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Building resilient communities

After Tropical Storm “Ondoy” wreaked havoc in Metro Manila in 2009, the poor living along its rivers and waterways have to endure anxiety over government’s repeated calls for the relocation of all informal settlements on these so-called danger zones. Authorities say the settlements are “blocking” the natural flow of water and relocation would keep informal settlers out of harm’s way. But the informal settlers say they have the right to remain in the city and that transferring them to far-flung resettlement areas where there are no viable means of livelihood would threaten their survival. They challenge government to dismantle as well the malls and affluent subdivisions occupying floodplains along rivers.

Instead of dwelling on what tends to abet conflicts, would cooperation among the stakeholders be more helpful?

Last March 20, an advocacy alliance, Aksyon sa Kahandaan para sa Kalamidad at Klima (AKKMA), conducted a “sharing-discussion” on the disaster-risk reduction and adaptation plans of government and civil society organizations. Organized by the NGO network Partnership of Philippine Support Service Agencies (PHILSSA) with funding from Christian Aid, the forum brought together representatives from several people’s organizations, NGOs and government agencies. The forum looked into whether the urban poor communities, as well as the nearby fisherfolk settlements in Laguna and Rizal, are resilient enough to face the consequences of climate change such as heavy rains, floods and extreme heat. The forum, where differing views were exchanged, proved to be an avenue for harmonizing agenda for collective action.

Director Ramon Santiago of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority said that besides Metro Manila’s naturally low topography and outdated drainage system, the houses and business establishments built on waterways are the main cause of flooding. He urged civil society  and government agencies to push for risk-sensitive development. He also pointed out how important it is for individuals and communities to be prepared for disasters considering government’s limited reach and resources. He suggested that communities build their own low-cost rescue boats or set up community-based rain gauges. And he invited the people to participate in MMDA’s emergency rescue trainings which are given free.

Naomi Dacanay, an engineer with the Department of Public Works and Highways, discussed its proposed and ongoing flood control projects in Metro Manila. The one in Camanava (Caloocan, Malabon, Navotas, Valenzuela), she said, has its flood control gates, pumping stations and navigation gates installed. Also ongoing is the dredging and excavation work in the Pasig-Marikina river channel and the construction of a new parapet wall and embankment along selected critical sections of the Lower Marikina River.

Dacanay presented the findings of DPWH’s study, “The Master Plan for Flood Management in Metro Manila and Surrounding Areas.” It is a risk assessment study conducted in connection with a comprehensive flood-risk management plan being formulated for the entire Metro Manila and surrounding basin area. It aims to determine the structural and non-structural measures that should be prioritized to sustain flood management up to a designated safety level.

Noli Abinales, founding president of the people’s organization Buklod-Tao, presented a video regarding his group’s activities on disaster mitigation in Barangay Banaba, San Mateo, Rizal. He said Banaba’s disaster-prone topography prompted his group to initiate community-based disaster mitigation efforts. They have successfully carried out disaster awareness campaigns, organized community groups, built gabion boxes along the rivers and systematized early warning mechanisms to transform Banaba into a “disaster-resilient” community.

Bella dela Rosa, the president of Damayan Homeowners Association (Damayan HOA) from Sitio Lumang Ilog, Floodway, Barangay San Juan, Taytay, Rizal, showcased her organization’s long struggle for safe settlements. In 1993, Damayan was declared a socialized housing site under Presidential Proclamation 458 but a subsequent presidential order, Executive Order 854 issued in 2009, revoked the proclamation. With the support of the Department of Interior and Local Government and in keeping with the urban poor covenant with President Aquino, Damayan HOA then petitioned government to have EO 854 revoked.

Damayan HOA has instituted several disaster mitigation measures to enhance the resiliency of its community, like participatory community vulnerability assessments, which helped its members to formulate a vision of a safe settlement and to identify housing options and designs, as well as needed infrastructure and basic social services. They also held disaster-risk reduction trainings to equip community leaders with the necessary skills to respond to emergency situations. Damayan HOA proved that by continuously engaging with NGOs on advocacy, livelihood development, infrastructure and disaster preparedness, a resilient community can be established.

Invited but unable to attend the forum were the National Housing Authority, Laguna Lake Conservation Agency and Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Their adaptation plans would have completed the picture of the disaster- risk reduction initiatives of the different stakeholders. Nevertheless, all the participants, civil society and government representatives alike, went home with high hopes that resilient communities are possible through mutual support.

As De la Rosa pointed out, “Ang disaster ay matutugunan kung may sinseridad at maagap na pagkilos ang bawat isa.” (Disaster can be addressed if everyone acts with sincerity and promptly.)

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