How do you solve the metro’s flood problem?

A multi-billion-peso flood management master plan for Metro Manila and surrounding areas provides a glimmer of hope

 UNAVOIDABLE? Espana Avenue in Manila is as flood prone as they get. File photo by Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – The megacity, it seems, still hasn’t learned from the lessons of 2009’s Ondoy and 2012’s Habagat flooding.

In the middle of August, Metro Manila found itself in a painfully familiar situation: After 3 days of non-stop rain caused by the southwest monsoon and tropical storm Maring, the metropolis was brought to a standstill by widespread flooding.

WATCH: Relentless rain shuts down Metro Manila

The Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) estimated that up to 50% of the metro was flooded. The cities in the southern area of the National Capital Region (NCR) — Pasay, Parañaque, Muntinlupa, and Las Piñas — were the hardest hit. Three of the 4 were placed under a state of calamity.

Aside from extreme weather events, heavy downpours — lasting only several hours — cause major disruptions across the sprawling megacity.

In the past few months, it happened twice: rain that unfortunately fell during early evening rush hours caused the city to come to a standstill in June 17, and again on Tuesday, September 10.

READ: Study: June 17 Metro gridlock result of heavy rain, bad timing


Metro Manila’s topography has always made it a natural target for flooding, but this already vulnerable topography has been altered dramatically in the past few decades, thanks to rapid urbanization.

“You have really flood plains. You have major river systems – the Pasig and the Marikina – then you have all these tributaries, plus the artificial drainage ways, the esteros,” said Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga, executive director of the Manila Observatory.

“The plains areas are also the most attractive settlement areas for people,” she said.

In early plans for Metro Manila’s development, particularly for Quezon City, large open spaces were set aside from watersheds and parks, specifically in already identified flood-prone areas, as pointed out by sociologist Kenneth Cardenas back in 2009.

However, instead of patches of green and undeveloped floodplains, these areas were developed. These areas are now places where you find homes, industrial and business centers, even schools and government offices.

“The way we have planned and developed our city has rendered it vulnerable [to flooding],” said Dr Emma Porio, chairperson of the Department of Sociology & Anthropology at the Ateneo de Manila University.

TROUBLE IN MANILA. The Manila City Hall is impassable at the height of the August 2013 Habagat floods. Lagusnilad in Manila is drained of water 2 days later. File photo by Rappler

Unfettered development

Development has not been kind to our rivers, creeks, and canals. In particular, formal development — such as factories, roads and highways, and real estate projects — has been left unchecked.

Porio said that for years, development has been practically unregulated, despite the presence of laws that require permits and inspections.

The government has no resources and time to check every single project, and it usually ends up with the developers going ahead with their projects.

There are also instances of manipulation or disregard of zoning laws and regulations, Porio said.

The city of Manila is a perfect example. Located below sea level, flooding has always been an issue for the local government, and Manila Vice Mayor Isko Moreno said it is alread a “fact of life” in Manila.

“No matter what we do, pag bumuhos ang dami ng ulan, baha na ang Manila. But what’s the worst scenario? Umihi lang ang langit, baha na agad,” he said. (No matter what we do, when it pours, it floods in Manila. But the worst case scenario would be, when the heavens pee, it floods immediately.)

Gilbert Celestino of the Manila Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council said private buildings in the city lack proper coordination with the city government. “[May] mga business establishments na yung drainage namin natatabunan—nago-overlap sa city drainage,” he said. (Some business establishments cover or overlap with the city’s own drainage systems.)

“The capacity to decide and control [development]… has been overtaken by [the private sector],” Porio said.

Coordination is a big problem, Celestino added. “Yung improper na pagtayo rin, hindi nagco-coordinate sa flood control, sa engineering namin.” (Improper building is also to blame. They don’t coordinate with the city engineering office.)

Manila has a technical working group to make sure private contractors follow fire and drainage regulations. Still, a lot slip past the city’s rules.

Poor drainage

The remaining canals and waterways, on the other hand, are beyond their carrying capacities. Existing drainage systems are old, and for esteros and rivers, no amount of dredging can help. 

Moreno also said the city’s drainage and sewage systems did not keep up with the city’s growing population.

The same is true for Quezon City. Dr Noel Lansang of the Quezon City Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office said the city’s drainage system was first made in the 70s — and is due for a much-needed upgrade.

For now, the city of Manila makes do with de-clogging operations. Still, during the August 2013 Habagat rains, areas de-clogged by national and local government were still flooded. España in Manila was knee-deep in some areas.

FACT OF LIFE. Commuters are forced to wade through flood waters along Espana. File photo by Rappler

Manila Observatory’s Loyzaga said that what the city needs are wider, not just deeper waterways — but then again, development is hindering this.

“If the river is narrow, and the rain falls, the tendency is for the level of the water to rise. but if the river is wide, the water level will just rise [a bit and]… spread out,” she explained. “The issue is not dredging an already narrow channel. Its widening [the channel].”

Add to the mix the large volume of garbage clogging the surviving waterways, and the problem only grows.

Mad, mad weather

To add to the metropolis’ current woes are changing weather patterns.

“When you urbanize, you [have a so-called] urban heat island, you have less trees… there are many [factors] that… affect the way rainfall forms in the atmosphere,” said Dr Gemma Narisma, head of the Observatory’s Regional Climate Systems division.

She said that a recent Observatory study showed a highly urbanized Metro Manila receiving more rain compared to when it was less urbanized.

Climate change has put Metro Manila’s old flooding problem “under a new lens,” bringing new problems while magnifying current ones, said Narisma.

Palace Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang reminded the media at the height of the flooding in the metro, to “take things in context. We saw an equivalent of one month of rainfall in one day… the environmental situation is also getting worse,” he told reporters.

READ: Traffic nightmare: The new normal for the rainy season?

Too many cooks in the kitchen

There is no lack of governance and planning at the level of individual local governments, Porio said, adding that there is strong political will among the LGUs. The problem lies in the fragmented and decentralized governance the metropolis has.

In Metro Manila’s case, you have the local government units, the MMDA, and other government agencies tasked to help the metropolis plan for and cope with floods, such as the MMDA and Laguna Lake Development Authority. The result: different offices, different plans, and little coordination.

“A highly fragmented governance, we’re highly decentralized, so the strength of each local government is negated… Hindi [natin] tinitingnan [na] problema natin itong lahat,” Porio said.

She said decision making on water resources management and flooding should be translocal, but the decentralized, fragmented governance structure is a big problem.

Loyzaga echoed Porio’s observations — which is also what numerous urban development experts have also pointed out, and are still pointing out.

“If one city is blocking off the waterways, and one city is receiving the water because in fact it happens to be topographically lower or whatever, there should be principles in shared governance,” Loyzaga said.

In addition, the natural watershed boundaries — which is a major factor in where and how flood water flows — have long been disregarded in planning and governance.

FLOODING IN THE SOUTH. Las Pinas was among the hardest-hit Metro Manila cities during the August 2013 Habagat floods. Photo by EPA

Master plan

But there is some glimmer of hope. Earlier this year, the national government, through the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), made public a “flood management master plan for Metro Manila and surrounding areas.”

The new plan will “adopt the principles of integrated water resources management and river basin approach,” and is encompassing several major river and lake basins in and around the metropolis.

The master plan has components ranging from rehabilitating pumping stations and canals, to construction of dikes and spillways.

This P351.72-B plan, however, still has a long way to go. It still is undergoing further fine tuning, with the components set to undergo individual feasibility studies and planning, and is envisioned to be implemented over 23 years.

Until the plan is completed, stakeholders — government, private sector, and the public — will need to recast their mindsets and increase cooperation to mitigate the effects of flooding.

But these will all be useless if Metro Manila forgets one basic idea.

Nakalimutan natin na may karapatan ang tubig (na dumaan)… and I think in our development planning, in real estate, nakalimutan natin [iyon],” Porio said.

(We forgot that water has right to pass… in our development planning, in real estate, we forgot about it.) – with reports from Jee Geronimo/

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