The rising waters of Manilla offer lessons for a warming world

MANILA – Every year at least eight typhoons smash into the Philippines, an archipelago and former US colony in the Pacific Ocean. As the climate changes around the world, the storms are getting worse – and most of this nation of 109 million live in their path.

As extreme weather events are expected to worsen globally, the country is at the forefront of the crisis, with towns and cities made particularly vulnerable due to poor urban planning and inadequate drainage systems. Homeowners in the country precarious middle class, who do not necessarily have the funds to relocate, are left largely on their own to cope and find ways to protect their possessions. Residents have learned to add features to their homes such as flood dikes, elevated floors and – in one case – a floating garage.

Tropical cyclones since 2017

Tropical cyclones since 2017

Tropical cyclones since 2017

Last year alone, tropical cyclones in the Philippines left over 100 dead and caused $ 662 million in damage. In a 2018 study by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, over 75 percent of Filipinos reported being affected by heavy rains, tropical cyclones, floods and earthquakes in a five-year period. In the same study, almost half said their homes had been damaged at one time by a natural disaster.

Flood hazard based on

topographic and rainfall data

Flood hazard based on topographic and rainfall data

Flood hazard based on topographic and rainfall data

By all accounts, the floods are only getting worse. Scientists blame climate change for the erratic and early rains in northeastern India and Bangladesh that led to June’s massive flooding there. At the same time, more than 1,000 miles away, in China’s southern province of Guangdong, tens of thousands have been evacuated by the worst flooding in decades.

Any solutions on climate change will be years in the making. In the meantime, people in many areas will face a lot more water, without the option of relocating. “It becomes a personal responsibility,” architect Leandro Poco said of making houses more flood-proof if the means are available. “They do not want to evacuate.”

For those outside the Philippines, these steps can offer lessons in adaptation as flood and sea levels rise around the world.

Some traits of resilient housing – including elevated floors, windows designed for natural ventilation and more – are reflected in traditional Filipino homes, said Vinson Serrano, an instructor at the University of Santo Tomas College of Architecture. But these concepts were often shunned in the shift to Western materials and styles.

When borrowing some of these ideas for one’s locale, “you can’t just copy-paste,” says Edward Barsley of the Environmental Design Studio, based in Britain, and author of Retrofitting for Flood Resilience: A Guide to Building and Community Design . ” The key is to organize as a community.

“Speak to and work with your neighbors,” Barsley said. “Maybe you could share the cost of some of these measures… and protect and make resilient a larger block of buildings.”

Houses sit on stilts in Malabon, the Philippines, on June 3, 2022. Stilts are commonly used to raise homes in impoverished seaside rural communities around the country. (Photos by Martin San Diego for The Washington Post)

Community and shared space is much stronger in informal settlements, said architect Paulo Alcazaren, who co-authored “Squatter City,” a book about these spaces. He emphasized that renovations are well and good but only a symptom of a larger issue. “Unless you change the larger context of governance, you can not solve anything,” he said. “The scale of the problem cannot be solved by individual homeowners doing something to retrofit their homes.”

While the middle class can renovate, the poor in the Philippines are left mostly to rebuild from scratch after each disaster. Many live in slums, with homes that are little more than clusters of dense, makeshift shanties made from upcycled material.

One community at the forefront of the climate crisis lies between the cities of Malabon and Navotas in the capital region – a cluster of neighborhoods near Manila Bay that is vulnerable to typhoons and rising sea levels. Before a storm, residents tie roofs down with rope, raise the stilts of their homes and then evacuate – returning to inspect the damage afterward.

Starting at around 10 am, high tide seeps into the community, flooding it with ankle-deep water. The house of Elena Ku, 49, is submerged with seawater all year long. She can not afford to raise the whole foundation, so her solution has been to raise the bathroom. Every day, she scoops up water that has gotten into the house and flushes it down the toilet. Ku also has a water pump that she occasionally rents to neighbors, but she does not use it too often due to electricity charges. A makeshift bridge made of a plank and soft-drink cases leads into and out of the house.

Pablo Rosales, a resident and president of the fishing organization Pangisda Pilipinas, said relocation efforts do not work for the community because locals have to be near the sea for their livelihoods. Many homes have abandoned their ground floors but, like Ku, struggle with daily inconveniences.

As the district struggles with rising sea levels, pollution and the threat of commercial establishments, Rosales said residents need “a true, formal settlement” to have agency over their homes. “It hurts us to be the people who put fish on the table for others,” he said, while living in such conditions.

By midafternoon the saltwater flooding the streets starts to recede, but it will be back the next day.

About this story

Architects / homeowners interviewed for this story: Paulo Alcazaren, John Aguilar, Edward Barsley, James Blanco, Peach Buencamino, Ervin Lugay, Leandro Poco, Jeric Rustia, Don Sebastian, Vinson Serrano.

About the data: Tropical cyclone tracks are from NOAA’s International Best Track Archive for Climate Stewardship (IBTrACS) data, accessed June 17, 2022. Flood hazard data is from Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards.

Story editing by Reem Akkad, Paul Schemm and Dayana Sarkisova. Design and development by Yutao Chen. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Graphics editing by Kate Rabinowitz and Tim Meko. Video editing by Jason Aldag. Copy editing by Carey Biron.

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