When I started my week at about 7 a.m. Monday morning, I was preparing to compose a column or two about some interesting issues raised by Dan Lachica, president of the Semiconductor and Electronics Industries of the Philippines (Seipi), in a roundtable meeting hosted at The Manila Times offices last week. I will have to visit those topics another time, however, because by 9 a.m. Monday morning, my normal routine had been completely disarranged by the unwelcome appearance of about a foot of floodwater inside my house, making my family just a few of the hundreds of thousands directly impacted by the widespread calamity that struck the provinces of Cavite, Laguna and Rizal on Monday, along with parts of Metro Manila and other areas in Luzon on both Monday and Tuesday.
My family’s experience was mild compared to that of many people in our own village, which in turn was not nearly as badly affected as areas in nearby communities. But even at a mild level of impact, a flood is a frightening and unpleasant experience, particularly when it happens in a place that has never experienced it; every neighbor I asked, nearly all of whom have been here longer than I have, and some of whom are in their ’70s, said that they had never seen anything even remotely close to Monday’s flood in our area, a sentiment that was duly repeated in news reports from nearby places like Kawit and Tanza, Cavite.
The natural reaction to an unexpected calamity—or in Metro Manila’s case, flood calamities that are repeated with depressing regularity—is to search for something or someone to blame for it. The severity of the floods in the hardest-hit areas of Cavite, mainly Kawit, Tanza and Rosario, was partly attributable to the collapse of the more than century-old Tres Cruses irrigation dam in Tanza. Some people affected by the floods also blamed the proliferation of dense, cheaply-built residential subdivisions that have spread like a speculative rash across the province in recent years, filling in natural waterways and catchment areas, a situation similar to the over-development that aggravates flooding problems in Metro Manila.
These problems certainly contribute to flooding, but they are practically impossible to solve. While President BS Aquino 3rd has come under fire for scrapping existing flood-control plans and replacing them with others that could not possibly be finished by the end of his term and will be woefully inadequate even if they are completed, flood-control infrastructure by itself is not the answer, because Mother Nature always seems to find a way to outdo Man’s cleverness.
A case in point: The village in which I live was developed a couple decades ago, and to manage the small river passing through the village—a river that in its normal condition during rainy season is five to six meters wide and less than a meter deep—the builders provided a flood-control barrier at one end of the village, which moderates the water flow into a stone-lined channel that is between 15 and 20 meters wide and 8 to 10 meters deep. Until this past Monday, the river in full flood has only half-filled its channel even during the heaviest storms; this time, however, a bit of civil engineering that had every appearance of being at least twice as robust as it needed to be could not contain the flood.
Better management of property development would certainly help, at least as far as preventing the existing problems (which are already intolerable) from getting any worse. The excessive density and poor planning of development—both of the formal and informal sort—in Metro Manila has been analyzed and discussed at length for years. In provinces like Cavite and Laguna, the problem of overdevelopment takes a different form but is just as obvious. Managing smart, diversified development going forward is certainly possible—notwithstanding the current lack of either political will or investors’ strategic imagination to actually carry it out—but the bigger problem is that little can be done about what already exists. Temporarily relocating squatters is one thing; tearing down poorly located shopping malls or residential subdivisions is quite another.
“Solving” the country’s flooding problem is an unrealistic goal, and the annual appearance of large floods in and around the nation’s capital should have already convinced policymakers of that. Evidently it has not, because each large-scale flooding crisis is met with surprise. Flooding has become a fact of life, and if what we understand about climate change is reasonably correct, it will continue to be a fact of life for decades or centuries to come. That does not mean that standard flood-control infrastructure should be ignored, but rather that the very idea of “flood control” should be greatly expanded. Permanent structures and systems should be put in place to manage the evacuation of at-risk populations, and emergency response plans—which do exist, but are chronically outdated and inadequate—at all levels of government need to be comprehensively improved, which includes properly equipping them to respond to emergencies in their areas of responsibility.
A holistic approach to living with the environment, one that includes up-to-date and robust flood management infrastructure, an efficient and properly equipped system to manage emergency response and move people out of harm’s way quickly, and sensible, non-invasive development is what the Philippines requires. Nobody here wants to face a destructive flood, and people everywhere certainly sympathize with those who do. But facing the same problem over and over again without ever figuring out how to handle it better actually looks more than a little foolish and pitiable. There is no reason the Philippines cannot instead aim to be a world leader in flood management and emergency response systems—after all, Mother Nature is more than generous with opportunities for the country to work on that.