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Flood Disasters in Philippines: Causes, Effects, and Policies Needed to Implement

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Flooding is considered as the most common and damaging natural disaster worldwide. It is an environmental hazard that poses harm to human life, damage to infrastructures, disturbance to economic activities, and decrease in ecological resources. The catastrophic impact of floods to human welfare and urban development prompt the government to increase public spending to address this issue. But many countries – including the Philippines which is often hit by calamities – are developing long-term flood management approaches that can decrease high expenditure. This is amid a growing commitment to develop integrated flood management approaches that will address flooding issues and mitigate the economic, social, and environmental effects of floods.

The perennial problem of flooding in the Philippines is partly attributed to its geographical attributes. Around 421 principal river basins are dispersed across the archipelago and an average of 20 typhoons enters the country annually, making it prone to flooding. Typhoons and monsoons bring intense rainfalls that cause overflowing of waterways and accumulation of sediment in flood plains, resulting in extensive flood damages. A total of 1,316,230 hectares of land nationwide are subject to flooding–32 percent of which is in Central Luzon alone. This puts a huge part of the country and its population at risks.

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In recent years, flood related disasters are becoming more disturbing. From 1990-2003, around 3.5 super typhoons hit the Philippines annually that cost us 96.6 billion pesos sustained from damaged properties, infrastructures, and crops. Report also says that an average of at least 900 persons were killed over the period covered. The casualties like injuries and loss of human lives, damages to agricultural and industrial business, and disruption of operations brings a heavy cost on the economic development and decrease on efficiency on government services. Although efforts for flood mitigation have been on-going and numerous flood mitigation measures are being constructed in Metro Manila since 1970’s, typhoon Ondoy proves that our infrastructures is still not ready and adequate to manage the effects of extreme flood events. It is not even classified as a super typhoon but the damage it brings was devastating. Clearly there is a need to re-assess our flood management systems especially in Manila Area. The existing programs should be reviewed and revised in accordance on what we really need to rule out its causes.

According to the past Secretary of the Department of Public Works and Highways, Rogelio Singson, there are three major causes of flooding in Metro Manila: Clogged waterways, old drainage system, and the huge amount of trash generated due to improper waste disposal. Although government engineers stated that rapid industrialization and unusual heavy rainfall also causes flooding, it is something that we cannot control. When heavy rain comes, canals, esteros, rivers and its tributaries in Metro Manila will not drain fast enough if it’s clogged with trash. A recent report from the Metro Manila Development Authority showed that thousands of cubic meters of trash and silt were removed from various waterways in a span of just two months. Based on the estimates, the country generates 40,087 tons of trash daily, 9,213 tons of which comes from the Metro. This decreases the efficiency of our pumping stations that help us in draining waters from our creeks to prevent overflowing and transferring it to Manila bay, as it is already clogged by trashes. With our outdated existing drainage system which can no longer accommodate huge volume of water, the addition of tons of garbage will worsen the problem. In result, any significant amount of rain while considering our drainage systems and waterways are also filled with garbage will cause flood instantly and will bring more damage when calamity strikes.

Furthermore, experts say that Metro Manila has no sufficient exit for water. It is located in a catch basin between Manilay bay and Laguna Lake. Originally, during the Spanish era, the city was built on waterways and canals that directed floodwaters into the sea. However half of it have been lost, cemented or paved today and the remaining are filled with garbage. Felino Palafox, a well knowned Architect said that during 1970’s, together with an international company, they proposed a major spillway that would drain water from Laguna Lake to Manila bay but it was unsuccessful. Today, the lake has become silted; decreasing its capacity to hold water and increasing the chance to overflow and floods it’s nearby cities, including Manila. Politics and corruption is also a factor to consider here. There are several project proposals to improve the flood situation in Manila but failed to implement. An example of it was when President Gloria Arroyo’s government signed an agreement together with a Belgian company to start the dredging of Laguna lake, but was waived by her successor President Benigno Aquino because of irregularities. During the time of President Aquino, he approved the plan to relocate squatter communities that are living besides waterways to prevent flooding. But some politicians wanted to delay the operation to reserve it for the coming election as revealed by Public Works and Highways Secretary Singson, making it late for the rainy season. Another reason is that the metropolis is composed of 16 different leaders with different agendas for which makes it complicated on the decision making for the betterment of the whole community.

Given the situation, government assistance seems insufficient because of the massive disasters that the community is having. Yet initially, the government has this Flood Management Master Plan for the Greater Metro Manila Area (hereafter the Master Plan) that has been prepared by government, with technical and financial assistance of the World Bank through a grant from the Global Facility for Disaster Risk Reduction (GFDRR) that was provided by the Australian Government.

This Master Plan has been distributed to relevant government agencies such as Derpartment of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), National Irrigation Administration (NIA), Laguna Lake Development Authority (LLDA), Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA), National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC), Local Government Unit (LGU), and etc., each having a vital role to play. This Master Plan is rooted in two natures of solution to the previously mentioned problems.

The first is non-structural measures. These are ways that are focus on the prevention of flood, policies to be maintained, and disaster responses of the government, specially the LGU (e.g. Harmonization of Hazard Maps; Watershed Management; and Community Disaster Management). Harmonization of Hazard Maps, is a map that would alarm the citizen where the hazards are likely to occur in times of natural calamities, these maps should be available online and in every corner of the city. Watershed Management should be efficient for water exits and water flow control. Lastly, Community Disaster Management should be strongly implemented and complied by the LGU for they are the first respondent and first line of defense during these unfortunate times.

Second solution is Structural Measures, these are the common flood infrastructures that are present physically. The Master Plan suggests many of it but the most notable ones are the following: Ongoing Foreign-Assisted Flood Control Project, River Improvement Projects and Drainage Projects under the Local Government Units, Provision of Structural Complement (i.e., check dams) for Erosion Control and Reforestation. Check Dams and reforestation around Laguna Lake will be very helpful in maintaining the lake’s water capacity and absorption of excess water runoffs. But the most significant of all is the relocation of the people living near waterways particularly on the eight priority waterways of Metro Manila (Pasig River, Tullahan River, San Juan River, Mangahan Floodway, Maricaban Creek, Estero de Tripa de Gallina, Estero de Maypajo, and Estero de Sunog Apog). This movement will keep the people safe from hazard at the same time it will paved the way for the government to directly aid the problems in our creeks, drainage, and waterways. Through this movement, the government will be able to clean and clear the clogged drainages in the area for proper water exits, this will result to more efficient water pumping in the flooded area. Water exits will be more accessible to implant flood structures. In line with this, in the process of cleaning our drainage system, outdated pipelines/waterways should be improved in size, capacity, and quality to cope up with todays’ flooding problems brought about by climate change. This will be a long term solution instead of raising the pavements or roads which does not address the source of the problem.

Lastly, I strongly agree and support on the Master Plan. A complete, timely, and efficient execution of this can save many lives, livelihood, and resources. This Master Plan may seem enormous but through the cooperation of the concerned Government Agencies, this is achievable. At the same time, the government itself should be firm in the implementation of the policies, hands on in the monitoring of the progress of the said projects, and transparent with the community. Politics should not compromise the welfare of the community, each project should be intended to be aligned in the Philippine Development Plan (PDP) and act as solution to the said problems. This will avoid unnecessary funding and will direct the government to the projects that will address the root cause of flood disasters.

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