Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Pig siren

What would you do if you lived between two active fault lines at the convergence of two rivers in a known floodplain? Knowing your home would be flooded annually, what measures would you take to secure your family? your means of livelihood? your belongings? How do you construct a safety network with your neighbours? What compels you to stay? What would compel you to relocate to a safer locale?

The residents of barangay Banaba, San Mateo, Rizal live in a disaster-prone area. (A "barangay" is one of the smallest units of place in the Philippines. The broad categories, in descending order, are "region", "province", "municipality" and "barangay".) The communities were hard hit by typhoon Ondoy that flooded many areas in Metro Manila and Laguna in September 2009. The bridge connecting San Mateo to Quezon City gained international notoriety as the site where an entire family except the father drowned. The video below is a cellphone video of the horrific event - it is not an easy watch.

The village I visited fared better than most. Nobody died because of flooding, due in large part to the disaster preparedness efforts of residents and the community organization Buklod Tao. The village structures could be those of any village in the Philippines; there are few telltale signs of past floods. The usual ice cream tricycle and gaggle of children parade up and down the street. Men and women converse outside in single-sex groupings. One to two storied concrete residential houses, small sari-sari shops and makeshift basketball courts line the narrow roads. Homes have televisions, stereos and various items of furniture - not exactly the types of items that lend themselves to easy portability. There's electricity and running water.

Street view of the village on a Sunday afternoon.
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The residents have developed various strategies to first enable them to respond quickly and appropriately, and to later mitigate the damage. Some examples include setting up an early warning system (see disaster preparedness post below), daily monitoring of the water levels, posting signs with flood response strategy throughout the village, agreeing upon an evacuation site.

The old (informal) evacuation site was "under the bridge" - a site roughly 30m up from the village. It's nowhere near perfect but it has a concrete floor and a concrete roof, and is high enough to protect residents from the annual floods. The Ondoy flood was the once-in-a-century flood with waters that rose up to the road, flooding the evacuation site. People had no choice but to live on the sidewalk, waiting for floodwaters to subside. Thirty-four families now live in squalid cramped quarters "under the bridge" in this evacuation site, leaving no place for the 500 households that used to use the site during floods.

Entrance to the residential quarters under the bridge.
Water is both friend and foe. Residents watch the river closely from a safe vantage point in the evacuation site. When the waters begin to recede, people speed back to their homes to begin cleaning. There's a short window of opportunity to use the floodwaters to help clear the mud, silt and debris brought by floodwaters out of the house. Timing is critical: too soon and you could be carried off with the floodwaters, too late and you're stuck shoveling out debris for weeks.

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The post title "pig siren" is derived from a gem of local knowledge. Pigs are generally housed close to the river (to make for easy, albeit unhygienic, disposable of the innards when an animal is slaughtered). Like me, pigs, it turns out, have an aversion to wet feet. They squeal when water covers the floor of their sties. Miserable, wet-footed pigs are extremely loud and make for a very effective siren signalling an impending flood.

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The reasons that compel people to stay, despite the risk, are varied. For many, it's a case of necessity. They must be near their livelihood, be it farming, fishing, driving a tricycle or retrieving valuable items from the garbage. It's too expensive to commute to work. Safer sites are too far from good schools. Their social and safety networks are situated in these disaster-prone areas. The immediacy of putting food on the table outweighs the longer-term risk of a not-yet-materialized environmental disaster.

I started this post with a series of questions, but I do not intend to answer them here. The exercise, unfortunately, is not purely academic or hypothetical. It is a reality faced by hundreds of people in the barangay (and many more Filipinos living in other parts of the country). I'll leave you with one additional figure to ponder, courtesy of Noli Abinales (see post below): the government has slotted 700,000 families (over 3.5 million people) to be relocated because they currently reside in high-risk disaster-prone areas.

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