Have we learned the lessons from Ondoy?

Ipo dam
In Photo: Ipo dam

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On August 13, after several days of heavy rains that flooded many parts of Metro Manila, residents, particularly those living in the so-called West Zone, experienced water-service interruption because of the increased water turbidity in Ipo Dam.

The flooding prompted Secretary Roy A. Cimatu of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to suspend all quarrying operations in Rizal province pending investigation.

On the other hand, Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) Administrator Reynaldo Velasco called for the implementation of an integrated sustainable watershed-management program.

The country’s environment chief believed that the overflowing of the Marikina River was connected to the environmental degradation owing to quarrying operations in Rizal province, particularly in San Mateo and Rodriguez towns, as the main culprit.

One of the major tributaries of the Pasig River, the overflowing of the heavily silted Marikina River is one of the major causes of flooding in Metro Manila, particularly Marikina City.

Reminiscent of Ondoy

Reminiscent of what happened during the onslaught of Tropical Depression Ondoy (international code name Ketsana), the heavy rains caused Marikina River to overflow.

Ondoy, which struck the Philippines on September 28, 2009, caught Metro Manila, ironically the seat of power in the Philippines, ill prepared for a monstrous devastation.

According to the then-National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC), Ondoy claimed the lives of 710 people, mostly living in Marikina City. Thirty-seven others went missing and were presumed dead.


The damage to agriculture, infrastructure and private property reached a whopping $1.09 billion.

The tragedy exposed the country’s vulnerabilities to the worst impacts of climate change. It exposed the country to the many problems that led to such disaster—from the poor weather-forecasting system, lack of capacity of the country’s weather bureau, the degradation of the environment, particularly the Upper Marikina River Basin and, most of all, the poor disaster risk-reduction and management plans, or the lack of it, which include the lack of appropriate rescue equipment and inadequate number of people comprising emergency-response team with proper training to do rescue, relief and retrieval operations.

Besides the Philippines, Ketsana also affected China, Vietnam, Lao PDR, Cambodia and Thailand.

Lessons learned

While the Philippines will remember Ondoy as one of the worst natural calamities in recent history, many have changed since then.

Local government units (LGUs), such as Marikina City, have since been enhancing their adaptive capacity and improving their disaster risk-reduction and management plans.

During the recent floods, there were minimum casualties and the evacuation of affected communities was a lot faster, with better evacuation centers put up within a few hours before the decision to start the evacuation.

Other LGUs have already adopted various climate-change mitigation and adaptation measures since then, proof of the heightened awareness of the people about the vulnerabilities of the Philippines to the impacts of climate change.

Several laws were passed in recognition of the fact that climate change is real.

After Ondoy, Republic Act (RA) 10121, or the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act of 2010, was enacted into law. The NDCC was subsequently replaced by the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council.

The following year, President Benigno S. Aquino III upgraded the status of the Marikina Watershed Reservation and renamed it the Upper Marikina River Basin Protected Landscape from a mere reservation into a “protected landscape.” Presidential Proclamation 296 also placed its management under the DENR.

In 2012 RA 10174 established the People’s Survival Fund, with a seed fund of P1 billion, to provide long-term financing to projects dedicated to climate-change mitigation and adaptation, and enhancing the capacities of highly vulnerable communities.

Long-term solution

On the recent water turbidity, Maynilad Water Services Inc. was quick to issue advisories to its customers on the water-service interruption while it moves to fix the problem. The private water concessionaire, which directly draws water from Angat Dam, also deployed water tanks to distribute water to its affected customers as water pressure is reduced to avoid dirty water from flowing out of the tap.

For its part, the MWSS was looking forward to a long-term solution to the problem—a sustainable integrated watershed-management program, in the wake of the increased water turbidity in Ipo dam.

“Recognizing the importance of watersheds in supporting the water supply of Metro Manila and adjoining provinces, MWSS needs to come up with an integrated approach toward sustainable management and protection of the watersheds,” MWSS’s Velasco said in a statement e-mailed to the BusinessMirror on August 13.

“In the long-term, we are thinking of a Corporate Forestry Watershed Legacy Program to encourage the adoption by various corporations and other entities of thousands of hectares of denuded portions of Ipo Dam geared toward the integrated watershed-management plan to reforest, maintain favorable environmental conditions and to improve the quality and amount of potable water supply to our constituents,” Velasco added.

According to Velasco, the three MWSS concessionaires—Maynilad, Manila Water and Bulacan Bulk Water—can initially adopt 50,000 hectares each at Ipo as part of the Corporate Forestry Watershed Legacy Program.

He added that the water concessionaires can also encourage their mother companies, such as the MVP Group of Cos., Ayala Corp. and San Miguel Corp., to be part of the Annual Million Tree Challenge, as well as adopt a proper management, protection and nurturing of trees in the critical watersheds.

Lessons unlearned

In an interview conducted through Messenger on August 26 and 27, Paolo Pagaduan, director at the Center for Philippine Biodiversity Journalism, pointed out that while some lessons were learned after Ondoy, there are still more important lessons that even the media has failed to absorb.

“Media has been effective at telling the story of what is happening but not very effective on why it happened. Take the case of the dams affecting the Marikina River. Since Ondoy, our experts have already explained that there are no dams that open to release water into Marikina River that result in massive flooding. The dams often associated are Wawa Dam in Rodriquez, Rizal, and the La Mesa Dam in Quezon City. Wawa dam is no longer operational and just continues to spill without floodgates to control it,” Pagaduan explained.

“Media should highlight this in their reports. If we just continue to report what is happening and not why it is happening, then we tend not to focus on solving the problems before they happen. Rather, we should focus on what we should do during and after the event,” he said.

Environmental degradation

An environmental advocate working for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in a five-year project at the Ipo Watershed, Pagaduan believes there are several causes of the flooding, which leads to the conclusion that there is failure to address the environmental degradation happening in the country.

The Ipo watershed project, which involves reforestation around the water reservoir, part of the all-important Angat-Ipo-La Mesa watershed, has so far resulted in the planting of over 40,000 trees, in partnership with the private sector, which provides financing and logistical support.

However, around 100 Bantay Gubat (Forest Guards) in the area were found to have no means of financial support because of delay in the release of their measly allowance compared to the gargantuan task of protecting one of the most important sources of water for more than 12 million people in the country’s capital region.

“During Ondoy, I was trapped on the roof of our 2-story house. My observation was that the waters were very turbid. [It’s] very brown. Meaning, a lot of soil was washed into the rivers. This is mainly due to deforestation and destructive land conversion in the higher areas in the Marikina Watershed in Rodriquez and Antipolo, Rizal,” Pagaduan, also the water focal-point person of WWF-Philippines, said.

“Less trees means less soil protection,” he said.

“More impervious surfaces also greatly contribute to run-off or flooding, since the water was no longer absorbed by the soil and rocks below,” he added.

Effects of climate change

At the same time, Pagaduan said the two practices alone are not the only causes of the floods.

First, he said climate change is very much part of the flooding, since stronger typhoons occur due to the heating of oceans.

“Ondoy and the habagat [southwest monsoon] events have been dumping so much water in the watersheds that cities were not designed for, since they were beyond projections of flooding from way back,” Pagaduan said.

Second, he said most of the country’s cities are built along flood plains, which are still part of the river.

“This puts us constantly in harm’s way every time the river swells. The bulk of Metro Manila lies in the flood plains of the Pasig River and the river delta of Manila Bay. Historically, these areas have been flooding because they are still part of the river systems. Solving this would require massive relocation or massive infrastructure to the tune of what The Netherlands have done to prevent flooding in their country,” he explained.

According to Pagaduan, the national government should put flood prevention on top of its priority list.

He said land subsidence also plays a very important role in the flooding, especially in the Caloocan, Malabon, Navotas and Valenzuela area.

Last, congestion of waterways and other drainage systems is a major cause of flooding, he added.

“Illegal structures and solid wastes like single-use plastics have clogged our waterways, preventing floodwaters from flowing quickly out to Manila Bay. Illegal settlers and structures are problems for the LGUs to solve,” he said.

No-to-plastics campaign

WWF-Philippines recently launched its #AyokoNgPlastik (I don’t like plastic) campaign to help raise awareness on the problems of single-use plastics, such as straws and plastic bags, and help convince both consumers and producers to use better alternative for their products and service.

“What can we do to prevent it? First is to better understand why it floods. This is not simply because there are illegal loggers or illegal quarries in Rizal. It goes beyond that,” Pagaduan said, adding that these two factors are easy targets, but addressing them alone will not solve the problem.

Educating the people

“This is where media can come in. Educate the people about the issue to create a clamor for changes in how we have been addressing these problems. Explain how single-use plastics make flooding worse. How inihaw [charcoal-grilled] foods drive illegal charcoal making in our watersheds, causing massive deforestation, especially in the Upper Marikina Watershed. Hopefully, this clamor can force our policy-makers to act on the issues armed with the correct information,” he explained.

Pagaduan noted that water and watersheds do not follow geopolitical boundaries, hence, addressing these problems will require an integrated watershed-management system that will put all these information together so all stakeholders can work on it together rather than in silos per city or province.

“What happens upstream will affect the downstream areas. When we throw away our trash in the rivers, nature will find a way to throw it back to us. There is no way. We only have one country; one planet. We need to work together to solve this problem,” he urged.



Image Credits: WWF-Philippines


Jonathan L. Mayuga

Jonathan L. Mayuga is a journalist for more than 15 years. He is a product of the University of the East – Manila. An awardee of the J. G. Burgos Biotech Journalism Awards, BrightLeaf Agricultural Journalism Awards, Binhi Agricultural Journalism Awards, and Sarihay Environmental Journalism Awards.