Government News Analysis

Not so street smart

Manila Flood from Tropical Depression Maring

Boats were back on Manila’s streets yesterday after torrential overnight rain from Tropical Depression Maring turned parts of the city into a poor imitation of Venice. For residents in these areas of the Philippine capital, wading waist-deep in floodwater is just part of city life during the wet season.

Nothing new in any of that; indeed, ‘Manila Awash’ could take its place among the postcards of horse-drawn carriages in the faded glory of the Spanish-era enclave of Intramuros, gaily painted jeepneys and equally colourful tropical reef fish. It’s become as recognisable an icon of the place.

That aside though, flood images do little to showcase the country’s economic robustness if the nation’s premier city can be turned into Waterworld when storm drains fail and swollen rivers break their banks every time there’s a major downpour. According to World Bank 2017 forecasts, the Philippines is the world’s sixth-fastest growing economy.

Metro Manila comprises four cities and 13 municipalities; 10 of which, according to the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) – the overall administrative agency for the entire conurbation – fell victim to Maring. Even the MMDA headquarters on EDSA Avenue which links the north and south sides of Manila, was left marooned as the capital’s main thoroughfare became a canal.

Add to that what happens on Manila’s roads on a dry day – Carmaggedon, when the capital strangles itself by means of vehicular sclerosis – and it’s not hard to understand why this city, which first laid claim to being the islands’ capital in 900 AD, is seen both at home and abroad as an urban nightmare.

Now, thanks to a study by Spain’s University of Navarra IESE Business School, Manila has received further unwanted recognition. That study – the 2017 Cities in Motion Index (CIMI)just released, shows that out of 180 cities world wide, the Philippine capital is 148th in terms of being the “smartest” and most livable.

By any standards this is an extremely detailed analysis and takes account of no less than 79 separate indicators. These cover environment, mobility and transportation, urban planning, international outreach, technology, disposable incomes, governance, public management, economy, social cohesion, health care and human capital. From telecoms to tourism, innovation to pollution levels, crime rates to the number of bicycle shops, corruption to museum facilities, it’s all here.

And what it shows is that Manila’s problems as a “smart” city are not confined to the chaos on its roads – though in the ‘Transportation’ category it got a rank of 174th making it sixth worst of all countries surveyed.

In ‘Governance’, meanwhile, it came in at 160th; ‘Environment’, 147th; ‘Urban Planning’, 145th; ‘Social Cohesion’, 140th; ‘Human Capital’, 139th; ‘Economy’, 131st; ‘Technology’, 103rd.

It’s worth a little closer look at all this in a total sense. Environment is defined as the sustainable development of a city “that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Well, anyone who knows Manila knows that it misses both those targets by a wide margin.

Let’s leave traffic out of it. There are parts of this city which stand testimony to decades of urban neglect; where air-pollution levels are off the charts; where basic services of power and water only reach in a stuttering way; where crime runs rampant; where the poor quality of life is only exceeded by the poor quality of death, with deceased citizens awaiting transport to the next world in broken cardboard boxes packed and rammed into what available space is left in city cemeteries.

Only 11% of Metro Manila’s population is either directly or indirectly connected to a sewage system; 85% use ill-maintained septic tanks while 4% – that’s more than half a million people – have no access to a toilet.

Information and communications technology is part of the backbone of any society that wants to be called “smart”. Furthermore, a technologically backward city has comparative disadvantages with respect to other cities – for security, education, and health, all fundamental to the sustainability of society, but also for the purposes of productivity. This doesn’t just have a negative impact on consumption but also on investment – both vital to power a city’s heartbeat.

Technology in the sense of broadband and wifi connectability, for example, apart from being among the most expensive in the whole of Asia – in some parts of Manila is as absent as the garbage is omnipresent. And one reason for the latter is that the city is running out of places to dump its refuse. The landfills are full and overflowing.

Every day in Metro Manila some 10,000 tons of rubbish are moved to these toxic sites which also attract the scavenging poor who come to pick their way through the mounds of waste and litter in the hope of salvaging something – a scrap of metal maybe; some rubber hose – which they can sell to bring home a little precious income.

According to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, some 2,000 cubic metres of solvent wastes, 22,000 tons of heavy metals, infectious waste, biological sludge, lubricants, and intractable wastes, plus 25 million cu.m. of acid/alkaline liquid waste are improperly disposed of in Metro Manila each year.

As for ‘Social Cohesion’, there are around 100,000 families squatting along the region’s filthy waterways. And when the storms drop their rain – as we saw again this week – whole sections of Metro Manila disappear under water.

There are 13 million people living in Metro Manila – 12.4% of the country’s inhabitants – it’s one of the most densely populated places on Earth. In the squalid slums of Payatas, Happyland and Aroma, there are 80,000 people crammed to each square mile. Manila’s slums are home to a population of more than 4 million, while super slums, Tondo and San Andres are the first and second most densely populated districts of any in the capital.

Slum-dwellers aside, those who emigrate from the Philippine countryside in search of work don’t find their way into some extended Manila family. Largely, they’re ostracised; outcast; and left to their own devises, to sleep and beg – and too often die – on the streets of the capital.

Social cohesion in the urban context refers to the degree of coexistence among groups of people with different incomes, cultures, ages, and professions who live in a city. In a phrase, urban unity. In the Manila setting, social division better defines the actuality of life. Makati’s up-market gated communities of Dasmariñas, Magallanes, Bel-Air and Urdaneta are gated for a reason.

In the CIMI, Manila’s global position is overshadowed by most cities in the Asia-Pacific region some of which directly compete with Manila for everything from investment to tourism. Here’s where some of those came in the index. Seoul, 7th; Tokyo, 8th; Singapore, 22nd; Hong Kong. 42nd; Taipei, 56th; Osaka, 72nd; Bangkok, 86th; Beijing, 90th; Kuala Lumpur, 92nd; and Ho Chi Minh City, 146th.

All cities have social problems; all have infrastructure and city-management problems too, while transport and mobility is an abiding headache for urban planners everywhere. All of that is part of the price of being a city. The trick is to stay on top of those problems and deal with them as they arise.

Unfortunately, Manila is like a patient who ignored all the symptoms of an illness in the hope of being spared the medical bill. But the illness was progressive and that bill now stands at more than PHP3 billion a day – and that’s just to pay for the traffic congestion; though the jams will ease again when the next storm drops its payload across the capital and the boats come out once more to float along Manila’s streets.

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