The national government’s plan to encourage informal settlers in Metro Manila living near or atop esteros to relocate to resettlement areas by offering P18,000 in so-called rental subsidy has drawn a lot of criticism. Perhaps the worst thing that has been said of the expensive plan is that we do not even know if it will work.
The floods that incapacitated parts of the National Capital Region with the onset of the rainy season have focused public attention on the state of the esteros, the choked waterways that crisscross Metro Manila like clogged arteries. While many factors help explain the perennial flooding, the occupation of the esteros may be the most visible cause.
The government estimates that some 20,000 families are living on or along these clogged esteros. The most important reason to resettle them is fundamental: Thousands of lives are at stake. The conditions in these clusters or informal communities are bad enough on dry days; they become life-threatening when the rains come and the floods form.
“You are looking at families living on top of the waterways and alongside waterways,” President Aquino’s spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said at a briefing last Monday. “And so, come rainy season, come typhoon season, there’s a danger of them being washed away. At other times, however, they will also be exposed to dengue, leptospirosis, and other diseases. So our main concern is to move them away from these danger zones. There’s no way that we can build a structure on the same site. Those are danger zones, they have to be relocated.”
Relocation will also allow the Department of Public Works and Highways to clean the esteros, to remove the manmade structures and detritus that block the natural passage of rainwater, even to dredge the waterways. All this will have a spillover effect, reducing the risk of flooding in other parts of the metropolis.
The DPWH has identified eight priority waterways. A report from the Philippine News Agency listed the government’s estimate of the number of families living in each of the eight, as follows: San Juan City, 4,217 families; Tripa de Gallina, 3,887; Tullahan, 3,683; Manggahan Floodway, 2,997; Maricaban Creek, 1,687; Pasig City, 1,484; Estero Maypajo, 1,415; and Sunog Apog Estero, 170—for a total of 19,540 families of informal settlers.
Thus far, only about 4,000 families have agreed to be relocated.
The news about the P18,000 rental subsidy was greeted by much wailing and gnashing of teeth on social media—at this point in time a public sphere more accessible to the middle and upper classes. One common response on Twitter or Facebook can be summed up simply enough: Why are informal settlers, who occupy land that does not belong to them, being rewarded with a subsidy?
Others have criticized the subsidy as inadequate. The Urban Poor Associates, a nongovernment organization helping many informal settlers, described the subsidy as a “band-aid solution”—the amount is actually for a year’s worth of rental, which means only P1,500 per month. Just enough, the UPA said, to rent a room in an informal settlers’ colony.
To be sure, no one in the government is saying that official assistance will be limited to the subsidy. Resettlement areas are being readied (though not enough to house all 20,000 families); ancillary support from the Department of Social Welfare and Development is in the pipeline (such as counseling services); and so on.
But the reason many previous relocation efforts have failed is that the beneficiaries do not in fact see themselves as benefiting; there may be not enough jobs at the relocation site, or it may be too far from places of work, or there may be a serious lack of facilities or services or both. The families thus find themselves returning to Metro Manila again, where the jobs and the services are.
What is the guarantee that the P18,000 that the government will provide each estero family will keep the family members in their new quarters? The plan calls for the rental subsidy to be distributed on a quarterly basis, supposedly allowing the government to periodically ensure that the families have not returned to the original esteros. Same difference: In between the periodic monitoring, what will prevent the families from returning to where the jobs and the services are?