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Priest calls time on urban development

19 October 2012


Watching the waters rise: boys huddle together in a street close to the Marikina River, in Quezon City

Watching the waters rise: boys huddle together in a street close to the Marikina River, in Quezon City

HUMAN folly lies behind the devastating rains that have forced tens of thousands of families to flee their homes in the Philippines, but human ingenuity and solidarity can mitigate against its impact. This is the message of a new online documentary produced by Christian Aid, Big River Rising, which documents how scientists are helping Filipino slum-dwellers cope with flooding. It was shot during the August monsoon deluge that claimed more than 100 lives this year (News, 17 August).

Fr Jose Ramon Villarin, a Jesuit scientist known as "Fr Jett", who is President of the Manila Observatory and a specialist in atmospheric science for the Independent Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), explains in the film that it is "no longer enough" to attribute the rainfall during monsoon season to nature. Human actions have "warmed up the earth", and the country's imitation of growth in the First World is actually imperilling growth and development because money that could be spent on food and education is diverted to repairing and rebuilding in the wake of flooding.

"Certainly, urban development . . . in Manila, it is helter-skelter, haphazard," Fr Jett said on Monday. "There is no logic, really; it is dominated by economic interest largely." Rapid, unplanned development is leading to increased risk of disaster as a lack of vegetation, poor drainage, a growing population, and the occupancy of riverbeds precipitates flooding.

Big River Rising explores the challenges of finding equitable solutions to flooding, including the problems that could be created by simply relocating the two million informal settlers who have made their home along the fragile riverbanks of Metro Manila, an area of 16 cities and 20 million people. Current relocation strategies often require these people to move back to the countryside, to places without employment or basic services.

Fr Jett said that it was "desperation" that drove people to live along the riverbank. "People don't want to live that way . . . but there is no other place. It's close to work; so it's really the provision of space for housing and shelter that needs to be addressed. . . I think this government understands that, but it is not an ideal world and you have to find land right now, and one way is just to decongest the metropolis because it is really crowded, a mega city, which is an Asian phenomenon."

The documentary shows how scientists at the University of the Philippines National Institute of Geological Sciences are helping poor communities to understand and re-spond to their environment. This includes monitoring flood markers, planning evacuation procedures, and using text messages to warn communities further downstream of rising water-levels. Long-term solutions include widening parts of the river, reforestation, and prohibiting the building of certain structures within a certain distance of river banks.

In 2009, the Working Group on Mining in the Philippines pub-lished a report accusing British and American mining companies of wilfully destroying indigenous people's homelands and causing environmental pollution in the Philippines (News, 11 February, 2009). Fr Jett suggested on Monday that some progress had been made since this time. The President, Benigno (Noynoy) Aquino, had released an executive order, "which is a strong signal to the private sector that it cannot be business as usual, that things will be reviewed. There is a moratorium on new mining projects until a new revenue sharing scheme is devised."

He also said, however, that governments alone would not be able to drive forward the environmental agenda: "It is really economics that drives this whole train . . . We need to look at other values. Civil society and grassroots movements, churches and schools can do a lot, where other values are brought to the table."

Social media had been "very important" in giving people a voice, he said, although a new law that "threatens to stifle online expression" was cause for concern.

The Roman Catholic Church had adopted the environment agenda "quite late" compared with other churches, he suggested, but "there are elements of Christian Catholic spirituality where we can recover a lot," including Franciscan spirituality, which "celebrates . . . living lightly on the earth, simplicity".

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