippine Daily Inquirer report, President Aquino is only concerned about the safety of families residing along waterways and that there is no question that they need to be relocated to safer areas.
“You are looking at families living on top of the waterways and alongside waterways. And so, come rainy season there’s a danger of them being washed away. At other times, however, they will also be exposed to dengue, leptospirosis, and other diseases,” Lacierda said in a report.
But Saturay also belied the government’s claim that removing urban poor families from the so-called “danger areas” would keep them from risks during a typhoon. He said that the three factors that must be considered when one talks about risk are hazard, exposure and vulnerability.
“Hazard is the event or the natural disaster that happened such as flooding and you cannot put a ‘zero’ on this. Exposure is a question if people would be hit. And vulnerability is the community’s ability to look into the consequences such as loss of lives and belongings. It also includes their socio-economic conditions,” Saturay said.
He added that the government is only looking at the exposure factor and this is the reason they want homes of urban poor dwellers along waterways to be demolished. But he said that since residents want to stay, the government can also look into addressing vulnerability to reduce risks. This, he added, includes an organized warning system, evacuation and other needed facilities.
Saturay reminded the government that the risks that urban poor families would face in relocation sites would increase. “They will be moved to a place that is also exposed to hazards, which is not just flooding but also landslides. And since they have no jobs and other livelihoods, vulnerability, too, would increase.”
Calls to Aquino
Naños has yet to receive a notice of demolition from the city government. But they already attended a meeting with the city government, where they were told that families residing near waterways would be removed. A relocation program was also offered to them.
“Those who attended the meeting were calling for on-site relocation. But the UPAO (Urban Poor Affairs Office) said there is no vacant lot in Quezon City that can accommodate us,” she said.
When they asked city government officials what they need to submit to avail of these housing programs, they were told that they have to be members of Pag-ibig and the Social Security System. Her husband Solomon, a vendor, is not a member of both social security funds. And so are the other residents who are either construction workers or pineapple vendors like her husband.
“We are demanding for on-site relocation. If the government truly cares for our safety, they should instead focus their resources to the river – make it deeper and keep it clean,” Naños said, “This is supposed to be part of their program.”
Just across their homes, a non-government organization Gawad Kalinga developed the community and built around 200 houses for them. “GK was able to do it for the residents, considering that it is an NGO. Why can’t the government, with all its resources, do it for us? It’s just there across the river,” she added pointing to the GK houses.
As to claims that it is not the responsibility of the government to provide the urban poor with social services, Naños believes otherwise. She also belied reports that say they do not pay taxes to the government.
“Who said that? We pay taxes. There is VAT (Value Added Tax) in our electricity and water bill,” she said, adding that everything else she and her family buy has tax in it. Holding her recent water bill, she pointed out the items on environmental tax and VAT. “I do not even know where that goes,” she said.
Being relocated in a far-off community, Naños said, would only make their lives harder and more miserable. “(Inclusive economic growth) is not true. We cannot feel it. What we can ‘feel’ right now are demolitions and privatization of social services,” she said. “If there is anyone benefiting from that economic growth, those are the rich people not us.”