Earth Science Week: The fight against flooding in Manila

flooding 300x225 Earth Science Week: The fight against flooding in Manila

(Christian Aid/Matthew Gonzalez Noda)

The last time I wrote a blog for The Independent I was sat on a sagging mattress in a dingy, damp hotel room in Metro Manila, eating a dubious pot noodle (the restaurants were closed), and hoping against hope that the internet might just hold up long enough for me to file my copy. It didn’t of course, and I had to dictate it all over a crackly phone line which took infinitely longer than it should have done.

It was August 7th 2012, the day a tropical monsoon downpour caused devastating flooding in the densely-populated city, which affected more than 1.2 million people.

Back in my noticeably drier flat in London two short months later, I am now putting pen to paper again to write about Earth Science Week (14-19 Oct) and yes, my trip to the Philippines is indeed connected. You see, I was in Metro Manila in August not to cover the floods (that was simply a coincidence) but to produce a web documentary, alongside the country’s top earth scientists, about Christian Aid and UK Aid’s life-saving work with urban slum dwellers.

Earth scientists study the earth’s natural processes – atmosphere, water, geology, that kind of thing – and how these processes interact and impact on one another. This work is celebrated this week by academic organisations such as the Geological Society, which is encouraging people to explore their natural world and foster a passion for discovering how scientists gather and interpret data about our planet. And Metro Manila’s urban poor communities have been diligently doing just that.

During my rain-drenched August trip, I visited communities on the Marikina River whose homes were regularly submerged by rising flood waters, but who were chronically unable to afford to buy or rent a home on safer, higher ground. The families I met had already evacuated three times that week before the final, immense flood finally hit on the 7th August. For this reason alone, it is clear that these vulnerable communities really do need to understand and respond to their geological environment, the natural hazards they face, and the local chaotic weather systems.

Thankfully, scientists like Dr. Carlos Primo C. David, a geologist from the National Institute of Geological Sciences have been working with informal settlers like Belen de Guzman, a 52-year-old river monitor from Banaba. Instead of relying on the cries of pigs – traditionally kept next to the riverbeds – to alert her family to the rising river, Belen now reads the stream gauge close to her home. She also gathers rainfall and river data from upstream communities and, when the river reaches a critical level, she knows how and when to evacuate her community safely.

But Dr. Carlos Primo C. David has also learned a thing or two from Belen’s community: “Previously we did research on flooding, but completely detached from community affairs. We just made sure our models were running and calibrated on actual events. These projects are the first I have done where I have interacted with those directly affected by my work. Understanding how the impact of a simple computer model can actually be translated into real responses on the ground, and how that affects the lives of people, was a real eye opener for me”.

I also met Professor Siringan at his office at the Marine Science Institute in Quezon City. He was commissioned to identify man-made river hazards built on the floodplains – malls, factories, walls and houses – which significantly alter the Marikina River’s direction and flow. The results are now being used by affected communities and the charity to lobby the Philippines’ government for lasting, resilient solutions.

Of course, scientific solutions are not the only answer. It’s far a more complicated problem than that. Land rights, security, urban planning, and population growth are all critical issues that must be addressed if poor communities are to enjoy a better, and most importantly, ‘safer’ future.

That is why scientific collaborations are not the only partnerships helping poor communities to fight flooding. Christian Aid has worked to connect and share the expertise of all kinds of organisations up and down the Marikina River. By sharing skills and knowledge in disaster, climate change, land rights and lobbying, vulnerable communities are much better equipped to respond to the problems they face.

Christian Aid’s new interactive documentary ‘Big River Rising’, explores how Manila’s urban slum dwelling communities use science to fight flooding.

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