Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Rehabilitating riverside settlements

Inquirer Opinion / Columns

Commentary : Rehabilitating riverside settlements

By Anna Marie Karaos
Institute On Church And Social Issues
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Posted date: December 29, 2009

THREE months after storm “Ondoy” wreaked havoc on Metro Manila, a workable solution has yet to be found for rehabilitating the riverside settlements whose inhabitants suffered the brunt of the floods. The only solution government has put forward so far is to prohibit the informal settlers from returning to their riverside residences and to accelerate the construction of off-city resettlement sites.

But informal settlers have re-established themselves in the river easements in the absence of alternative places where Metro Manila’s workers can find affordable housing close to their sources of jobs and livelihood. Why does government insist on relying on a tired, ineffectual policy? How rational can it be to do same thing over and over again and expect a different result?

Urban planners claim that Manila lost a golden opportunity to re-plan and rebuild itself after the city was destroyed during World War II. The danger of missing on another opportunity to put things right looms again if public authorities fail to come up with new land policies and redevelopment approaches in response to the wake-up call delivered by Ondoy.

How we frame the problem determines what solutions we will find and where we will look for them. If the problem is simply understood as how and where to provide permanent housing for the 80,000 families living on the easements of Metro Manila’s rivers and waterways, resettlement would seem logical. However, urban poverty specialists contend that the real problem is how to preserve the fragile access poor people have to the advantages offered by cities, principally jobs and services essential for survival and upward mobility like health and education. They argue that living in cities is the best self-help strategy poor people have devised to overcome poverty and therefore government policies should be designed in ways that would protect poor people’s access to the benefits of living in cities.

If we accept that the old solution does not work, and by this I mean specifically large-scale off-city resettlement, shouldn’t we begin thinking differently about the “problem” of informal settlements?

As a start, I propose two new ways of thinking.

My first proposition is that finding a solution to rehabilitating the riverside communities cannot be divorced from a city-wide, even nation-wide, reform of urban land policy. We should begin to think not just land use or land management but land governance. Land governance is about linking decisions on the allocation and use of land to social needs and political processes. Land is a finite and social resource that should be harnessed to meet social needs and purposes. Determining what these needs and purposes are involves a political process. If we claim we are a democracy, this political process needs to be inclusive. Decision-making on land uses and what social needs to prioritize must be inclusive both in process and in outcome. When more than half a million Metro Manila families live in slums or informal settlements without legal tenure and 80,000 of them have to live on river easements, there is no land governance. Governance has clearly failed to be inclusive in its outcome.

How does government plan to use the land resources that it still controls? What land laws and policies would be needed to channel private and public land to socially desirable uses? Are these questions being asked at all? Cities are densifying and land prices keep rising. The distribution of urban space will increasingly become more inequitable. Is anyone paying any attention to this problematic scenario? What tenure systems should we encourage to make housing affordable to the greater number of urban residents? Should we insist on the disposition of lands through titling of individual plots? Or can other tenure systems be promoted such as community land trusts, land use rights, rental housing, community leases and usufruct arrangements on private and government-owned lands? These tenure systems have the advantage of providing legal access to land without a heavy financial burden on poor users. The key is giving poor people legal access to urban space, not providing land titles.

What about multi-story housing for urban poor residents? A poor country like Sri Lanka has made it work through land sharing and cross-subsidy schemes.

My second proposition is that poor people are the best resource for finding a solution to making riverside rehabilitation sustainable. In Surabaya and Bangkok, the development of riverside settlements was negotiated successfully by the informal dwellers with their city governments. Official policy shifted from resettlement to redevelopment through the organization of the riverside communities which made a commitment and a plan to upgrade their homes, clear space for riverside roads, install septic tanks and keep the rivers clean. The government took responsibility for building the roads, dredging the rivers and collecting the accumulated waste from the riverbeds. Many riverside communities in Metro Manila have capable organizations which can easily replicate this strategy with the support of their local governments.

We would do well to heed the call of Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, who said in a recent pastoral letter: “It is not enough to simply order people off the waterways. A deep restructuring of our society is called for, starting in the present crisis with urban land policy.” The Manila archbishop presented concrete proposals, including urban land reform, a follow-through on presidential land proclamations, taxation of idle lands and a moratorium on eviction for as long as humane and adequate relocation cannot be provided. He reminded us, in the words of the psalmist, that “unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”

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