Their houses and livelihoods are buried – why do they stay?
I have been staying in Manila for just over a week now, having arrived in the middle of Typhoon Saola (locally known as Gener). Ever since we left the airport last week the weather has been a key feature here, raining heavily daily, but last night things changed. I could sense it in the air as I lay awake in my hotel bed, listening to the torrential downpour and the frightening explosions of thunder that reverberated across the flickering lights of the city.
The water levels of the Marikina River have been rising and falling continually over the past few days and I realised that the relentless deluge during the night would have severely exacerbated the situation. I knew this for sure because I’d spent the best part of last week talking to the local communities who live precariously on the river’s very edges.
There, in between the lean-to shelters covered in plastic bags and the muddy, winding tracks that line the banks of the swollen river, many people live under bridges in make-shift houses with little more than cheap, flimsy plywood for shelter. I’ve watched and listened as they have nervously monitored the ever-rising water levels, evacuating periodically whenever the river level reached a critical height. All of them were already utterly exhausted due to lack of sleep and constant worrying about what could happen to their families, businesses and meticulously well-cared for homes.
Tragically, I have just found out that each and every one of the homes in that particular community have since been completely submerged; their houses and livelihoods buried under a fast-flowing sediment-filled, swirling sea carrying huge loads of timber and debris from the mountains which surround the city. I hope with all my heart that all of them made it safely to the evacuation centre on higher ground.
Today we toured the saturated city where the roads were passable, standing on bridges and watching as trees simply disappeared beneath the fuming flood waters and tiled roofs of three-story buildings peeped out, soon to be drowned completely as ominous black clouds once again gather overhead. We saw countless evacuations as people were – and still are – rescued from their homes. Homes that many will stay in until the bitter end to protect it, not only from thieves and looters, but also from authorities who might take advantage of the lashing rain to reclaim the land.
So why do they stay? Why do more than two million informal settlers build their homes on some of the most vulnerable waterway systems in the world – areas which have flooded continuously since records began? And, perhaps more pertinently, why do they so desperately want to return?
The answer is simply because they are poor and can’t afford to rent or buy houses, and so are forced to build their own on the only vacant land available to them. Of course, they must defend it until the very end because it is their community and the only place where they can earn a small living to help support their families. Relocating is simply not an option despite the great risks they face every day of their lives.
So, as the rain still beats down ever-harder on my steamy hotel window, as it no doubt will for the rest of the night, the only thing that I can be sure of is the confidence and hope that the evacuation and rescue training, provided by Christian Aid partners on the ground, has given to many of the people I have spent the past week with. Their knowledge and understanding of critical river levels and a structured response and procedure to follow helps them to take control in an otherwise completely chaotic environment.
To listen to Emma’s account listen click hereTagged in: flood, Marikina River, Philippines
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