By Michael D. Pante
Metro Manila, the seat of political power and the economic center of the Philippines, is no stranger to natural disasters. It has been battered by numerous typhoons, earthquakes, and other calamities throughout history, with huge financial, social, and political costs. And it’s no exaggeration to suggest that the metropolis, composed of sixteen cities and a municipality, became a formal administrative unit because of a perennial natural disaster: floods.
In the history of twentieth-century Metro Manila, no disaster has been more politically charged than flooding. Issues of governance rise to the surface every time the metropolis goes under water. Specifically, the dynamics between local and national governments comes to the fore; a situation made most visible during Ferdinand Marcos’s authoritarian regime (1972–1986).
Before Marcos became president and even before Metro Manila became a full-fledged metropolis, politics had already been a component of flood control. On 25 May 1909, the country’s first city-wide, man-made drainage system was built in the city of Manila. This event happened during the American colonial period—an occasion that the American colonizers used to disparage the inefficient infrastructure left by Spain, the previous colonial master. Simultaneously, the new colonizers’ deployment of science and technology gave them the assurance of the sustainability of their empire. The Americans’ introduction of new inventions and forms of knowledge—e.g., road networks, public health interventions—not only allowed them to enhance their administrative capacity in the Philippines but also impressed upon the Filipinos that they were far more superior overlords than the Spaniards. However, despite its triumphalist underpinnings, Manila’s colonial-era infrastructure was far from flawless. Although the Philippines obtained its independence from the United States after the Second World War, the residents of Manila and its neighboring towns continued to suffer from destructive floods, as the city’s drainage system remained unimproved since 1909. The first two postwar administrations failed to contain the hazard; in fact, when Typhoon Gertrude hit the country in 1948 it even paralyzed the presidential palace. Gertrude was a huge wake-up call, which led to the creation of a comprehensive flood-control master plan in 1952. The two-volume “Plan for the Drainage of Manila and Suburbs” envisioned a capital-intensive, infrastructure-driven solution to the flood problem.
Still, such grand visions never materialized, and two factors behind this failure deserve to be highlighted. One is the rapid urbanization of Manila and its surrounding towns in the postwar period. The title of the flood-control plan says it all: it does not just involve Manila but also the adjacent suburbs like Pasay, Makati, Caloocan, and Quezon City, places that experienced rural-to-urban migration, suburbanization, and most especially an increasing number of informal settlers. Urbanization also meant the construction of more permanent structures along the waterways and more paved surfaces for thoroughfares—thereby increasing the ferocity of floods. Of course, those most badly hit during these disasters were the informal settlers who lived in makeshift dwellings along the waterways. However, local government officials made these residents a convenient scapegoat for the flood woes. The second factor is the lack of coordination among these officials. The absence of an administrative unit to coordinate the decisions and actions of Manila and the towns surrounding it led to multiple, if not conflicting, ways of implementation—a factor that Marcos had to deal with when he became president in 1965 but seemed to have been resolved by his declaration of martial law in 1972.
A few weeks after declaring martial law, Marcos created the Metropolitan Manila Flood Control and Drainage Council (MMFCDC), derived from a 1970 commission reviewing the city’s 1952 plan. Its jurisdiction covered the cities of Manila, Quezon, Pasay, and Caloocan, as well as the municipalities of Makati, Mandaluyong, San Juan, Las Piñas, Malabon, Navotas, Pasig, Pateros, Parañaque, Marikina, Muntinlupa, Taguig, and Valenzuela. The MMFCDC, however, was in no position to accomplish one of Marcos’s main objectives: the reorganization of Manila and its suburbs into a juridical unit. Hence, on 10 November 1972 he established the Inter-Agency Committee on Metropolitan Manila (IACMM) to study this matter. The committee divided its work into seven panels, each focusing on a particular aspect of governance. One panel dealt with the issue of flooding: the Panel on Flood Control and Drainage. The committee did not equivocate in tying the problem of flooding to the lack of a unified governance structure to deliver services and address concerns that were metropolitan in scope. The IACMM reported:
For example, it matters not how successful Makati would be by walling itself against the yearly floods, granting it can really do so. This will not solve the general flood problem and its residents and officials will still have to come out to interact with the rest of the flood victims outside, if only to survive. Furthermore, by such measure, it is doubtful whether Makati will be able to assure itself of continual immunity from succeeding floods. The comprehensive nature of the problem itself, prevents one local government from making a decision that would absolve the entire metropolitan area from the problem.
The IACMM thus proposed the creation of a metropolitan government, which encompassed the seventeen local government units that also comprised the jurisdiction of both the infamous anti-riot squad of the Philippine Constabulary, the Metropolitan Command, and the Panel on Flood Control and Drainage. Such a move marked a critical departure from the city-related programs of preceding administrations because of how it succeeded in centralizing authority in the metropolis. And on 7 November 1975, Marcos established the Metropolitan Manila Commission (MMC). As an apparent reminder of the MMC’s importance to the president, he appointed his wife, Imelda, as the MMC governor. From the start, Imelda made flood control top priority. The regime’s flood-control program was unambiguously technology- and infrastructure-driven, capitalized by huge loans from multilateral financial institutions, such as the Asian Development Bank, which lent the Philippine government US$20.89 million for the design and construction of the Napindan Hydraulic Control Structure in Taguig. Martial law made it easy for Marcos to access such loans because, with Congress padlocked, oppositionist legislators could no longer investigate Marcos’s proclivity to borrow huge sums of money for questionable projects. Autocratic rule eliminated systems of check and balance both at the national and local levels. For example, no one could question how Imelda maneuvered for her personal and political interests a P500-million calamity fund for flood victims. Meanwhile, mayors in Metro Manila had surrendered their powers to two institutions: the MMFCDC and the MMC under Imelda, who also reported directly to the president. Better coordination among the mayors enabled the MMC governor to conduct an effective flood-control program, but in reality, “coordination” was nothing but subservient compliance.
This consolidation of power separated the flood-control program of the Marcos era from those of the previous administrations. Ostensibly, Marcos’s authoritarianism presented a case study in the democracy-versus-efficiency dilemma: that whereas in the pre–martial law period, democratic processes hindered the passage of critical bills and led to unproductive squabbles at the local level, it was only under dictatorial rule that the 1952 plan was implemented fully and metropolitan mayors were unified. However, this democracy-versus-efficiency dilemma rests on a false dichotomy: the administrative efficiency that the regime brandished was but a mirage, for the regime failed to complete its flood-control program and prevent massive floods. In fact, metropolitan centralization never improved the delivery of other social services—as seen in the continued hardships of slum dwellers who bore the brunt of Marcos’s undemocratic disaster governance.
Similar to what transpired in previous administrations, the flood-control program under martial law regarded slum communities living along the waterways as a hindrance to state objectives rather than as victims of structural inequalities, let alone agents of change. Consequently, state response, both at the national and local levels, consisted of slum clearance and of finding ways to deter illegal construction along the waterways. Imelda’s “beautification drive,” which sought to remove unsightly structures in Metro Manila mainly for the benefit of the tourists’ gaze, transferred evicted households to faraway relocation sites, thus making it harder for them to find viable sources of livelihood. In Orwellian fashion, Imelda, who was concurrently MMC governor and minister of human settlements, rendered thousands of metro residents homeless and effectively criminalized those who could not afford decent shelter. While the flood-control program stipulated that evicted slum dwellers had to be relocated, the nonpoor who built buildings on esteros and obliterated passageways were left undisturbed.
Nevertheless, not all estero-dwelling communities were unorganized and easy to coerce. Marcos’s authoritarianism sought popular legitimacy and depended to an extent on populist platitudes; hence, the regime could not simply evict all communities and other obstructions along esteros. In many cases the regime’s tactics produced the opposite effect: urban poor communities organized themselves and created alliances with the religious, student, and other sectors to defend their rights. Grassroots organizations sprang up in many informal settlements in Metro Manila, with some of them participating in the victorious 1986 EDSA People Power, which toppled the regime.
By the time Marcos was ousted from Malacañang in 1986, the projected flood-control infrastructure was only partially finished and only had a minimal effect on mitigating floods, which even became more destructive in recent decades. Various factors led to the plan’s failure: the lack of oversight on the project due to absence of democratic mechanisms; large-scale corruption that drained the huge loans obtained by the government; and the regime’s emphasis on slum clearance rather than addressing the residents’ socioeconomic vulnerability to disasters. As a result, three decades have gone after Marcos’s downfall, yet the perennial problem of flooding and his repressive “solutions” persist. To this day, Metro Manila’s informal settlers, who supply cheap labor to one of Southeast Asia’s biggest metropolitan centers, struggle to survive amid these twin disasters.
Michael D. Pante is assistant professor at the Department of History, Ateneo de Manila University and associate editor of Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints. He is the author of A Capital City at the Margins: Quezon City and Urbanization in the Twentieth-Century Philippines (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2019).
Featured image (at top): Map of City of Manila and Vicinity. Manila: Office of Dept. Engineer, Phil. Dept., 1919, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress.