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10:29 PM June 20th, 2013

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June 20th, 2013 10:29 PM

At a news briefing last Wednesday, both the public works secretary and the chair of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority shared an impressive amount of numbers, in an effort to explain why massive floods once again hit the National Capital Region on Monday, and how the same thing can be prevented from happening yet again. But the real cause of the floods—and the beginning of a lasting solution—was actually revealed, not in a statistic or a program of action, but in a public confession.

Informal settlers living along Metro Manila’s esteros were meant to be relocated after “habagat”-induced floods crippled Metro Manila last August. But local government officials asked the Department of Public Works and Highways to wait until after May.

“We wanted to do this, but I’ll be honest with you,” Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson said at the Malacañang briefing. “Many requested that we shouldn’t do it before the elections. Now, they might come back to us again in view of the barangay elections. This time, we won’t give in. We have to do things immediately.”

Props to Singson for his candor. He only spoke the truth; the reason something like flooding in Metro Manila remains unsolved, despite decades of attempts, is politics getting in the way.

We do not mean to suggest that only the informal settlers who help clog the esteros are to blame for Monday’s floods. The esteros certainly need to be cleared (Singson said the plan called for clearing eight major waterways by December, involving almost 20,000 families); if the settlers refuse to relocate, the clearing will be ineffective, and its effects temporary.

But there is in fact no shortage of other factors: increased water volume, because of the lack of watersheds; a number of naturally low-lying areas, such as Maysilo in Mandaluyong City or the España area in Manila, which are easily flooded and which impact other areas; heavily silted rivers and lakes, which overflow during heavy rains; inadequate drainage capacity, something which all local governments in the capital region struggle with; and not least, a lack of discipline among Metro Manila residents when it comes to the proper disposal of garbage.

But after “Ondoy,” after last year’s habagat, the need to update the master flood control plan, and to provide the necessary funds for it, became clear. In the clearing of esteros, a five-year program with a P50-billion price tag was launched to relocate estero settlers. But the midyear elections pushed the schedule even further behind. Why?

“Many requested that we shouldn’t do it before the elections.”

When people complain that the country’s most intractable problems cannot be solved because of a failure of political will, this is what they mean. Not that there is no money available, although sometimes that is the case, too. Not that government officials don’t understand the problem, although sometimes that cannot be helped. Not that politicians don’t know how to wield political power, although sometimes they need a reminder every now and then. It’s that politics trumps policy.

The politicians in power know only too well that communities of informal settlers often turn into the most reliable bailiwicks; when the patron-client relationship between politician and voter is at its most naked, the patron is at his most powerful, or most utilitarian.

The appeal to wait until after May was computed according to a very crass calculus: Estero settlers equal additional votes. Against such a simple, powerful formula, not even private-sector high achievers like Singson could say no.

But let’s face it. For an administration officially, repeatedly, dedicated to treading the right path, the decision to wait until after the May 13 elections before clearing the esteros was—not to put too fine a point on it—a betrayal of its highest ideals. Singson, or if not him President Aquino himself, tempted fate in green-lighting the idea. And fate—Dan Brown’s very gates of hell—was exactly what Metro Manila residents reaped last Monday.

But we have not abandoned all hope. The President still retains impressive political capital; he should put it to use immediately—by relocating meddling local government officials out of progress’ way.

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