Ms. Gonzales is an architect and environmental planner by profession and an ecologist by principle. This was published in the November 2, 2009 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

I am often asked about the Metro Manila Transport Land Use and Development Planning Project, Final Report, Main Volume (or MMETROPLAN). Does it hold the key to the mystery of why our metropolis is this way today?

Such questions seem to assume that if only we had followed the MMETROPLAN, typhoon Ondoy’s damage may not have been as severe.

If only it were that simple.

The MMETROPLAN seems to be essentially a comprehensive transport plan for Metropolitan Manila, completed in 1977. It has 32 pages of Urban Development recommendations, and a section on “Making sure that urban development takes place in areas which are suitable for development.”

But it is on a map labeled “Areas Suitable for Development, 1977-1985,” that it makes a strong statement regarding the Marikina Valley areas: Restrict urban expansion until problems relating to flooding and pollution can be resolved.

I am glad that Architect Felino “Jun” Palafox brought it up, if only to draw attention to the fact that at some point in our history (and indeed all throughout), analysis and planning were going on. That great minds were working to put together recommendations designed to ensure a better life for us all in our respective habitats. And that these processes were never taken seriously enough to act on them, but perhaps only to fund them and then have the plans published in some form.

But I find worrisome the notion that merely reviving these plans (including the Parañaque Spillway project) is the “key” to ending our woes.

I am all for accountability, and we, as citizens, are accountable. If we could go beyond the blaming and critically analyze how and where decisions were made and how the action moves forward, (and indeed, how plans are prepared, and their relationship to implementers) we might get somewhere.

People seem to think that MMETROPLAN had a very complete guide to how the metropolis should develop, with detailed locations of where to build and where not to build in the Marikina Valley. But it only mentions general areas in the Marikina Valley and beyond and went on to say that a more detailed feasibility study must be undertaken to determine specific areas that are suitable and unsuitable for development within those bigger localities.

As we now know, this did not happen.

MMETROPLAN does give policy directions and recommendations on guiding and controlling development, which again, were not picked up either by national or local government. And neither did the public learn about them.

Perhaps that is where we could improve: establishing the links between planning and implementation.
Also worrisome is the focus on merely relocating thousands of squatters outside Metro Manila and relying on techno-fixes, including the very expensive and quite useless dredging.

Without addressing more fundamental issues of over-development at the tops of watersheds, such measures will certainly pose more problems than they will solve.

Let me borrow from Darwin Fandino Flores’ notes from the briefing by the Manila Observatory, U.P. National Institute of Geological Sciences and Jun Palafox last October 16, 2009. I have kept his comments in parentheses because they give life and specificity and therefore more power to the descriptions.

1. Areas are increasingly flood-prone as a result of:

1.1 subsidence due to groundwater extraction (too many deep-wells)
1.2 limited/inoperative drainage (basurang itinatapon sa mga estero at waterways, illegal structures)
1.3 limited absorptive capacity of urbanized areas (sinemento nang lahat ng pwedeng sementohin)
1.4 increased run-off from provincial high grounds due to deforestation (of surrounding
mountains/hills… naging mga subdivision na sila)
1.5 rising sea level due to climate change (ayan na!)

2. Overflowing of Laguna de Bay

2.1 siltation due to deforestation (of surrounding mountains and hills at saka mga basura)
2.2 limited egress to Manila Bay via Pasig River
2.3 limited egress via other channels (hinarangan ng mga subdivision at kung anu-ano pa)

3. Inadequate warning (walang effective local warning system)

Item 1 can still be rooted in the following:

1. overloading, overpopulation, and inbound migration (to Manila from the provinces);
2. inappropriate city configuration due to inappropriate city design and violation of zoning rules

I think it is a very good list. But I hope whoever’s in charge of the solutions doesn’t focus on 2.2, which officials have tended to do all these years. For 2.2 only justifies the very expensive and hard-to-measure “dredging” (and anything unmeasurable is prone to corruption). Dredging is often too little, too late. Dredging means that you’ve already let the mountaintops dump their sedimentation down the river. It means that our authorities have not done anything to prevent erosion from happening further upstream. Dredging only provides a false sense of security that something is being done.

I’d also be a little careful about citing “inbound migration.” I think that’s a knee-jerk reaction to justify “balik-probinsya” programs even if there is no probinsya for people to return to. Most inhabitants of these settlements are home-grown, have long ceased to be “agricultural.” They could be so urbanized that bringing them to the rural areas may only result in further degradation of natural ecosystems.

I’d say the height of urban in-migration happened about a couple of generations ago. If I remember correctly, Metro Manila experienced a decrease in its growth rate about one or two censuses ago, with Region IV receiving much of its out-migration.

We might as well accept the reality that the people living in formal and informal relocation sites on hillsides and along waterways are at least two generations worth of Metro Manila informal settlers.

Consider this: in many of these communities, women have babies at age 14 or 15, and are grandmothers at 30. Many of them may even have babies every year. Since menopause is still far away, they can continue to have babies even through grandmotherhood.

Sure, we could address all the above issues (and in fact we must), but if we don’t address and provide support for people to effectively map out their family lives and indeed the rest of their earthly existence in such a way as to not unduly stress the environment upon which they rely on individually and collectively, we would continue to be wiped out again and again.

We must find the courage to go beyond the usual and cliché-ish solutions of “dredging, cementing and relocation” by working on our critical understanding of the real roots of Metro Manila’s development problems.

And acting on them.