What happens when a community’s livelihood depends on the flood-prone areas in which it lives? Our student Shareen Elnaschie, currently interning with TAO Pilipinas in Manila, shows us a case that illustrates how unorthodox solutions may be the best policy.
The case of Sitio Pulo, Manila: A Pilot and Demonstration Activity (PDA) funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB)
In response to the flooding disasters that resulted from tropical storm Ondoy (Ketsana) in 2009, the national leadership of the Philippines pledged 50 billion in Philippino currency to implement a comprehensive program of relocation and resettlement of families that are currently situated in zones of risk within Metro Manila, focusing on those positioned along waterways. Whilst in-city relocation is the preferred choice for most, the increasing lack of safe, accessible land means this option is becoming less and less likely. Alternative options include in-city schemes proposed by program stakeholders – the communities, for example – or off-city locations which risk driving people further from their livelihoods, schools and social connections.
In parallel to this scheme, the ADB initiated a pilot project that allocated $50,000 to explore disaster resilient housing and small-scale infrastructures for communities at risk from flooding that focused on Sitio Pulo, an informal fishing settlement in the northeast of Metro Manila. A meeting was recently held at the ADB office in Manila to review the project’s successes and areas for further study and improvement.
Sitio Pulo is a small island with an area of 1.4 hectares located 500m off the main island of Tanza. Its vulnerability to flooding is aggravated by a single pedestrian connection to the main island via a 500m-earth dike that was badly damaged during the storm. The island is bound to the west by Manila Bay, which suffers from pollution and supplies a constant source of fresh garbage. The Sitio Pulo settlement sits in the south corner of the island, close to one of the last remaining and protected mangrove sites. It is home to 130 families whose livelihoods are predominantly based on fishing. Navotas City is home to one of the largest fish ports in the country and is the main supplier of fish to the whole of Metro Manila and beyond.
The PDA project supported the development of a poor urban settlement into a disaster resilient community through the provision of disaster mitigation and adaptation measures in site planning, small-scale community infrastructures and the development of housing prototypes. With assistance from TAO Pilipinas (Technical Assistance Organisation), the community developed emergency plans and built four structures designed to withstand typhoons and flood conditions, and enhance community disaster resilience more generally. A 400m-bamboo bridge was constructed to replace the damaged dike, which links with the remaining dike, 100m in length. A small timber bridge was repaired and reinforced, a multipurpose centre containing toilet facilities that is also used as an evacuation centre, and a livelihood centre were also built.
The community, in particular, acknowledged the bamboo bridge as a great success. Following the destruction of the earth dike, a pay-to-ride boat was the only means for children to travel to school or for families to travel to the mainland to fetch fresh water and other essential supplies. The boat trip cost 3-4PHP per person each way, a considerable financial burden. The bamboo bridge has enabled communities to save on this unnecessary cost.
In a conversation with the Undersecretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government, Francisco Fernandez said, “This is a very economical way to upgrade, increase community resilience and work to reduce poverty. It’s far more economical than traditional methods of trying to formalize the informal. Formalization methods are not working; we need to change the way the establishment thinks. But how do we do that?”
Although Sitio Pulo has not yet been targeted by the Waterway clean-up program, there is no denying that they are situated in an area of extreme risk. In addition to this, they have no security of tenure and at the time of writing, the landowner had not yet been identified. The community is currently undertaking land research but, in the meantime, they have been working through a community planning process to consider their options for on-site upgrading and in-city relocation, with training and support provided by TAO. Their reliance on fishing and strong community structure are key drivers in the desire to remain on-site, despite the high risks. Towards this aim, TAO Pilipinas presented the Community Action Plan outlining their initial responses to planning for the site, including plot divisions and layout and enhanced community and sanitation facilities.
Overall, response to the projects and the community’s proposals was positive and ADB voiced their support, in theory, for further assistance to improve sanitation facilities and explore other ideas for development. A representative from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) suggested using the mangroves as part of this system to filter grey water. The community expressed their desires to receive formal training on mangrove protection and upkeep so they may become official stewards of this fragile, but essential environmental asset.
Mark White, from ADB in Thailand, emphasized the need to program annual repairs and regular upkeep after each extreme weather event for the bamboo bridge to ensure maintenance of its structural integrity. He also expressed the need for more testing of ideas to be focused within this community before thinking about strategies to scale up across other sites.
Sitio Pulo presents a rare opportunity to experiment and test new strategies for upgrading and increasing disaster resilience for communities in flood-prone areas. We will always have coastal communities; the relocation of these is not feasible or sustainable as a blanket policy.
The community in Sitio Pulo is fully aware of the risks associated with remaining on site. Supporting this desire, when considered in relation to risk reduction and management, challenges our role as professional decision-makers and facilitators. I believe we need to take some risks in supporting coastal communities in new and perhaps unorthodox ways, to review our understanding of the informal, and to give recognition to the flexible capacity of the informal to adapt to a changing environment. We might get it wrong. But we could get it right.
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