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Why reclamation is ‘a very bad idea’

Before discussing a few more issues surrounding the proposed reclamation projects on the coastal areas of Manila Bay and Laguna Lake, as presented by geologist Kelvin Rodolfo, let me clarify something I wrote in Friday’s column.

Yes, Rodolfo is best known among Filipinos for his work on lahar, the mixture of ashfall, pyroclastic material, soil, rain water and other matter (rocks, fallen logs, concrete fragments from destroyed structures) that follows a volcanic eruption. But he first gained public attention for this during the period immediately following the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, not the Northern Luzon earthquake of 1990 as I erroneously wrote.

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The lahar flows would continue to hound the residents of Central Luzon for a few years after the eruption, causing floods and destruction along the path of rivers and streams. Thousands of residents in the affected areas lost their homes and livelihoods, especially those engaged in farming, in the wake of the lahar. But as I remember Rodolfo saying during those years, we really shouldn’t be putting the blame on lahar for the suffering of the population. “All the lahar wants to do is to flow out to the sea,” he said. It was up to the people themselves, along with government officials, to take the necessary steps to prevent or alleviate the suffering of the people affected by lahar. The wisest move would have been to simply get people out of the lahar’s way, but authorities, unwilling to be seen as remaining passive in the wake of the lahar threat, embarked on massive dike construction, even if scientists like Rodolfo said it would be worse than useless since destroyed dikes could add even more material to the destructive power of lahar.

Unfortunately, says Rodolfo, in the Philippines we have a “history of ignoring science while building projects fail.”

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As early as the 1980s, he notes, local and national authorities insisted on building “flimsy lahar dikes” in the waterways downstream from Mayon Volcano despite the objections of scientists, himself included. Dike building continued but finally was halted when Supertyphoon “Reming” breached all the dikes in 2006, killing 1,266 people who had sought safety by living behind the structures.

The same mistake and tragedy would be repeated in the 1990s, but on a much larger scale, says Rodolfo, with the building of the dikes post-Pinatubo. In October 1995, rains brought by Tropical Storm “Mameng” caused lahar to breach the Gugu Dike, “totally destroying barangay Cabalantian in Bacolor, Pampanga,” with hundreds killed.

Still, it seems that officials have not learned their lessons. Starting in the 2000s till the present, says Rodolfo, the Department of Public Works and Highways “builds numerous costly, ineffective flood-control structures in Central Luzon and Camanava” even as he and his colleagues have made their objections felt. “Year after year, they fail, and more money is spent on cosmetic repairs,” Rodolfo laments.

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And now come the decidedly ambitious and dangerous plans to reclaim land from Manila Bay and Laguna Lake premised on the need to prevent flooding and ease traffic in Metro Manila. Of course the profit motive is present as well, since the reclaimed land will also be used for property development, for both residential and commercial purposes.

Rodolfo cites four reasons why reclamation of areas in Manila Bay and Laguna Lake “is a very bad idea.”

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First, the rapid subsidence (sinking) of coastal lands, specially in the Metro Manila area, is “enhancing the risk of flooding and high tides.” Among the reasons for this rapid subsidence, says Rodolfo, is rapid loss of groundwater due to decades of uncontrolled pumping. Loss of groundwater has also caused the ground level to fall, leaving these areas vulnerable to flooding.

Second, storm surges—very high tides during typhoons or weather disturbances—are, says Rodolfo, “an ever-worsening threat, due in part to subsidence, but also because climate change is increasing the frequency of the strongest typhoons.”

Third, coastal areas, such as those marked for reclamation, “are very susceptible to liquefaction and enhanced ground-shaking during earthquakes,” says Rodolfo. For those not familiar with the effects of liquefaction, where the ground seemingly turns to mud and watery mush due to shaking during an earthquake, simply google for photos of Dagupan after the 1990 earthquake.

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The fourth reason, says Rodolfo, can be laid directly at the doorstep, not of Mother Nature, but of the government, private-sector proponents and their enablers from multilateral donor institutions. The risks, he says, “are enhanced by the DPWH’s and JICA’s (the Japanese international agency for development) ignoring or minimizing the phenomena in their projects.” Rodolfo also cites the JBIC, Japan’s overseas development bank, which he says is the real culprit behind the packaging of such seeming developmental initiatives with commercially attractive prospects.

Rodolfo has a specially compelling video to show the effects of an earthquake on coastal areas. During the Bohol earthquake in 2013, security cameras in a resort in Talisay, Cebu, far from the earthquake’s epicenter, caught the effect on the water in the resort’s pool, which undulated periodically and grew in intensity as wave movements crested.

This was just a swimming pool, but it is easy enough to imagine the bigger and deadlier effects on a much larger body of water like a lake or a bay. Maybe what the proponents need is not so much scientific savvy as imagination, or compassion for the people who will suffer the consequences of corporate greed and official negligence.

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TAGS: kelvin Rodolfo, Laguna Lake, Manila Bay, Reclamation
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