Metro Manila and Disasters: Narratives of Risk

David Garcia


Artwork by Dan Matutina

Think Manila is a mess? What happens when that mess is faced with disasters?

Metro Manila is greatly unprepared for any disaster.

 Two nights before Typhoon Glenda (international name: Rammasun) sliced through the National Capital Region in July 2014, the talk on primetime airwaves centered on the administration’s defense of a controversial public spending scheme instead of issuing typhoon warnings. It was only past 10 p.m. that night when the weather forecaster was provided a small segment for the public call to preparedness.

 Warnings were eventually published in the early hours of the next day, when the cyclone made landfall in the Bicol region. As a reaction, both a Public Storm Warning Signal No. 2 and a preventive suspension of classes were declared for NCR.  A subset of the population stocked up and braced themselves, while others mocked the declaration by pointing to the hot and humid weather over the metropolis. May bagyo ba? Ang init naman sa labas eh (If there's a storm, then why is it sunny outside?). Meanwhile, some who took the warnings more seriously invoked the name of the deity to “melt” the geophysical phenomenon.

 Insultingly, forced evacuations from Manila's coastal areas were done only in the morning the cyclone arrived. Preparations were inadequate and as expected, the "prayer shield" was insufficient to reduce the damage wrought to life and property.[1]


The Theory Behind Disaster Risk Reducation and Management

Glenda's trip to Manila could have been less stressful if the risks were reduced and properly managed. Risk, which underlies the dynamics of disasters, measures the potential level and probability of damages. Four factors—hazards, exposure, vulnerability, and the adaptive capacity of the people—generate a level of risk across places, and that each disaster is but a realization of these factors.

Hazards (not to be conflated with the disaster event), are imminent dangerous geophysical phenomena, such as cyclones and earthquakes, that inflict destruction. Exposure is judged by the degree of contact of persons and property to the hazard. Without exposure there can be no disaster, and is thus a parameter that should be minimized.

Unfortunately, many settlements in the Philippines are already exposed to hazards. The uplands are prone to landslides, the lowlands are prone to flooding, and shorelines are always on the lookout for storm surges. It is easy to quip, faux-fatalistically, that it is just a matter of choosing your exposure in the Philippines. Yet that can be mitigated by acting on vulnerability and adaptive capacity to change the results of the risk equation.

Vulnerability is the lack of social, economic, and knowledge-based resources. For instance, vulnerability decreases when a community is organized into a formal grassroots organization, given ways to pool savings, and provided sustainable livelihood mechanisms that enable them to access financial credit, which in turn creates surplus income for better shelter materials and for increasing quality of life. The reinforcement of the good practices increases adaptive capacity. Eventually, the community rises above the poverty line as, ceteris paribus, risks decrease systematically.

To reduce and manage disaster risk we must decrease exposure and vulnerability while increasing adaptive capacity. As in finance, risk ought to be reduced and managed through the judicious employment of assets, social capital, and information in order to quickly minimize losses and maximize gains. Conversely, any undertaking that seriously increases exposure, aggravates vulnerability, and decreases adaptive capacity is a step toward increasing risk and renders the risk less manageable. Simply put, there is no talk of adaptation and resilience without any serious consideration of risk and its factors.

What measures can expedite the breakup of the perennial chain of unpreparedness that typifies the urban systems of Metro Manila? The discussions below proceed with how Metro Manila functions and performs with regards to hazard, exposure, vulnerability, and adaptive capacity. It is hoped that the realistic discourse will open good possibilities for the seemingly hopeless urban situation.



The complex overlay of geohazards that endanger Metro Manila looks like this: Floods descend to the metropolis from the catchment basins of the denuded Marikina Watershed in the northeast, the silted Laguna de Bay in the east, and the urbanizing Tagaytay Ridge in the south. Meanwhile Manila Bay delivers a counterpart of storm surges during strong winds. Cyclones and seasonal monsoons bring more rains through the area. In addition, the over-extraction of groundwater over decades has induced subsidence, where some areas have already sunk by a meter in the last decennial period. Joining the party are at least three volcanic areas, Pinatubo, Taal, and Sierra Madre, in the region’s vicinity.

To top it all off, the Valley Fault System (VFS) cuts through the mega city. The 2004 Metro Manila Earthquake Impact Reduction Study (MMEIRS) projected a 7.2-magnitude quake, and it is overdue. Ten years after the study, NCR residents are still unprepared for the violence that will kill up to 30,000 persons. Meanwhile, experts, real estate brokers, and city officials argue about who should take responsibility for the Marikina fault line, a ticking time bomb which extends well beyond the city’s borders. 

Exposure and Vulnerability

As population density and economic activity annually increases in NCR, the extremely high level of exposure multiplies the risks to life and property.  Metro Manila’s population, which amounts to 11,855,975 (2010 census), is exposed to the hazards. The resident and migrant city population, pouring in from the bordering provinces, generates the lion's share of the GDP from the limited urban space of a narrow isthmus, making Metro Manila one of the most packed conurbations in the world.

The vulnerability is reflected in the historical pattern of land use. A lot of migrants and internally-displaced people prefer spaces beside channels and beneath bridges as shelter for lack of a better alternative. After Typhoon Ondoy (international name: Ketsana) in 2009, the government decided to engage in a five-year resettlement program, a typical response to the shelter situation, for informal settler families totaling approximately 100,000 individuals. As the program neared its halfway mark last year, the method of reducing risk is questionable. Bureaucrats, even with the latest geohazard maps, fished people out of the esterosand transferred the communities to other highly exposed areas, and the lack of livelihood and other opportunities in the new site only increased their vulnerability.

One of the groups was transferred to a floodplain in Rodriguez, Rizal and complained that six-foot high floodwaters threatened their families during the rainy season that followed their transfer. In addition, the settlers complained of intense heat and lack of utilities as they struggle to adjust to the situation of being far from their previous spaces of earning. Instead of disaster risk reduction, the risk is managed through the shifting of people geographically. As the exposure is merely reproduced in the migration, those with less purchasing power are unable to build the required resilience in these shifts from the peripheries to the core, and then to the core's fringes.

Again, such reproduction of exposure greatly interplays with the persistence vulnerability in the NCR urban system. This happens as those with less access to better resources and assets (e.g., disadvantaged socioeconomic groups) have limited options for settling: housing, land use, and tenure. Such areas of weak shelter, unhealthy land use, and insecure land tenure commonly coincide with areas of highest hazard and exposure. Enter a weak state that is relatively unable to provide the necessary settlement alternatives due to poor urban planning, public investment, countryside development, etc.

Someone with the popular narrative will blame the choice on the informal settlers. Yet in the context of a weak state, the settlement choices of the slum dwellers are not because they like being priced out of better living spaces; such decisions are due to lack of better landscape alternatives. 

Is it always true that low-risk is guaranteed beyond the confines of posh gated communities? Does having better access to state resources guarantee “safer” spaces? As a caveat, one does not need to be a member of a low-income household to have increased exposure. The west fault of the VFS cuts across the soil and rocks on which the mansions of La Vista and McKinley Hill stand. Similarly, the headquarters of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council is located, ironically, just a few hundred meters from the west fault of the VFS. Increased exposure cancels out lower vulnerability.

Adaptive Capacity

Increasing adaptive capacity remains one of the methods to score consistent victories in DRRM. This is because adaptive capacity means a cycle of avoidance, mitigation, preparation, response, recovery, and rehabilitation measures.

Briefly, avoidance means not living in high-exposure and high-risk zones. Mitigation means setting up mechanisms such as floodwater control to reduce the impact of the hazard. Preparation means having drills, contingency supplies, and evacuation plans if mitigation measures fail, while response relies on the timely and effective rescue and delivery of critical items such as food, water, and shelter. Recovery is targeted in both restoring basic settlement functions such as electricity and banking, and restarting the local economy through cash transfers. Rehabilitation is the production of structural and long-term solutions for sustainable redevelopment.

The Metro Manila disaster narratives reflect a cycle of maladaptation. For example in 2009, the Ondoy floods killed hundreds of NCR residents, destroyed homes, and created a new brand of used automobile: the "not flooded." As usual, the intelligentsia and middle class were quick to blame their inconvenience and damage on informal settlers and garbage in the rivers, creeks, and urban drainage system. It was as if the "squatter" people and waste were of one category.

But class war obscured the role played by the Manila Watershed, an important factor that decides the fates of many. The watershed drains the water from the upland ridges out to the reefs. In addition to catching spillover water, however, the basin is filling with spillover development: migrant populations from the provinces, like Aklan, outpriced by the high living costs in the metropolis.

The fault for the disaster risk falls on the uplander and the lowlander alike. The upland occupants earn their subsistence from orchard farming, logging, and charcoal making, which are all purchased by the lowlanders. The land cover change and soil erosion that ensue reduces the absorptive capacity of the forestscape, or whatever is left of it. During periods of prolonged rainfall, the intensified discharge from upland drainage system overloads the clogged drainage infrastructure of the cityscape.

In response to such dynamics, the environment secretary announced that the watershed should be called the Upper Marikina River Basin Protected Landscape and Seascape (UMRBPLS) and instituted the National Greening Program (NGP). Hundreds of thousands of tree saplings were ordered, distributed, and planted in watersheds throughout the archipelago.

Prior to 2011, the UMRBPLS was legally named the Marikina Watershed Reserve (MWR). In international and national law, a Reserve should enjoy full preservation and allowed no settlements, while a degree of settlement and resource use is permitted for any Protected Landscape and Seascape (PLS).

Here’s the catch for the reforestation program. Years after the NGP, the reforestation projects and legal announcements did not curb the destructive upland practices of kaingin (burning trees to cultivate land) and pag-uuling (charcoal-making). After some upland community dwellers were paid for each tree they planted, the new trees were felled for more charcoal. If you zoom into Google Earth images of the watershed, you may still see the logs floating along the river. Zoom out and discover the open-pit limestone quarries, which were permitted by the provincial government on and near the watershed. Therefore, the ominous truth behind the "solutions" was that: (1) the UMRBPLS announcement merely lowered the level of legal protection for the watershed; and (2) the conduct of the NGP indirectly encouraged the denudation of the watershed. When the government builds with one hand and destroys with another, is disaster risk systematically reduced? The charcoal supply is simply replenished. The barbecue party continues; we grill ourselves.           

In another example, the Filipino's penchant for response and the neglect for the other steps of the adaptation cycle for DRRM also constitute maladaptation. For this we need some psychoanalysis a la Slavoj Zizek. Let us sum this story with two of the most favorite Filipino hobbies: movies and shopping.

The events surrounding a major Philippine disaster feel like déjà vu. A disaster apparently takes the country by surprise. Enter the senior government official who plunges into the torrents to save an old lady.  As the nation snaps into alert during TV primetime, the anchors conduct the newscast with the disaster site as the studio. People proceed with the search for both the missing and the relief goods brandished with the politician's name. The weather bureau is blamed for the weather. The President later arrives at the site, waving and standing with his allies on the back a military truck. An epilogue of blame-throwing and the mandatory newsreels of rotting rice and decaying relief goods follow. Then, there’s the shopping: inflatable boats, life vests, megaphones, and handheld radios top the grocery list. Occasionally, there are promises for purchasing the sea wall, mega dike, and the drainage infrastructure

How is such a psychosocial situation made possible? Although quite paradoxical, it seems that the Filipino's appetite for the spectacular (i.e., fiesta) and the incremental (i.e., tingi-tingi) manifests in disasters. In this milieu of quickies, the career politicians gain a lot from performing well[2] while in the big picture, the situation remains unchanged. Though the movie titles were different—Ondoy, Pablo, Sendong, Bohol, and Yolanda—in various intensities they merely followed the same spiels. After the movie, the politicos scramble for credit. The after-credits scenes feature the news anchor inaugurating the rebuilt classroom in the same high-risk zone. The news anchor interacts with the kids, who are clutching their new bags and shoes. As the schoolchildren smile and wave at the camera, we smile back and feel a closure–catharsis.

Rewind. The risks remain high.

The final example shows the dysfunctional networks of disaster information in the Philippines. It starts with the "supernatural" side of Philippine disasters. In 2013, a certain religious group from Negros Island claimed that a "prayer shield" reduced the impact of Typhoon Yolanda on their settlements. They supported their claim by a Doppler Radar image that displayed no turbulence over their place as the cyclone straddled central Visayas. It was later discovered that the absence of turbulence in the image was only due to the instrument's temporary malfunction. A specialist from Project NOAH had to clarify the science and engineering to the prayer group. There was no miracle from a supernatural superweapon.

Such supernaturalization of hazards positions cyclones, earthquakes, and other geophysical phenomenon as the antithesis of miracles. Thus, people are compelled to pray to their God to melt the storm, push it away, and provide “a prayer shield." Despite those requests, we have to remember that DRRM is a multi-year homework. If risk was not reduced through years of sound urban planning, capacity building, and getting people out of poverty, then the battle was already lost in the day of the intercession.[3]

 To respond to the misinformation, the bureaucrats and technocrats try their best to get the DRRM message through. This is noticeable in countless forums, workshops, and "capacity building" activities that every disaster spawns, then compressed through a storm of hashtags on Twitter immediately before, during, and after each event.

 But #YolandaPH was not popular in the preparation phase for Haiyan. The top trending phrase on the night before the storm was #kathniel, the portmanteau of two immensely popular teen idols; Yolanda barely made the list even as it was three hours before it arrived in Guiuan, Eastern Samar. In that moment, it seemed that popularizing the celebrities was more important than the awareness of the strongest cyclone to make landfall in human history.

At the time Glenda was about to arrive, less than a year after, the name of the typhoon was again at the bottom part of the trending list. Yet the love team's fan base has finally learned disaster adaptation; hence they pushed this to the top of the country's trending list: #bagyongkathniel.

It is difficult to rely on a forced entry of DRRM into the public consciousness. Ideally, the intervention should come from the grassroots meetings in the barangay, purok, and sitio. The grassroots intervention has the advantage of including demographic cohorts who do not have access to what Twitterati churns out. In combating the misinformation, community leaders can help laymanize concepts such as cyclogenesis, liquefaction, watershed, mitigation, adaptation, and resilience. Frequent meetings can ease the DRRM message from workshops, prayer vigils, and social media onto street talk. Instead of being delayed, distorted, and lost, the message may become the staple of the weekend karaoke, inuman,and barbecue party.

Yet due to the anomie, placelessness, and rat race on the urban jungle, attending barangay meetings seems to be at the bottom of the Metro Manila resident’s to-do list.

Conclusion: The Counternarrative of Albay

To engage in a long-term social project of preparing Metro Manila, we should learn from the disaster narrative of Albay.

The province faces multiple hazard exposure because they are regularly visited by cyclones from the Pacific, bisected by faults, threatened by tsunamis, and crowned with a stratovolcano, the Mayon.

But the Albay provincial government is active in improving and enforcing the spatial plans. Through tools such as geospatial technologies, the local government is able to engage in a long-term restructuring of settlements to continuously adjust to the shifting character of the geohazards. In their urban, environmental, and regional planning, the geographical patterns of hazard, exposure, vulnerability, and adaptive capacity are mapped in high resolution with little help from outside consultants. On the community level, these maps and plans are localized by having the risk zones and evacuation routes painted in community boards. The village deliberates on these during assemblies.

There is synergy between the provincial government, national government, private sector, schools, church, and the armed forces. The group convenes in their disaster command center days before the strike and pools resources together during the response. The group asks the armed forces to expedite preemptive and forced evacuations. Afterwards, the evacuees are brought to a dedicated evacuation center, which is complete with quarters and bathrooms for each household. By doing so, the dignity and privacy of each family is respected while school operations,with fewer evacuees than ever, can resume operations as soon as possible. The army and the local shopping mall prepositions trucks loaded with relief goods, the funds for which were already included in the year's provincial budget and expenditure program. These happen as their social media teams saturate cyberspace.

While it took Yolanda-affected towns months to finish their recovery and rehabilitation plans, Albay finished theirs a few days after Glenda struck. As a result, the national emergency funds are readily accessed for the reconstruction of the province.

The completion of their DRRM cycle bears much fruit. Local government officials from other parts of the country travel to the Climate Change Academy in the province to study. The provincial programs on vulnerability reduction made them a top performer in accomplishing the millennium development goals. As the province posts high economic growth rates year after year, it exhibits the fastest growth in the national tourism industry. Meanwhile, the province has a governor who is continuously cited as an international DRRM hero.

What is their disaster death count for the past three years? Zero.

Such restructuring and growing of their settlements in the DRRM way took years, as Albayanos believed that DRRM should be systematically interwoven with how they decided and lived. That was their counternarrative.

 To challenge the narratives of maladaptation, we should work for this goal: to restructure and grow Metro Manila's settlements in such a way that, through proper adaptation, the risks of disasters will be more manageable and less possible.


[1] In one day, the customary photograph of a fallen tree replaced the selfies in Filipino cyberspace. It was as if you had to have the photo, which was better with #nofilter, to participate in the collective sympathy and rant. This happened as everyone lamented the power outage that lasted days.

[2] Ex-action star Lito Lapid plunged into pyroclastic waters after a volcanic eruption in 1991 en route to winning a senatorial seat, while Dick Gordon, Philippine Red Cross chairman, nearly became a senator too after he was photographed giving orders aboard a rescue vehicle. On social media, people were spreading the message of “Ipasok si Dick (let Dick in [office])” during the evening of the elections in the hopes of rallying his flagging poll numbers. We love quickies.

[3] Then, there is the intertwining of the supernaturalization of disasters and the message distortion through social media. Earlier last year, fear spread through the population due to “mysterious and flesh-eating” bacteria in Pangasinan. For the pious, the impending contagion was the realization of the words of a South Asian prophet; it was the punishment for the nation's sins. The Department of Health (DOH) tried to correct the misinformation later because the disease was not as contagious and virulent as expected. As the news went through cyberspace as #PrayforPangasinan, it became more viral than the disease.