Of freak monsoons and floating barangays, Blocked esteros and blasting fish out of water

Heaven’s gates are on hiatus. With the tempest turned loose, the rain keeps pouring.  The water keeps rising. Thunder keeps booming. By ten in the morning, Liza Hilario is ready to leave. All around her, more keen ears keep constant vigil of radio reports that warn of a high tide – but she and her family are nowhere near the sea.

Come noon, a surge of noxious sludge from the nearby creek would sweep over their humble abode. They would have to move out, fast.

It was Tuesday, August 7, at the height of an unusually strong Southwest monsoon, known locally as Hanging Habagat, a yearly weather cycle made worse by Typhoons Saola and Haikui that drifted past the country to invade Taiwan and China later that week.

Two typhoons and a monsoon. A stormy triad that turned what would have been a seasonal thus thoroughly expected event,  into a thoroughly unexpected, nearly nonstop deluge, bringing vast swathes of Southern Luzon to a standstill after five days and leaving the streets of Manila looking more like Venice’s – in under two.

Only here, at the heart of the Philippine capital, the gondolas were either makeshift rafts, lashed together from Styrofoam and cardboard, or inflatable boats from emergency response teams scrambling to ferry people to and fro schools turned into evacuation centres.

Paddling past, the rescuers would see chaos: old men stranded on rooftops; little girls trapped on traffic posts. Cabs washed up by the rampaging waters to land, one on top of the other, on a crushed sidewalk stall. Drowned dogs. Swimming cats. A woman, pregnant, on a wooden boat launched by a nearby barangay to find the rest of the woman’s family.

Liza lives, with her own family and hundreds of other families, along a row of dilapidated huts, shaggy shacks, and miniature apartments of cardboard, rusty yero, flimsy plywood and ‘jumper’ electricity – all leaning precariously against a stagnant creek that winds through Manila Chinatown. Such is its nature that this unwieldy neighbourhood is referred to as the ‘floating barangay’, an island all its own, though that’s technically inaccurate.

While some of Liza’s neighbours do reach as far as the creek itself, their shanties propped up on stilts, this sixty-year-old’s home is on solid ground, well within the shoreline.

For it is in this roughly two-by-four metre, double-storey shack that Liza squeezes in with her sizeable kin – her son who earns his keep as a pedicab cycler, her daughter, her daughter’s husband, her daughter’s five children, her adopted daughter, her four children, her husband, and Liza herself – a grand total of fifteen.

When the flood warnings came, all fifteen, caught amid a throng of a thousand or so other people, filed out of their dense den. Some would leave for evacuation centres, others would go straight to the homes of relatives or friends on higher ground.  A few of Liza’s neighbours sought refuge in a shelter prepared for the followers of Dating Daan. It was like the apocalypse… all over again.

Their floating barangay wasn’t alone. By Wednesday, 60% of Manila would be inundated, with the rains affecting more than two million people across Luzon and northern Visayas.

The United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)  in its second situation report on the monsoon floods, said  more than two hundred thousand people were in 661 evacuation centres by August 17, with at least another 772,300 more seeking refuge in homes of relatives or friends.

The floods resulted in about a hundred deaths, with some low-lying and coastal areas predicted to stay swamped for up to three months.

Still, Liza insists, Ondoy ( int’l Typhoon Ketsana) was far worse. What took this month’s Habagat at least two days for floodwaters to flow up to their second floor took Ondoy mere hours.   It was like the apocalypse…not quite.

That Tuesday morning, they made their way out to safety, forced to leave behind their most prized possessions: an electric fan and a rice cooker, left atop a monobloc table in hopes of keeping them out of reach of the rising tide.

By this point, the water was up to their waists. They waded through the narrow corridors of their narrower outcrop by the creek to Ongpin street, where Liza and her neighbours sell cigarettes and Chinese newspapers, then on to her son’s place in Recto.

With every shack at least-half-way underwater, the barangay had descended beneath the waves.

After three days, the barangay would rise again, and Liza would return, moving on to the dire task of mopping up the muck from waves of canal water that had saturated every nook and cranny of the now soggy plywood walls, floor, and ceiling of her home. Electric fan and rice cooker both accounted for.

Liza talks about all this – what otherwise would have been a harrowing ordeal – with an easy grin and a dash of sarcasm, as though this were the normal course of events, and life goes on. Besides, they’ve had a lot of help.


Decent disaster response

In most areas, evacuation was swift and relief came quick, with emergency response teams dispatched almost instantly by aid agencies as well as local communities and civil society.    The Philippine National Red Cross deployed close to two thousand staff and volunteers to aid in search and rescue efforts, evacuation of communities, and distribution of food, medicines and safe drinking water.

“First aid, psychosocial support and emergency assistance have been provided to flood-affected communities. More than 97,000 people have been served with emergency food packages while another 73,000 have been provided with hot meals in relief centres. More than 55,500 litres of fresh drinking water has been delivered to help prevent the spread of disease”, it wrote in an online report.

The Red Cross wasn’t alone.  Government agencies, with assistance from international agencies, have begun drafting cash-for-work schemes and seed distribution programmes to assist both city dwellers and rural farmers with early recovery, while non-government organisations (NGOs) and local volunteers have pitched in wherever and however they can.

So overwhelming was this erstwhile ‘spirit of solidarity’ (if only in the face of crisis), perhaps, and so unexpected its resolute determination to reach communities in need, possibly the worst hit- with water up to their roofs even up to a week after the rains – that when a fresh flood of donations from a bunch of college students from Tulong Kabataan or TK came on Friday (August 17), they came by surprise.

TK had partnered with Sta. Cruz Church and Brigada Kalikasan, a relief drive by Kalikasan Partylist, to bring relief goods and educate Liza’s community on disaster prevention and environmental awareness.

Liza was grateful, but thought they would have been of better use elsewhere. Her family had received more than their share of donations, she insisted. They’re glad enough to have survived.

Kaya kung may relief man na manggagaling, ang gusto namin sa iba na, mas nangangailangan.  Kasi dito survive na kami  … Basta makaraos lang” (If relief goods do come, we’d rather they give it to other communities more in need. Here, we’ve at least survived… with enough to live on for another day), Liza said.

Indeed barely a day before the volunteers arrived, a neighbour who knew someone who knew someone who had a friend from Ateneo had offered their barangay more relief supplies –  an offer they declined. Others needed it more than they did, she said, maybe those who suffered the  worst of the deluge in Bataan, say, or Bulacan.

Still, every little bit helps.“Ang importante may bigas. (What matters is that we have rice)”

TK has since expanded its operations beyond Manila. Forged in the aftermath of Typhoon Ketsana in 2009, Tulong Kabataan volunteer network is an alliance of youth and civil society organisations including Kabataan Partylist, the National Union of Students of the Philippines, the Student Christian Movement, the College Editors Guild of the Philippines, and Anakbayan, working alongside university student governments.

While TK and other organisations like theirs face frequent shortages of food, water, clothes and drugs to give out, they rarely seem short on volunteers, especially on occasions like these.

Between medical missions, psychosocial programmes, and educational discussions, Tulong Kabatan also campaigns for better disaster preparedness nationwide and improvements to the state’s Calamity Fund.


Good job, but tackle true causes

Observers like the UK-based charity Oxfam note that such prompt action from both grassroots initiatives and the government has significantly eased the impact of natural disasters.

The Philippine Red Cross and UN-OCHA reported casualty figures far less compared to what followed Ondoy, which left more than seven hundred casualties.  Largely thanks to better warning systems and emergency response teams, including the National Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRMMC), formed in 2010, and its Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Offices (DRRMO).

In its blog, Oxfam praised DRRMOs in Cainta, Angono, and Sta. Cruz in Laguna  as examples of a shift away from patchy, ad hoc relief operations to a more comprehensive, proactive framework to prevent  disasters from happening in the first place: “The floods have made clear that a rigorous disaster readiness framework embodied in the DRRMO, one single office – and the passion for service of many volunteers, the cooperation of residents, and the support of the government – is sometimes what makes all the difference.”

It also noted, however, that “the monsoon floods still damaged properties and cut many lives short, sounding the clarion call once again for massive relocation of poor people living at the mouths of water systems or in the heart of catch basins.”

This followed a threat made by Rogelio Singson secretary of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) to “blast” informal settlers away from the creeks, or estero’s, that weave through the streets of Manila. Officials have long claimed that these waterways, still clogged by slums, are the principle cause of the floods that so often plague the city.

The comments were swiftly condemned by the likes of Denis Murphy, from advocacy group Urban Poor Associates, Congressman Mong Palatino of Kabataan Partylist, and Christian Aid’s Ted Bonpin, country manager for the Philippines

“Women, men and children living in informal settlements have a right to housing and appropriate relocation. Simply destroying existing structures will not address the problem and instead will leave communities even more vulnerable”, said Bonpin, in a report for Reuters Alertnet.

Their concerns were just as swiftly dismissed by Singson. Belying all rumours of Marcos-style demolitions: he was really (or so he insisted) referring to blasting not people’s homes, but fish pens in Pampanga.

Vice President Jejomar Binay followed this up, promising informal settlers would be moved to permanent resettlement sites in Metro Manila instead, ensuring communities access to their livelihoods in the capital city. More importantly, these ‘medium-rise buildings’ (MRBs) would be far less flood-prone.

Earlier, floods had forced close to a thousand families at a relocation site in Rodriguez, Rizal to move to higher ground.

But for now Binay, also chair of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council, said at least 5,363 families from Quezon City, San Juan, Mandaluyong and elsewhere would have to seek temporary shelter in available resettlement buildings in Bulacan and Rizal while the MRBs are still under construction.

Speaking to a group of flood relief volunteers that Friday, Gladys Regalado of Kalikasan Partylist said  blaming the urban poor for causing the floods skirts the real issues, like poor city planning or dysfunctional dams that discharge water in sudden droves when they overflow. Then there’s climate change, set to deliver more “freak weather’’  in the future, like last year’s tropical storm Washi (Sendong) that wreaked havoc in Cagayan de Oro.

Deforestation and mining, too, denude the countryside and mountains surrounding major cities. Chopping down trees weakens natural defences against flash floods and landslides, as their roots hold soil together, preventing erosion.  Both Ondoy and Sendong brought down tonnes of logs felled from neighbouring forests that crushed rural villages and killed hundreds when water washed over them.  These were no slums, nor were there any “waterways clogged by slum dweller’s trash” made prone to flooding.

Liza, though, sets aside such concerns in her haste to recover from the floods and restore some semblance of normal life for her extended brood of fifteen.

She’s heard plans to relocate them before – by force, if necessary. It won’t be. If push comes to shove, they will move again without complaint – to who knows where.

After all, her family has only been here since 2000, having moved in from Cavite in search of work.  Others have been here for generations, as far back as the ‘70s, on an island barangay that now stretches, like a run-down makeshift pirate ship straight out of the Caribbean, from Binondo to Recto.


Christopher Chanco

By Christopher Chanco

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