We Don’t Want the Water Either

How a flood control plan will displace over a 100,000 people and what residents are doing about it.

By Christophe Stiernon

Pia Levya at her shop. Photo credit: Christophe Stiernon

Little slippers in all colours are proudly displayed on a TV cabinet as if in a showroom. Next door, 63- year-old Pia Levya is assembling soles and straps and cutting fabrics. There are neither machines nor workers. Everything is done by hand. Pia and her husband are one of the few remaining shoemakers in the once profitable industry on the shores of Laguna Lake. Pia explains that since the end of the nineties, soaring prices of materials and cheap imports have continuously cropped margins, forcing local manufacturers to look for other sources of livelihood. Today, she sells her hand made slippers for less than a dollar.

Pia, her husband and 3 family members share a concrete house in Biñan, a suburban city south of Manila. Like 4,700 other households they live in informal settlements sprawling along the coastal area. The green walls of Pia’s house are ruined by brownish marks from repeated flooding. During last year’s monsoon, a month of regular rainfall fell in just one day. The water submerged half of the Philippines’ capital, driving more than 280,000 people from their homes. Eventually, the water subsided after a few days in most areas. However, in Biñan the water remained, stranding Pia and the members of her community in 2 feet of water for 3 months.

With dozens of tropical storms and typhoons hitting its coastlines each year, the Philippines is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to extreme climate change. And the situation is getting worse. Seven of its most destructive typhoons in recorded history occurred in the past 6 years. But to understand why flooding occurs every year, we need to look beyond heavy monsoons and super typhoons. Neglected by decades of under investments, the poor drainage and sanitation systems of the National Capital Region are unable to handle the waste and sewage of a growing metropolis of more than 13 millions inhabitants. Poor urban planning and rapidly growing informal settlements exacerbate the situation. In one of the world’s densest cities in the world, impoverished residents settle wherever there is space and opportunity.

Photo credit: Christophe Siternon

Between 20 and 35% of Metro Manila residents live in informal settlements. Makeshift houses can be found on riverbanks, floodplains, under bridges, along railroad tracks and near dumps or industrial sites.

Families settle where they can earn a living, mostly in the informal economy. The blame for flooding is usually levelled at the urban poor and not at decades of poor urban planning and mismanagement. Most Manila residents overlook the fact that they depend on informal settlers for their daily commute, to recycle their waste, do their housework, and provide cheap goods at every street corner. Purple Romero, a Filipina reporter who has extensively investigated human-rights issues, argues that the urban poor represent the “labor that powers the economy, and yet the government makes few efforts to integrate them into society”.

In 2009, the worst flooding in over four decades devastated hundreds of thousands. The Philippine government came under pressure to address the issue once and for all. With a technical grant of $1.5 million from the World Bank, the National Government undertook a flood risk assessment study for the entire Metro Manila region and surrounding areas. Purple Romero explains that suddenly “the government has been aggressively pushing for the relocation of some 104,000 families that live along riverbanks or estuaries, so that waterways would not be constricted”. The study, completed in February 2012, led to a comprehensive flood risk management plan: the Flood Management Master Plan for Metro Manila and Surrounding Areas, for a total estimated cost of US$ 7.8 billion. Recommendations include improvements to river basins, waterways, urban drainage systems, and a series of structural measures around Laguna Lake. But the plan also involves the displacement of thousands of residents.

Jessica Amon of Community Organizers Multiversity explains that Pia and most of the 27,000 informal residents in Biñan will have to leave their homes, if the government plans are enacted.

Even today, many residents have still not been informed about the project. Some first learned about the flood management master plan in January 2014 — not by government officials, but when surveyed about their development priorities by Jessica and members of her team. The survey is part of a global study supported by the International Accountability Project in eight countries. The global study measures the implementation of development projects — especially those financed by the World Bank and other development banks, whose main goal is to end poverty.

Jessica and other community representatives devised the survey questions and the process of surveying communities affected by these development projects intended to end poverty. The preliminary findings already show that these projects, instead of moving communities out of poverty, actually lead to further impoverishment.

Pia agrees that floods are a constant problem but actually she fears displacement much more than the water. Jessica explains that people from the community are organized and willing to do something about their own lives and futures. She believes officials “deliberately keep the people uninformed in order to avoid agitations.” She warns that informal communities are very vulnerable. Although the communities were not involved in the creation of the government’s flood control plan, they have created their own. With support from some urban planners, the community-led People’s Plan still addresses the flooding, but limits the negative impact to those living there.

Jessica and the community are using their People’s Plan not just as an alternative to the government’s plan, but as a way to mobilize and advocate for the community’s own development priorities.

“It is important to ask how people can benefit from a project that they are not aware of or involved with, especially if it comes at the cost of their homes, lives and livelihoods.”

This post is part of series by the International Accountability Project exploring community-led advocacy efforts on development projects causing human rights abuses. Read more about the project on the Early Warning System — an initiative to identify the development projects most likely to cause human rights abuses.



International Accountability Project (IAP)

IAP is a human and environmental rights organization that works with communities, civil society and social movements to change how today’s development is done.