21 Feb



John J. Carroll Institute on Church and Social Issues (JJCICSI)


Everyone is proclaiming that riverbank settlers must not

be allowed to return and rebuild their shelters. Yet, the

settlers are doing exactly that. Why? Are they simply

stubborn and oblivious to danger? Or is there something

the rest of us do not understand about their survival


My visit to a devastated Tullahan River community – below

Quezon City’s North Fairview Bridge – in the aftermath of

“Ondoy’s” flash floods offered some insights. A bevy of barangay

(village) officials in their crisp bright-blue uniforms set off

by yellow piping – a dramatic contrast to the faded and damp

clothing of the flood victims – was striding around what was

left of the settlement. Two of them had posted themselves

prominently on an enormous rock that commanded a panoramic

view of the settlement. Eyeing clusters of busy residents,

the officials appeared to be making sure that no surreptitious

attempts at housing reconstruction were underway.

The lively if sober scene featured young women and children

washing mud-caked clothes with or without soap, immersed

knee-deep in shallow pools along the edge of the brown and

refuse-strewn river. Young girls were arranging spaces on

makeshift clotheslines to hang up the “clean” laundry. Mothers

were bathing stark-naked shivering toddlers with water from a

source one didn’t even want to contemplate. The men were

mainly fixing something –a chair, a table, a stove – or simply

sitting around and talking. Were they perhaps waiting for the

barangay team to leave so they could continue repairing their

devastated homes?

Aling Edna (pseudonym) told us how she and her neighbors

had attempted to construct temporary shelters on a vacant 2.4-

hectare expanse of private land above them. But no sooner had

they put up their structures than barangay officials were tearing

them down. This was private property, scolded the demolition

crew. Lamented Aling Edna: “Why does our government allow

a single family to hold so much unused land nearby, while

thousands of us here are struggling to find a place where we can

simply rest and begin restoring our lives?”

Their leaders elaborated: “Most of the year, living along the

waterways is fine. If we had any other choice like better land

nearby, we would surely go for it. But we don’t. So, we do the

best we can living here, working hard to make a better life in

the city, feeding our children and sending them to school. Typhoons

come and go but we are used to them. We usually move

the women, children and older people to the schoolhouse to

wait out the wind and rain. Some of us stay behind to guard our

houses and possessions. When the weather clears up, we return,

assess the damage and start cleaning up, try to get relief

goods while reconstructing our houses, and go back to our


(livelihood) as soon as we can. Ondoy took us by

surprise though, like everyone else. The waters rose so quickly!

“Danger zone? Maybe. But living on the river is not as dangerous

as being forced into faraway resettlement sites where there

is no work. The government dumps thousands of us there with

insufficient food, water, health services, schools, sanitation,

street lights, cheap transportation, but especially no


We cannot survive there. Yet, they still want us to amortize

units that most of us cannot afford and never wanted in the

first place!”

The collective trauma wreaked by tropical storm Ondoy should

at last force us to confront the questions that 3 million poor

informal settlers in Metro Manila have been raising for decades:

“Why is there no place in this city for us to live legally and

productively as the hardworking, upstanding people we are?

We may be poor, but we pay taxes every time we buy something.

And without our services, the city couldn’t operate!”

For urban poor people, living near their sources of income is

central to their survival strategies. Onsite security of tenure

thus commands a far higher priority for them than housing.

Nonetheless, government insists that houses in well laid-out

communities are their primary need, even if these are far outside

the city and offer no work opportunities. Housing officials

extol the number of units built in Bulacan, Cavite and Laguna

as “filling the housing backlog.” But they say nothing of the

misery they have inflicted upon thousands of evicted families

driven away from their livelihoods in the city to face economic

uncertainty; or about family displacement and the additional

threats to the poor’s already precarious existence.

NGOs and people’s organizations, supported by the United

Nations Habitat, have for decades advocated as most humane

and economically efficient, community proposals for onsite

secure tenure and upgrading according to people’s plans, together

with low interest housing loans that allow for incremental

construction. Examples of successful demand-driven

schemes abound in “Presidential Proclamation sites,” like Sama

-Sama in Commonwealth, Quezon City, and areas covered by

the Community Mortgage Program and the Homeless People’s

Federation of the Philippines. Private sector efforts like Gawad

Kalinga and Habitat International likewise affirm the locational


If millions of poor Filipinos are to have a place in the city, a

deeper set of issues must now surface. These concern land values,

land availability, concepts of ownership, LGU responsibilities

and the right to the city. Ondoy reminded us it is time to

take stock and get serious about urban land reform.

There are vacant lands in many of Metro Manila’s constituent

cities, but they are not available for housing the metropolis’ low

-income workforce. Contributing to this skewed situation are

low idle-land taxation rates, rising land values, obsolete ownership

laws and inappropriate institutional set-ups.

The result is helter-skelter city planning that allocates available

land to malls, upscale residential subdivisions and commercial

uses, thus bringing in higher tax collections and, possibly, more

corruption while ignoring the needs of millions of urban poor


The recent calamity was a wake-up call for government policy

planners. Before relegating riverbank dwellers to housing units

in Bulacan and Laguna, officials need to listen to and discuss

real options with the one-third of the metropolitan citizenry

victimized by the flash floods. It is time to clear our societal

channels of the debris formed by obsolete rules and outlooks,

and regenerate ourselves as a fast-flowing mainstream force

toward social reform. As hardworking but marginalized residents,

the urban poor form our metropolis’ workforce. As Filipino

citizens, they are entitled to live in it, like everyone else.

That is the message of Ondoy.


One Response to “ONDOY’s MESSAGE”

  1. Mr WordPress February 21, 2012 at 10:22 am #

    Hi, this is a comment.
    To delete a comment, just log in, and view the posts’ comments, there you will have the option to edit or delete them.

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