Heads up, Mega ManilaBy Michael L. Tan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
After the traffic gridlock that accompanied the rains last June 17, the print and broadcast media were full of dire warnings about more of such disasters for Metro Manila. Who would have known that the next major disaster was going to happen in Laguna and Cavite, and would involve the habagat (northwest monsoon) intensified by a typhoon almost outside the area of Philippine responsibility?
I have personal reasons for hoping that both the government and the private sector will take these floods seriously. I’ve started a transition to Nuvali in Laguna—not an easy one because I continue to work in Manila and care for parents also in Manila, but I’ve felt it is worth it given the greener and safer environment in Laguna for the kids.
I was actually on my way to Nuvali in Laguna Monday morning, when the rains weren’t yet too strong. If one avoids the rush hours, the trip there from San Juan usually takes about an hour of leisurely driving. That morning I left San Juan at 9, and 15 minutes later I was on the Southern Luzon Expressway (SLEx).
The Skyway toll booth operator had asked where my destination was. I was surprised because they don’t collect toll fees at the entrance into Skyway, but I answered him anyway: “Mamplasan.” He frowned and told me the Southwoods exit, which comes ahead of Mamplasan, had been closed because of flooding.
I shrugged my shoulders and reasoned that if Southwoods is closed, then it’s closed, but I could probably still drive through farther down to my destination.
How wrong I was. After only a few kilometers I ran smack into a traffic jam, still several exits away from Southwoods. Maybe an accident, I thought, but my smarter son gave me that exasperated “We were told so” look: “It’s the flood.”
Laguna de Bay
I decided that we should just head back to Manila. Fortunately, it was “only” another half hour before the car crawled into the Susana Heights exit, about half a kilometer away from where we first encountered the traffic jam. Other vehicles courageously went on the SLEx, and I heard on the radio later that there were cars stranded for as long as three hours on the expressway.
The flooding in Laguna and Cavite turned out to be quite serious, submerging entire barangays. The death toll has been relatively low, in part because the flooding did not happen suddenly, but damage to property has been extensive.
The floods are worrisome given the way Calabarzon has been described as being the most rapidly developing area in the Philippines, and now often seen as part of an extended Mega Manila.
The area’s economic boom began with the export processing zones set up in the late 1970s, with factories—auto assembly, semiconductors, pharmaceuticals—that drew large numbers of rural migrants, mainly women. In more recent years, business outsourcing companies like call centers have mushroomed, attracting young middle-class Filipinos.
Many households in the area also have relatives working overseas, whose remittances have fueled the growth of new markets around real estate and educational institutions, from preschools to the collegiate level.
While crawling on SLEx last Monday, I listened to the dire radio reports enumerating the barangays affected, appeals from desperate residents calling by cell phone while stranded on rooftops, and government officials appealing for calm and patience.
On the air, Laguna Gov. ER Ejercito explained that the flooding came from Laguna de Bay. He said that in Rizal’s time, the lake averaged about 12 meters in depth but that this had dropped down to 2 meters. He mainly blamed informal settlers that had migrated around the lake, but made no mention of the fish pens.
Only two weeks ago, I was talking with a University of the Philippines professor who lives in San Pedro, Laguna, one of the most adversely affected towns. She mentioned how prone their area had become to flooding even with mild rains—something that was unthinkable a decade ago. She blamed the flooding on the many subdivisions that were allowed on the perimeter of the lake, including on reclaimed land. San Pedro is among the towns most badly affected by this week’s rains.
Governor Ejercito complained that the lake had become the “septic tank of Metro Manila” and said he and his people were looking for solutions for the overflowing of the lake, perhaps through a Pacific spillway. For some years now there has been talk of a Laguna de Bay Flood Control Dike Expressway (also known as the C-6 Extension) that will go from San Pedro to Siniloan.
We in Metro Manila tend to remember only our own disasters like “Ondoy” in 2009 and forget how vulnerable other parts of the country are as well. Recall some of the most destructive occurrences brought on by typhoons and monsoon rains: the 1991 flash floods in Ormoc, the 1999 landslide in Cherry Hills, Antipolo (well, maybe people do remember this since Antipolo is so close to Metro Manila), the 2006 landslides in Southern Leyte.
If we want to use the Mother Nature metaphor, we can say Mother Nature isn’t just warning, but nagging, us. And maybe because she nags a lot, her lamentations go in one ear and out the other.
It’s time we went beyond attributing these disasters to the “rains” or the “typhoons.” Lately, I have been hearing people invoking “climate change,” which is still impersonal. Lost, too, in all these attributions to nature are the human actions that bring about the disasters.
The other week I wrote about how Calabarzon ranks high in the latest Human Development Report, which measures both economic and social progress in the Philippines by provinces. However, there are also concerns that some provinces are able to advance economically but not socially. This kind of development is called “vicious” (rather than “virtuous”), and spells trouble for the future. The floods in the provinces of Laguna and Cavite remind us that a Human Development Index should be looking as well into indicators for environmental sustainability.
Laguna and Cavite do form a new Mega Manila, so their problems are the problems of the National Capital Region as well. We’re seeing an exodus of some of Manila’s best schools to Laguna and Cavite, partly because of perennial problems of flooding. How ironic it would be if they encounter the same problems a few years from now, in their new sites.
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