Flooding in Metro: who is to blame?

Gemma B. Mendoza

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Many blamed the devastation brought on by Ondoy on climate change, but urban planners and public works engineers say that is not all there is to it

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on abs-cbnNEWS.com on October 2, 2009, days after typhoon Ondoy (international code name: Ketsana) devastated Metro Manila and parts of Luzon. It was a finalist in the Asian Development Bank’s Developing Asia Journalism Awards for 2010. 


MANILA – Floods are no novelty to 54-year-old Jeff Flores. A street cleaner along Araneta Avenue, Quezon City, Flores has lived along the banks of a nearby river for more than 4 decades.

He and his neighbors have come to expect that the river would overflow and soak them in knee-deep waters whenever the rains come during the monsoon season.

Tropical storm Ondoy, however, caught them unawares. “The news said it would only be signal no. 1,” Flores recalled. Half an hour after the waters started to rise, however, what seemed like an ordinary flood managed to engulf their two-storey plywood-made house. “Ang bilis talaga [umakyat ng tubig],” he said, shaking his head.

Flores and his family had no choice but to climb up to the roof of their house and stay there until floodwaters subsided the following morning.

His experience is shared by hundreds of thousands of other residents of Metro Manila and its environs who lost their homes and possessions in the onslaught of typhoon Ondoy.

Naturally flood prone

Many blamed the devastation on climate change. In 24 hours, Ondoy dumped over a month’s volume of rain on the metropolis and its surrounding areas in just 9 hours.

But in the case of Metro Manila, urban planners and public works engineers say that is not all there is to it. And while they warn people of more calamities resulting from global warming, even some climate change experts also share this opinion. 

Frequent flooding in Metro Manila, these experts say, is brought about by a confluence of factors.

Climate change, population pressure, and the fact that proper urban planning is bogged down by politics and corruption in government exacerbates matters. But even without these factors, a substantial portion—about a fifth—of the 63,000 land area that makes up Metro Manila, is naturally flood prone.

To a great extent, this is caused by the fact that the water level at the Manila Bay, particularly during high tide, is higher than the elevation of many inland localities, public works engineers told this writer during an interview a few years back.

In addition, the annual rainfall in Metro Manila is one of the heaviest among metropolitan areas in the world. This normally ranges from 2,000 millimeters in the Manila Bay area to 3,000 millimeters over the mountains of Marikina, San Mateo, and Montalban (now known as Rodriguez).

All that water must go somewhere. The major waterways, Pasig River and the Meycauayan River (near Valenzuela), along with their tributaries, empty into Manila Bay and serve as the city’s natural draining mechanism.

High tide normally prevents the flow of floodwaters through these natural drainage systems, causing water to spill over and swamp many low-lying areas.

On Saturday, September 26, high tide occurred between 1:56 am to 12:05 pm. Witnesses said the flood started to rise very rapidly between 10 to 11 am.

Human error

Urban planner Felino Palafox Jr. mentioned the 100-year flood on ANC on Tuesday night (Sept. 27). 

A study by Greg Bankoff of the University of Auckland also referred to records of the archives of the Manila Observatory which lists major floods between 1691 to 1911.

The Bankoff study noted, however, that floods “have become more numerous and devastating in recent years.” Since 1973, it noted, the death toll has been rising.

And the factors that made things worse are all man-made.

The Bankoff study noted that mean sea levels at Manila’s South Harbor–which has been increasing by about two millimeters a year between 1902 to 1960–has accelerated sharply, reaching approximately 3 centimeters every year by 1991. Bankoff said such increase “cannot be explained as solely a consequence of global warming and bears a strong correlation to the rise in both ground water extraction and population growth.”

As the land around Manila bay sinks and the level of the sea rises, flooding becomes even more prevalent not only in Metro Manila but in the surrounding provinces, according to Bankoff.

Rampant logging and quarrying in mountains along the outskirts of Metro Manila have made them highly vulnerable to erosion, causing higher-than-normal amounts of silt to settle in Manila’s waterways.

Silt deposits have already reduced the water-holding capacity of Laguna de Bay by as much as 64 percent, while surface run-off from denuded watersheds increased its level by 2.7 meters in the 1980s.

Flood control engineers use the lake as temporary repository of water from Pasig river.

Including the Marikina River, there are 13 tributaries that discharge into the lake. Bankoff noted, however, that there is only a single outlet that carries water from the lake to the sea at Manila Bay—the Napindan-Pasig River. 

Palafox said a Metroplan drawn up in the 70s to address flooding in Metro Manila was supposed to include a Parañaque spillway to flush out the excess water to the Laguna de Bay and South China Sea. This was never done. 

Population pressure

The sheer weight of human numbers also puts considerable pressure on resources that, in turn, has substantial consequences on the environment, and intensifies both the severity and duration of floods, Bankoff said.

Metro Manila’s predilection to flooding is only aggravated by the development of new subdivisions on former agricultural lands such as those in Marikina, Cainta, Pasig, Pateros and Taguig, according to Bankoff.

These areas, to begin with, are already “acutely susceptible to flooding,” according to Bankoff.

Further, as the amount of surface area covered by either asphalt or concrete increased, so did the volume of surface run-off.

The unfinished map drawn up by the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority’s (MMDA) Flood Control Management Service shows that this was one of the key areas affected by the flood.

This was also where most of the calls for help received by ABS-CBN from flood victims originated, as illustrated in Google Maps.


Those who cannot afford expensive housing made their homes along the banks of rivers and tributaries. Some 21,000 squatter families occupy shanties in these areas, further adding to the headaches of flood control officials.

Occupants of these shanties dispose of their waste in the waterways even as the shanties themselves prevent flood control personnel performing maintenance work from accessing the waterways.

Early this year, ABS-CBN Foundation, taking up the cause of restoring the Pasig river to its former glory, unveiled a plan to relocate squatters living along the banks of the river and its tributaries to other areas.

But squatters are not the only problem.

Daily, irresponsible city dwellers dump around 3,000 cubic meters (equivalent to 600 fully laden trucks) of garbage and other solid materials in rivers, drains and waterways in rivers drains, and waterways, thus clogging these drainage systems within weeks after being cleaned.

All of these activities reduced the capacity of Metro Manila’s rivers to carry water.

Esteros Are Gone

Lacking foresight, city planners had allowed developers to cover old esteros–the natural waterways that help drain the city’s interiors of excess water. Streets, commercial buildings, and even schools now occupy areas where 29 esteros used to flow, a public works report said.

The Estero de Quiapo, which used to flow from Quezon Boulevard to Recto Avenue, was filled up decades back with the construction of the Cinerama Building (now Isetann). What used to be the Estero de Alix in Sampaloc, Manila, is now part of the campus of the University of Sto. Tomas.

A month before the incident, on August 20, Baltazar Melgar, chief of the MMDA’s Flood Control Management Service, urged local government officials to be vigilant in monitoring building constructions and land developments in their areas.

He said it is important to keep an eye on the said projects even after the issuance of the building permits as most of the construction companies and developers deviate from the original plans they have submitted.

According to Melgar, these are rampant occurrences especially in private subdivisions and villages. “What’s happening is that the developers or construction companies submit a compliant plan to the local engineering officials. Then, after securing the necessary permit, they will change it altogether”, he noted.

In the August 20 press release, Melgar particularly cited a subdivision where the developer altered the natural waterway and was able to get a land title for it and subsequently sold it. He pointed out that alteration of natural waterways are prohibited under the law but are still done nonetheless because of laxity in implementation.

Not by technology alone

Metro Manila has a number of pumping stations—including 15 high-capacity stations, each with the capacity to pump 18 cubic meters of water per second—hastening the discharge of floodwaters into the Pasig River and Manila Bay.

The problem, however, is how to get floodwaters to reach these pumping stations, public works engineers said.

Under the weight of the garbage that comes with floodwaters, pumping stations also tend to bog down, an official of the Flood Control Management Service of the MMDA told abs-cbnNEWS.com/ Newsbreak.

In her 2009 State of the Nation Address, President Arroyo noted that the mapping of flood-and-landslide-prone areas is almost complete.

She also reported completion of big ticket flood control infrastructure like those for Pinatubo, Agno, Laoag, and Abucay. There were supposed to pump the run off waters from Quezon City and Tondo flooding Sampaloc in order to “relieve hundreds of hectares in this old city of its age-old woe.”

She said work was still ongoing for the CAMANAVA flood control project, as well as those for Pinatubo, Iloilo, Pasig- Marikina, Bicol River Basin, and the Mindanao river basin.

Bankoff, however, cautioned against a purely technological solution to the problem. In the search for solutions, he said, it is important to understand the relationship between climate, topography, resource use, and culture over time to determine the nature of flooding in the Metro.

MMDA chair shoulders blame

In 2002, President Arroyo transferred the jurisdiction over flood control from the DPWH to the MMDA.

The hope then was that, given Bayani Fernando’s iron will, the engineer-mayor who cleaned up Marikina’s sidewalks might be the person to solve Metro Manila’s persistent flood problem.

But the MMDA itself has little authority. It cannot force city mayors, much less congressmen, to adopt particular projects.

After the disaster struck, Fernando quickly shouldered the blame for the massive flooding. “Blame it on me kaysa sisihin pa natin ang Diyos. It’s up to them what they want to do with me but I will not resign as MMDA chairman,” he told ABS-CBN.

But the MMDA chief said government officials in areas affected by the floods should also take part of the blame since they did not ensure the safety of their constituents. He said the increase in infrastructure in every city takes a toll on the environment.

Fernando said last Saturday’s massive flood could happen again if no solution is found. “It’s a 100-year cycle. It will keep repeating itself unless someone with political will will lead the country,” he said.

Nowhere to go

Back in Araneta Avenue, Flores grieves over the loss of possession he said took him more than 16 years to build and accumulate. The raging waters carried away everything: from gas stoves to television to the children’s school supplies, these have been carried off by the raging waters.

Four days after the Ondoy experience, what remained of his house is a transparent plastic tent usually used to cover books. Outside, neighbors are busy scavenging what was left of their things while exchanging stories on what happened on that fateful day.

 Despite the hurdle, Jeff said they will not leave or relocate. “Wala kaming ibang matitirahan, walang malilipatan. Kung may magbibigay ng pribilehiyo lilipat kami pero wala nang malilipatan talaga,” he said. – with reports from Leilani Chavez, abs-cbnNEWS.com


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Gemma B. Mendoza

Gemma Mendoza leads Rappler’s multi-pronged efforts to address disinformation in digital media, harnessing big data research, fact-checking, and community workshops. As one of Rappler's pioneers who launched its Facebook page Move.PH in 2011, Gemma initiated strategic projects that connect journalism and data with citizen action, particularly in relation to elections, disasters, and other social concerns.