Stranded commuters and motorists, stalled cars in the middle of the flooded streets, schools calling off classes. These scenes recur all over Metro Manila after a heavy rain, but is most glaring along Espana Boulevard in Manila, and Araneta and Congressional avenues in Quezon City.
Flooding in Metro Manila has become a lingering thorn not only on the government’s side but on the public’s as well.
Urban planners liken Metro Manila to a clogged sink that overflows when the faucet is left open.
Authorities and experts point to different causes of the problem—global warming, deforestation, pollution, lost waterways, clogged drains, informal settlers. It is a complex and a historical problem that needs a long-term solution founded on a well-researched, localized study.
After Typhoon Ondoy ravaged the National Capital Region in 2009, there were numerous proposals on how to deal with Metro Manila’s perennial flooding problem. Even the World Bank has weighed in, giving $1.5 million to the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) to jumpstart its study.
Road construction and drainage declogging were started by different local government units last year. Yet, in the first two months of the rainy season, flashfloods became the natural consequence of a downpour.
Paolo Palencia, 22, observed that floods today, particularly in Marikina where he lives, have worsened because even without garbage that clogs drains, floodwaters still take time to recede.
“I think most places now are being flooded because our sewerage is not able to adapt to the modern engineering,” he said. “That should be at par to the people’s consumption and wastes.”
Metro Manila’s urban growth contributes to the flooding problem, according to University of the Philippines geology professor Ricarido Saturay of the scientists’ group Agham.
Saturay said structures such as roofs, buildings and concrete roads prevent rainwater from being absorbed by the soil.
“In an urban landscape where permeable surfaces or areas are limited, the rainfall will usually flow above these surfaces,” Saturay said. “That’s the problem of the urban landscape; there are a lot of impervious surfaces. Everything is concrete.”
Buildings and other impermeable materials are very fast to generate “surface runoff” or the water flow that cannot be absorbed by the soil. This surface runoff flows along concrete roads and sidewalks. Ideally, this water would go to the drainage, then the sewer, to canals, and then out to the river stream towards the ocean.
Because of the poor construction of streets, the drainages, and sewage system incapable of holding such amount of water—add to that other obstructions like garbage, built-over natural waterways, and informal settlers in some cases—the rainfall has nowhere to go to.
In a local study cited by Sen. Ralph Recto, 41.02 percent of 273 natural waterways in Metro Manila are dead or “ghosts,” having been buried under buildings and roads decades ago.
An example given by blogger Pio Verzola Jr. in his blog iraia.net, is a creek called Canal de Balete just beside the walls of Intramuros, which is now buried under roads, the National Museum, Manila City Hall, Philippine Normal University, Hotel Indah, and SM City Manila.
No wonder that gutter-deep flood swamps the area even with an average amount of rain.
Saturay noted three causes of flooding in Metro Manila. There is street flooding, or simply because of the poor construction of streets; there are sewers that are either clogged or too small and then there are rivers that really cannot contain the volume of water flowing.
“At the street level, when the water cannot reach the sewer, eventually the street will be flooded,” he said. “Let’s say that the water was able to pass through the drainage—the next problem is can the sewer hold a huge amount of water? Can the rivers contain the volume that the esteros dump?”
“So if it is beyond the capacity of the streams, it will flood—either the water will overflow to the channel or if it is too deep, the water will not go down. The water will just flow back.”
There are different aspects of flood in the metro that should also be studied, Saturay said, not just the garbage or the informal settlers. No matter how often the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority clean the esteros or relocate the squatters along waterways, if the problem of an area is street-level flooding, then definitely nothing will happen.
Saturay believes a case-to-case study must be done. Such a study can also prevent the unnecessary displacement of urban poor communities, since not all informal settlers along waterways are to blame for flooding.
For example, in K-9 Street, West Kamias, Quezon City, squatter dwellings beside a creek face demolition because it has been considered a “danger zone” by the local government.
But Roger Cuntapay, 53, has lived in West Kamias for more than 47 years. He said they never experienced massive floods. Even during Ondoy, flooding in West Kamias was minimal, Cuntapay said.
“The land where we are standing upon now is made of adobe—it’s very sturdy,” he said. According to the barangay officials, the area will be turned into a park although city engineers found that it is not suitable for such plan.
The 40 families living in the area will be relocated to Montalban, Rizal or Bistekville in Payatas, Quezon City.
“We are not really against the plans of the government to clear the waterways. What we just want them to understand is we do not want to be relocated because we will be far away from our livelihood,” said Cuntapay, a tricycle driver and sari-sari store owner.
They are willing to move three meters farther from the creek and propose to the local government to build a tenement so families do not have to relocate.
But last week, the barangay health center was demolished.
The master plan
In the flood control master plan by the DPWH released in June, there are three main reasons for flooding in Metro Manila: the huge volume of water coming from Sierra Madre; the drainage capacity constraints in core areas of Metro Manila and the low-lying communities around Manila Bay and Laguna Lake.
The plan aims to rehabilitate 15 major pumping stations and drainage channels by removing obstructions including settlements, dredge, declog and rehabilitate the main drainages and add more main drainages and box culverts.
It also plans to rehabilitate and develop the waterways and river basins around Metro Manila, like regions III and IV–A. It will also revive the dredging and the construction of dikes in the overflowing Laguna Lake.
The flood mitigation project is one of the government’s most ambitious to date. Approved last year, it and will be finished by 2035. The project is worth P351 billion.
Recto is not sold on the project. On July 19, he filed Resolution 6, asking the Senate to investigate the grand flood-control plan.
“Questions continue to inundate our minds as to the effectiveness of this master plan, especially so when flood waters continue to debilitate almost the whole of Metro Manila nine months after this plan was approved,” the senator said in a statement.
“We need to provide immediate relief to the public against flash floods that threaten Metro Manila during heavy downpour of rain. If we are spending P351 billion in this project, we should know if it will be effective,” he added.
Saturay said that if the government is serious in solving the recurrent problem of flooding, then it should “look at the present” causes.
“They should assess it appropriately; not just for the sake of publicity stunt,” he said.