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ASIA'S FUTURE CITIES: Can Manila avoid climate catastrophe as it teeters on the brink?

Manila is bracing for the next calamity. The forecasts are dire: for more potent typhoons, greater flooding, rising sea levels and the ever-present risk of a powerful earthquake. But nevertheless, complacency is an issue among some authorities and communities. 

MANILA: When Typhoon Nesat hit Metro Manila in 2011, it was one of the most destructive typhoons the city had ever confronted.

Maricris Ramos was 23 at the time and recalls the pure fear that struck her community in Navotas, an exposed district facing Manila Bay.

“First, the waves became big, alarmingly big.  They crashed into our house, destroying it. Our house used to stand there,” she said, pointing to a spot closer to the current shorefront.


Tengson's waterfront houses were struck hard by Typhoon Nesat in 2011.

Her family’s home – and the thousands of others in Tengson – are now further elevated above the water level and are sheltered by a dike system, which is designed to prevent flooding during powerful storm surges, as happened in 2011.

Tengson feels precarious. The houses, mostly made from flimsy metal, are stacked like Lego bricks. The passages between them are narrow and dank and plastic waste engulfs areas where adults work and children play.


Over recent years, many residents living in vulnerable locations and informal housing in Navotas have been relocated to other parts of the metropolitan area. Those who remain are defiant but wary.

“Of course, because there’s a possibility that the dike may be destroyed because of the huge waves. We are afraid, but we have no choice, we have no other option,” Ramos said.


Families here are poor and mostly rely on fishing to make a living.

Slightly north of Navotas, another community exists under the grip of a slower hazard. In Malobon, the residents of Artex live in what has been dubbed “Water World”.

Every year, floods arrive regularly at this low-lying part of the city. But for more than a decade now, they have not receded. No one has seen the streets or land where their houses stand since then.

“The first time that the water rose, if I’m not mistaken, was in 1991, when Mount Pinatubo erupted. The water level would eventually subside but it would increase again during the rainy season,” said long-time resident Loida Lumagas.

“That was the cycle for many years. Then in 2004, 2005, the water level stayed this way. The water never disappeared.”


Residents have learned to live among the never receding floodwaters.

People in Artex now make a living from the situation, using boats to generate income and as “weapons” against seasonal weather events.

Still, they exist on the brink, just like millions of others throughout Manila.

The city is bracing for the next calamity. The forecasts are dire: for more potent typhoons, greater flooding, rising sea levels and the ever-present risk of a powerful earthquake.

But nevertheless, complacency is an issue among some authorities and communities alike.


A young boy sits on the entrance to a house, elevated above the water.

A BOAT CALLED NOAH

After the devastation of Tropical Storm Washi in late 2011, the government made an urgent call to bring together the country’s best minds to prevent future disasters.

Project NOAH was formed.

Under the stewardship of geologist Dr Mahar Lagmay, the project, which draws in 20 other programs, has used cutting-edge science and technology to create vulnerability maps, simulate major disasters and try to change the mindsets of communities living with risk.


Project NOAH can simulate disasters and identify risk throughout the Philippines.

“In most places, the biggest disasters have not occurred yet. You cannot capture the bigger events of the future by looking at history and that’s when disasters happen. That’s why you need science and technology,” he told Channel NewsAsia.

“You can think of it as a boat called Noah and that system will get us to go on a certain path, a path where we are safe.”

It is brave language at a time when even by the project’s own measures, Metro Manila is at its greatest risk of peril. And despite its reported achievements, NOAH itself had appeared on its final legs, being saved at the eleventh hour by the University of the Philippines late last month.

It was meant to have been disbanded as a project with its resources and activities re-allocated under the national weather bureau PAGASA. Lagmay continued his fight, however, to keep the group together, arguing that its effectiveness would be decimated if it was split up.

“People know about Noah. If you take out the name, then you’re going to go back to square one,” he said.


Metro Manila, including Navotas, is expecting more intense climate and disasters in the future.

He maintains support among the cities that have used the resources. Marikina, within the metro, was one of the first recipients of NOAH’s work.

In turn, it has assisted Marikina to develop some of the leading anti-disaster measures in greater Manila. After the devastation of Typhoon Ondoy in 2009, when 70 people died in the city due to massive flooding, authorities there are now taking preventative measures against future storms bigger than Ondoy.

“When it comes to a plan for disaster preparedness, we are a benchmark urban centre. We are always looking at the worst-case scenario,” said Gloria Ory Buenaventura, head of the Marikina City Environment and Management Office.

While it has not been truly tested since 2009, Marikina has implemented a raft of preventative measures such as flood pumping stations on the river, a proper waste management system and disaster education for residents. With the use of mapping from Project NOAH, people living in flood prone areas have been relocated, despite some objections.

“People refuse, they say flooding only happens once in a while and there are 365 days in a year and only ten days of flooding. They’re happy to live with the danger. We‘re empowering them with information,” Buenaventura said.


The city of Marikina is investing in significant anti-disaster infrastructure.

Indeed, the sharing of open data, maps and forecasting is central to the concept of the project, something Dr Lagmay says has always been missing in the past. “Unfortunately some people don’t appreciate it,” Buenaventura said.

Back in Navotas, the local government’s own disaster team is one that sees little benefit to Project NOAH. “You just give me a map and colour the entire area yellow, all areas are critical,” said Vonne Villanueva, the city’s disaster risk reduction and management officer.

“So what planning use is that, what can I do other than to get out of my city in case there’s a calamity? “


Experts argue that vision is needed from political leaders to save the city.

Voltaire Alferez, the former head of Aksyon Klima Philippines – a network of environmentally-mind civil society groups – believes like any project, NOAH “has a beginning and it has an end”.

“From the get go – people need to understand - by its title it’s a project, it’s not an agency, it’s not a special commission,” he said.

Alferez now works daily with disaster-prone communities as the executive director of Community Crafts Association. He says local government units do not have the means or foresight to prevent weather events causing catastrophe.

“Why are not yet mainstreaming Project Noah? That’s the challenge now.”

Regardless, it may not be enough.


Many residents do not want to move from their traditional homes, despite the rising dangers of climate change. 

“A LOT OF US WILL STILL PROBABLY DIE”

Manila has potentially fatal flaws. At least, that is according to prominent urban planner Paul Alcazaren.

By failing to plan properly for decades and decentralising power over the running of the city, doom is edging closer, he says.

“A lot of us will still probably die in the next calamity. That’s the reality. I don’t want to sugar coat anything,” he said. It is a forewarning backed up by data that shows more than 35,000 people would die in five minutes if a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit Metro Manila.

He argues that there is a desperate need to “change the political construct” by reinstating a Manila governor role to end the parochial leadership of 17 different city mayors who run the metro.


This dike system is designed to protect residents from storm surges.

“It’s ridiculous because the city is homogenous. The floodwaters won’t stop at one city boundary,” he said. “My vision is simple. Create a metropolis where we don't all die tomorrow.” While cities like Marikina are fast to adapt to climate change, others have transitioned back to their old method, which prioritises disaster response, not readiness.

“It has always been reactive and it takes a different kind of leader to spell out what they want from their cities. They’re rare, and not only in the Philippines but around the world. So we work with what we have,” said Alferez.

Dr Mahar Lagmay’s alternate ideal fix is to decentralise the entire structure of the country to avoid calamity, by investing in rural areas to encourage development away from Manila, an idea dismissed by Alcazaren as “a pipe dream”.

“An overpopulated place is the perfect formula for a disaster. So we need to address that now. These disasters are the problem of development,” Lagmay said.


"My vision is simple. Create a metropolis where we don't all die tomorrow," Paul Alcazaren said.

But for those living the reality of worsening climate change, packing up and leaving, abandoning home and memory, is their own version of a worst-case scenario.

“This is where we were born, this is where we grew up, this is where we had our families, this is where our parents grew old. Everything’s here,” said Maricris Ramos in Navotas.

Her emotional attachment is echoed by Loida Lumagas in flooded Artex. She says she does not fear climate change and has a rather brighter outlook on her changing world.

"What do I like most about this place, now that we have water here? The water itself."