Systems Failure

Will the engineer-mayor who cleaned up Marikina's sidewalks be able to solve Metro Manila's persistent flood problem?

(Editor’s Note: This story was first published by Newsbreak.)

We have seen it happen over and over again. No sooner have the first droplets of rain fallen, and puddles begin to form in many of Metro Manila’s streets. What used to be roads suddenly become muddy rivers.

The situation recurs yearly. Not only are the floods inconvenient, they’re costing millions, no billions, in property damage and lost economic opportunities. Sadder still, they have resulted in heavy loss of life.

The government has spent billions of pesos to protect Metro Manila from destructive floods. But many streets still go under water every rainy season. Among the reasons: corruption, poor coordination, lack of discipline among residents, and—public works officials complain—too much politics.

Recently, jurisdiction over flood control was transferred from the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) to the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA), owing to the reputation of its newly appointed chairman Bayani Fernando for getting things done. Whether he’d be able to rid the metropolis of persistent floods is a big question, though.

Nature’s Revenge

Almost one-fifth (13,300) of the 63,000-hectare land area occupied by Metro Manila is flood prone, according to DPWH engineers. This, in part, is because the water level at Manila Bay, particularly during high tide, is higher than the elevation of some inland localities, the engineers say. This is particularly true of Kalookan, Malabon, Navotas, and Valenzuela, better known collectively as the Kamanava area, parts of which experience flooding all year round, regardless of whether there’s rain or not. Theirs is a condition of “near permanent” flooding.

That apart, the annual rainfall in Metro Manila is one of the heaviest among metropolitan areas in the world. This ranges from about 2,000 millimeters in the Manila Bay area to 3,000 millimeters over the mountains of Marikina.

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 naturally prevents the flow of floodwaters through these natural drainage systems, causing water to spill over and swamp many lowlying areas.

Major flood control activities are under way to minimize problems arising from these natural causes. Nature is not the only culprit, though. 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. This not only has reduced the capacity of Metro Manila’s rivers to carry water. It has also reduced the depth of Laguna de Bay—which flood control engineers use as temporary repository of water from the Pasig River—from 21 meters to nine meters.

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, thus clogging these drainage systems within weeks after being cleaned.

Shanties of some 21,000 squatter families occupy many portions of rivers and their tributaries, adding to the headaches of the public works department. Occupants of these shanties dispose of their waste in the waterways, even as the presence of the shanties themselves hampers the work of agency equipment used to clear the waterways.

Esteros Are Gone

Squatters are not the only problem. Lacking foresight, city planners had allowed developers to cover old esteros, 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 says.

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.

As if these are not enough, a significant portion of Manila’s drainage system is either outdated or too small to accommodate increasing amount of water and garbage that flow through the city’s streets when the rains come.

Small Pipes

Public works studies reveal that there are still drainage pipes along flood-prone España that are only 12 inches in diameter. Some roads in the metropolis even have six-inch-diameter drainage pipes underneath. Current standards prescribe that drainage pipes must be at least 30 inches in diameter, says Gil Mendoza, chief of the flood control division of DPWH-NCR.

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 officials say.

For 2002 alone, the public works department needs P307 million just to clear existing drainage facilities in Metro Manila of garbage and silt to increase their carrying capacity. Congress granted only around P188 million, more than P100 million short and significantly lower than the P208 million set aside for the same purpose in years 2000 and 2001.

Close to a billion more (P955 million) was allocated in the year 2000 budget to rehabilitate and replace outdated drainage facilities. The same amount was made available in year 2001. This does not include millions more spent by local government units for the same purpose, as well as billions allocated for major flood control programs financed through foreign loans.

The funds are not enough, but had they been efficiently spent, they could have reduced flooding more significantly. Much of the money, however, was either wasted or not used for optimum results because of incoherent projects and squabbling among local political leaders.

There are plans aplenty. The public works department has drawn up a list of priority flood control projects. The problem, says a ranking DPWH official, is that legislators control 90 percent of the funds for rehabilitating or replacing outdated drainage systems. Rare is the legislator who gives priority to projects from the public works list.

Petty Politicians

With political rather than engineering considerations influencing decision-making, illogical projects—illogical from the point of view of flood control engineers—have been known to exist. For instance, if funds are insufficient to cover the entire cost of a flood control program, the money as a rule would be better spent if the downstream segment—the area closest to the water’s outlet—were built first. This way, the official says, the benefits of the project are felt immediately.

That is not done in practice. Congressmen have been known to start flood control projects from the wrong end—that is, from the upstream rather than the downstream segment. As a result, newly installed 30-inch diameter pipes are forced to empty their contents into the older, smaller pipes. Flooding continues, for the area where the two pipes meet becomes a choke point.

This would have been all right if the solons followed up the projects they started. Many times they don’t, the official says, particularly not when the other segments of the project are not within their districts.

Bickering among local politicians has a way of making a mess out of flood control programs, particularly in instances where the congressman and the mayor do not see eye to eye. This can lead to difficulties in getting the required construction permits.

Trouble happens, too, when both the congressman and the mayor had both promised their voters they would get the job done. “They try to outdo each other in starting the project. So it sometimes happens that more funds than are necessary are released for the project,” the official says. If both officials have coordinated with each other, the extra funds could have been easily channeled to other projects.

Political Control

In many cases, however, the official recalls, the public works department had to redo projects undertaken by a city government simply because the congressman in the district did not want to be upstaged by the mayor.

With funds controlled by politicians, little attention is given to the important task of relocating squatter families from the waterways. Public works engineers say congressmen seldom include relocation programs in their flood control projects because they tend to spread their funds to reach more voters. “If you have only P3 million for a flood control project, you would not want to spend that for relocation.”

Clearly, the whole problem resulted from total systems failure. Many hope that putting “BF,” as the new MMDA chairman is fondly called, in charge of flood control would inject more sense and political will into the flood control programs.

But the MMDA itself has little authority. It cannot force city mayors, much less congressmen, to adopt particular projects. If Fernando wants to get things done, he must persuade, cajole, and pander to the egos of these decision-makers.

Given these obstacles, one wonders if the engineer-mayor who cleaned up Marikina’s sidewalks would be able to solve Metro Manila’s persistent flood problem. –

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