WE awaited with some interest President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.'s appointment of the head of the Department of Human Settlements and Urban Development (DHSUD). The original executive agency of the Philippine government dealing with the subject of human settlements and urbanization was headed by no less than his mother, the former first lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos.

When President Corazon Aquino assumed power after the 1986 EDSA Revolution, her government abolished the Ministry of Human Settlements and Urban Development for no apparent serious reason than its being associated with Mrs. Marcos. Detractors of President Aquino criticized her move as a sign of her "sheer vindictiveness." President Aquino's decision would be proved a mistake when in 2018, the DHSUD was created by law.

No mere whimsy

The idea of such a ministry was actually not a mere whimsy of Mrs. Marcos. There was at the time a growing international and national consciousness of the need to address the problems attending the rapid urbanization of developing countries, particularly the mushrooming of congested, unhealthy and unsafe slum areas. The country's capital, Manila, had emerged as one of the most densely populated cities harboring among the largest concentrations of slums.

Mrs. Marcos was a leading figure at the UN Conferences on Human Settlements and Sustainable Urban Development or Habitat. She addressed the very first one creating the Habitat program and the next one inaugurating the Habitat headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. (These are the ones we remember because we were part of the delegation.) The Philippines offered to host the fourth one in Manila, and Mrs. Marcos was elected by acclamation as its chairperson.

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After President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law the bill creating the DHSUD, columnists wondered whether the department was the same as the ministry. The statements of purpose of the documents creating the ministry and the department are worded differently but they are not far from each other in meaning. Their goal is the same: to provide every Filipino a home in a community, whether in an urban or rural setting, that attends to at least its basic needs and resources.

If the department lacked anything, it seems that would be the research, innovating and piloting arms that Mrs. Marcos had in the University of Life, the Technological Resource Center, and Metro Manila, of which she was concurrently governor. She herself did her own research. On a diplomatic mission to the United Nations, she made a side trip to Tuczon, New Mexico to observe how adobe was used by an American Indian tribe. One purpose of her visit to Cuba was to inspect how a convention center there was designed to save on electricity by not using air-conditioning and relying exclusively on natural ventilation.

Inventive, pioneering

Her annual reports to Habitat impressed other delegates for her inventive and pioneering solutions to the problems of Metro Manila. She had the BLISS homes constructed to provide suitable shelters for the underprivileged right in the city where they could find means of livelihood. For the cleanliness and sanitation of the city, she employed armies of uniformed, largely female street sweepers called Metro Aides, who not only kept the streets immaculate but admonished the public on the proper disposal of garbage. She had private companies use the latest technology to transform garbage into biomass energy. To stop the floods that paralyzed the city during the rainy season, she installed a flood control pumping system that made rainwaters drain and subside. The Light Rail Transit system was introduced during her term as governor of Metro Manila to decongest traffic and improve the mobility of the people. She had specialized hospitals for lung, kidney, heart and children's ailments established making world-class medical treatment accessible to all no matter their station in life. Because Habitat prescribed the satisfaction of the people's cultural and artistic needs (or was she the one who brought the notion to Habitat?), she had the Cultural Center built.

A main difference between the ministry and the department was surely the quality of leadership that Mrs. Marcos provided. She was missed in the aftermath of the Super Typhoon "Yolanda" and the terrorists' attack in Marawi when the rehabilitation of victims proceeded at a slow pace. Many remembered her as someone like the fairy godmother of nursery tales who with a wave of her wand gets things done quickly.

The Philippines' report to Habitat 3 spoke of a good number of important accomplishments, particularly in providing socialized and low-cost housing to the underprivileged, but also of difficulties fighting the odds due to a high rate of population growth and the relentless migration of people from the countryside to urban areas due to inter alia the mismatch of education to job opportunities.

Climate change

To these odds must be added the effects of climate change. A Habitat report has the problems of human settlements conjoining with the effects of climate change: Most of the cities of the world are located in coastal areas which rising sea levels brought by global warming threaten with "inundation and flooding, saltwater intrusion of water supply, increased coastal erosion and reductions in livable space. All of these are compounded by other climate impacts, including increase in the duration and intensity of storms, hurricanes and cyclones, creating extreme hazards for both rich and poor populations." Rising global temperature has brought heat waves, drought and wildfires, especially in forested areas. Actually, the Philippines has already proved itself particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change because as an archipelago it has among the longest coastlines in the world. Both urban and rural areas have suffered from them.

Because the climate impacts directly threaten habitations with destruction and the people who live in them with death and injury, the Department of Human Settlements and Urban Development may have to take the leading role in the mitigation and adaptation to climate change. It appears to be the logical choice to head the Commission on Climate Change.

As some quarters in the construction business have suggested, it is time that the legislation providing standards in the planning, development and construction of human habitations and settlements, dating back to the ministry when climate change was largely a theoretical concept, be updated and revised to take into consideration the effects of climate change. For this endeavor, it might need some sort of Center of Excellence for guidance.

We are heartened by the appointment of well-known developer Rizalino Azucar as secretary of the DHSUD. We were at first discomfited by his purchasing and carting away two colonial-period houses from my hometown of Jaen, Nueva Ecija, to what we thought was a theme-park project of his in Bataan. Our initial reaction was that he had diminished our town's cultural heritage. But no one else in our town minded his action, including the descendants of the owners who live in Metro Manila and seemed resigned to their inheritance falling into disrepair and decay. And when we watched a video of Las Casas Filipinas de Azucar, we changed our minds and thought it was wonderful. It was a beautiful display of the country's cultural heritage in a beach resort and convention center. The Azucar project has won the praises of local and foreign visitors and construction and tourism associations. We are inclined to hope Secretary Azucar will do wonders at the helm of the DHSUD.