Monday, February 27, 2012

New plans, old mistakes?

By Denis Murphy
2:31 am | Monday, February 27th, 2012

Government has received from the World Bank a $1.5-million grant to plan ways of combating flooding in Metro Manila, and a $250-million loan to implement the plan, according to a story in this and other papers on Feb. 13. Readers might think such news would delight the poor families living along the region’s waterways, since it could mean their fears of flooding are at an end, and government would now have the funding to help them build a more prosperous life. Instead, the poor who know of the plan are shaking in their boots. The poor regularly lose out when government talks of flood control. In the past it has meant the demolition of their homes and painful relocation to far off, economically barren places where there are no jobs.

Not so this time, the government will say. The poor would like to be reassured, and might be so assured if three matters were taken care of. One, that the planners meet with the poor and their professional allies (architects and urban planners) before the plan is put together—that is, early on in the process—so their thinking and their experience will have a place in the preparation of the plan. They hope the government won’t wait till the plan is finished and then meet with the poor to inform them only of what has been decided. They want to have a voice in this major decision that affects their lives.

Second, the poor would have more hope of good planning results if they knew the government had already secured the land needed for decent relocation of those families whose eviction cannot be avoided. By decent relocation they mean the norms agreed to by President Aquino in his Covenant with the Urban Poor of March 6, 2010. He promised in the covenant to work to limit relocation to on-site, in-city or near-city areas. He said he would oppose any government plan that would lead to a separation between wage earners who remain in the cities (because they cannot afford to commute daily to their work from distant relocation areas) and their families. These workers return only on weekends or less often to their families. Such separation can injure and even end family life. The President said: “We will not tolerate a situation where wage earners have to stay in the city to work, while the other members of the family stay in distant relocation centers. This separation weakens and often fractures family life. We will not institutionalize such situations by building sites in the city where they will live apart from their families. As the workforce in the cities, the poor, up to the extent possible, should be given the opportunity to stay in the cities.”

Has government acquired such in-city and near-city land for the families who may be evicted? If getting the good land is left to the end game, it will not work out very well, history shows.

Thirdly, the poor and their allies would like to hear that the planners have junked the simplistic tenet, often heard in government offices, that all families living in “danger zones” as defined in the Urban Development and Housing Act (RA 7279) must be evicted if they live next to water. This opinion is not supported by reality. There has been no flooding in the esteros or river communities of the Pasig River since 1970, even during Tropical Storm “Ondoy.” These are the esteros and river communities in Manila and Makati. We should ask instead how we can improve housing in these areas so that if there ever were a once-in-a-hundred-year monster flood, the people would not be injured, nor would the flow of the flood waters be impeded.

A similar disdain of facts is shown in the statements of government people including leading environmentalists that the poor people along the banks of waterways create the bulk of pollution in the water through their human waste. They put the percentage of the poor people’s contribution as high as 70 percent. Other sources say the figure is closer to 4 percent and the real major source of pollution comes from the untreated liquid waste that pours from the toilets of nearly everyone in Metro Manila, untreated into the river and esteros. The real need is for treatment plants, not eviction.

If the contribution of the poor to pollution in the waterways is only 4 percent, it seems the Supreme Court’s willingness in 2008 to remove all the homes of poor people from the banks of waterways to clean up Manila Bay may be too grievous. Is there parity between being only 4 percent of the problem and losing your home?

The press notice of the planning grant said the plan would be presented to government in one or two months. It hardly seems possible to finish such a plan in a few months, so we should probably presume it has been largely finished already by a small group. If so, we can keep these suggestions of the people until the next time a plan is discussed. By then, there will most likely be more bad experiences to learn from.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates.

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