Homes along the ‘estero’

Human beings are not rats. And one need not be a pauper to know that it is not fun to live under bridges, inside drainage pipes, or along estero.  According to government estimates, at least 125,000 Filipino families in Metro Manila live in such conditions. These families make up about 90 percent of the city population that is most severely affected by calamities during bad weather. This is a scandal. Their collective vulnerability testifies not so much to their poverty as to the systemic failure of our society.

The homes they build on the city’s waterways, and the garbage they throw into the water, have been identified as among the main factors impeding the flow of floodwater into the sea. Not surprisingly, the people themselves know this. For they are among the first to monitor the rapid rise of the water below them; to them it is a matter of life and death. Up to the last minute they cling to these frail homes because meager as these are, these contain everything they have, their survival, and their hopes for better times. If they are given safe and proper homes, from where they can have access to work and to public schools, the human tragedies caused by extreme weather would be significantly reduced. The people themselves would volunteer to leave these hazardous dwelling places.

Killer floods are not only the result of clogged waterways, inadequate drainage systems, dysfunctional urban management, rising sea levels, or the gradual sinking of Metro Manila as a whole due to unabated ground water extraction. They are also the product of gross social inequality and mass poverty.

Thus, any attempt to approach this complex problem in a way that seems to zero in on the poor as obstacles to the orderly management of the city is bound to be attacked as myopic and anti-poor. This, unfortunately, was how the remarks the other day of the amiable Secretary Rogelio Singson of the Department of Public Works and Highways were taken. I was watching the press conference in which he discussed the total framework for averting the big floods in the metropolis that come with intense rainfall. I thought he was doing very well in explaining a very complex phenomenon. Unusually lucid for a technocrat, Secretary Singson concluded his analysis by laying down a set of mitigation measures for the short, medium, and long terms.

The unfortunate remark for which he is now being crucified by some quarters came almost unexpectedly. He was talking about the fish pens that clog Laguna Bay and aggravate the floods in the communities surrounding the lake. The owners, he said, would be given time to dismantle these structures, or their fish pens would be blasted in the same way illegal dikes along the Pampanga delta were bombed at the height of the lahar threat on orders of then President Fidel V. Ramos. He said he had authority from P-Noy to clear out all illegal structures obstructing Metro Manila’s waterways. He was asked whether the squatter shanties were included, and he said yes. I don’t think he was fully conscious at that moment that he had just been talking about blasting structures.

At no point in the press conference did I get the impression that Secretary Singson had embarked on a mission to blast poor people’s homes along the estero.  But his statements, though mildly uttered, could easily be interpreted as saying just that. I am certain that blasting shanties is not part of the plan. For I cannot imagine anything more politically explosive, unnecessary, and suicidal for any government to undertake than to oppress the poorest of one’s own people. The image of shanties being blown up while homeless families look helplessly, shivering in the rain, can cause the downfall of even the most popular presidency.

No one will fault a government that prevents people from living along estero and under bridges, or offers them decent homes so they don’t have to continue living in such miserable and unsafe conditions. But, more than clearing the waterways of obstruction, it has to be stressed that the overriding goal is social justice. The poor are not the problem; it is the unfair political, legal, and economic systems that are. The poor need government to look after their basic necessities so they may be in a better position to help themselves and to access the opportunities offered by society.

The hardworking middle classes, who pay their taxes but do not get the kind of services the government owes them, often find it difficult to empathize with the poor. They see the latter as generally lazy, irresponsible, and lacking in motivation. They should read Rizal’s critique of the so-called indolence of the Filipino.  Yet, in times of emergency, the middle classes, who usually live close by the poor and rely on their services, are also the first to come to their rescue. They know, if only vaguely, that the root of the problem lies not so much in the wrong priorities of the poor, as in the failure of the social system to improve their lot.

It is not an accident that this same system has tended to close its eyes to the rent-seeking excesses of the rich, their pernicious habit of passing on to the public as “externalities” a large portion of the costs of their businesses, and their habitual flouting of zoning and environmental laws. Secretary Singson did mention how owners of big establishments routinely dump their wastewater into the limited public drainage system of the city, instead of providing their own. Multiply that image a thousandfold and we have a more accurate picture of the principal causes of our people’s vulnerability—not the intense monsoons, or typhoons, or big floods, or the supposed culture of poverty, but the greed of the few and the fundamental inequality of our society.