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Manila's Deadly Flood 50 Years Ago

New America Media, Commentary, Rene P. Ciria-Cruz Posted: Oct 13, 2009

Editors Note: NAM contributor Rene Ciria-Cruz recalls a deadly flood nearly 50 years ago in Manila in the Philippines that was a harbinger of todays catastrophes -- all results of humans abuse of their natural environment.

No one said the world would end on May 28, 1960, but for nearly 300 impoverished residents of Manila, it did.

Typhoon Lucille sliced through the capital region, and from the Sierra Madres denuded foothills, torrents rushed down citys web of creeks and man-made canals, smashing hundreds of squatter shanties on their banks. Corpses floated everywhere. It was a surprise to everyone. At All Saints Dawn, in November that year, the strum of guitars and a rough vocal harmony outside our window awakened me to a Tagalog plaint that loosely translates thus:

Were wandering souls who came from Purgatory,
Twas the 28th of May when we drowned in your city,
If youre going to give us alms, please hurry and dont wait,
For we might get locked out of holy Heavens Gate.

I dont think we gave those wandering souls of May 28 the alms they sought; perhaps, as they feared, they were locked out of Heavens Gate. I only remember that we had no chickens for them to steal out of spite, as tradition warranted.

May 28, 1960 seemed to herald other disasters that have followed in the course of the years. No one said the world would end on September 26, 2009 either, but for nearly 200 residents of Metropolitan Manila, it did. This time, however, even the wealthy had to seek safety on their rooftops. It was a shock to everyone, but no longer a surprise.

Cataclysmic acts of nature are encoded in our archipelagic homelands genome, making floods and earthquakes recurring facts of life. Imelda Marcos loony theres hole in the sky right above us theory isnt the explanation. Neither is it Gods punishment for bad governance. It comes with the islands natural setting. Were in the Pacific Rim of Fire, which often sends us into fits of tremors and volcanic eruptions. Being in a monsoon belt, our regions are seasonally battered to submission by vicious winds and copious rains. What is undeniable, of course, is that what nature has dealt us, we humans have made worse. Manila is living proof.

The capital is now a tangled heap of concrete highways and byways, massive skyscrapers and shopping malls, sprawling gated subdivisions and jerry-rigged shantytowns much of it resting on a soft, primordial swamp thats barely above sea level. The low coastal plains are part of an elaborate fluvial web comprising the Laguna Lake Basin, Marikina River Basin and the MetroManila watershed.

It includes the great Pasig River and scores of tributaries and man-made canals with names like the Bitukang Manook (Chickens Gut) and Canal de la Reyna. In dry season Manila Bays level rises, reversing the Pasigs course, making it flow into Laguna Lake. In rainy season the water flows from the lake into the Pasig, swamping Manilas low-lying banks before draining into the bay. This respiratory cycle renewed biological life in the waterways and fertilized riverside plains with nutrient runoff from the wilds of nearby Laguna and Rizal provinces. The capitals suburbs used to be vast tracts planted with rice, where people spun folklore, superstitions, poems, love songs and traditions. That was when nature could still tolerate the inhabitants, their livelihoods, wars and uprisings. Although by the end of the Spanish rule, the waterways were already being poisoned by sewage from the growing population.

Yet, until the 60s, wide areas still had swaths of fallow paddies waiting to be subdivided for middle-class housing. The riverbank below a landmark bridge in Santa Ana District still flourished with a truck garden of
bok choy and green onions. In Pandacan District where I grew up, bands of migratory martins still mistakenly came looking for rice in the paddies near our house, finding instead zacate grass that old Marco harvested and sold as feed for the cart horses of Chinatown. Even then the river basin continued to gently flood our paddies when rains came, reviving the mudfish and edible snails in vestigial water buffalo wallows. My older brothers and their friends would paddle their dugout canoes from the Estero de Pandacan canal out to the Pasig River to trawl for catfish and smelt migrating from Laguna Lake, or after severe storms, fugitive milkfish from the sodden fish ponds of nearby Bulacan province. Monsoon floods habitually took over our streets, and we gleefully dove in, unafraid of catching intestinal worms and other vermin, for we thought the water still looked clean enough.

But the factories, oil terminals, and office buildings kept growing, and the rural folk who sought jobs in them kept coming by the thousands, settling anywhere they could. Buses, jeepneys and cars kept multiplying. Pandacans open paddies have long given way to houses and buildings alongside a traffic-choked highway. Today, the Pasig River and its tributaries, having become inexorably pestilential, are but putrid arteries of garbage and disease. The delicate river basin, which cant possibly breathe under the weight of 13 million inhabitants and their modern needs, now regularly breaks down in monsoon season. And if that season brings particularly harsh storms, as on May 28, 1960 and September 26, 2009, the waterways no longer bring fertility to the soil, but revenge on its inhabitants.

It may be too late to reverse the course of Manilas environmental destruction. I even doubt if the traditional lament of wandering souls on All Saints Day can still be heard through the urban din. But heres hoping that were not yet fated to be locked out of Heavens Gate.

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