MANILA - Politicians in the Philippines are hesitant about relocating informal settlers living in danger zones because it means they could be voted out of office, a British think-tank said.
"A decision to relocate communities is almost certain to encounter strong opposition and protests, which can be very 'expensive' politically, and end in action being delayed," said a May 2013 study published by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a London-based independent think-tank that analyzed how Philippine local governments create disaster-risk management policies.
The study, which was co-written by researchers from De La Salle University's Social Development Research Center, said while national government agencies are making geo-hazard maps available to local governments, particularly in cities exposed to natural disasters, making use of them through relocation of communities is difficult topic to address.
It quoted Dr. Mario Delos Reyes of the University of the Philippines School of Urban and Regional Planning as saying that laws for using geohazard maps to decide where people should not be allowed to live are there, but local governments should implement the measures through ordinances.
"A subdivision or community located beside a river would need to be relocated in accordance with ordinances to keep it safe from flooding. But any mayor attempting such would run headlong into a wall of protests and claims of human rights violations, or intense lobbying
from wealthy landowners and their politicians," the study added.
"The issue of relocation carries a high political risk as it can generate protests. In most cases it certainly creates an antagonistic constituency which may prove costly to a politician. It would also mean a reduction in the possible voters in an area during election periods. It seems to be so complex that concrete actions are often avoided," it said.
On Wednesday, Public Works and Highways Secretary Rogelio Singson revealed that the clearing of informal settlers in waterways all over Metro Manila was delayed after local officials asked for a postponement until after the May 2013 polls.
"Maraming nakiusap na wag muna bago mag eleksyon. Eh meron na namang barangay elections" but we will have to do something immediately, he told reporters.
Singson said the Department of Public Works and Highways has identified 20,000 informal settler families living in priority waterways in Metro Manila that must be cleared.
He also said the national government will impose sanctions on local government units that fail to prevent families that return to waterways after they have already been resettled.
He said the officials could be charged with violation of the Local Government Code and the Urban Housing and Development Act.
Vice-President Jejomar Binay, a former Makati City mayor and current chairman of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council, said Thursday that relocation of informal settlers living in danger zones is not easy.
"Kailangan kumbinsihin mo muna sila na talagang danger zone 'yun," he told reporters at the sidelines of the Asian Working Group of the International Catholic Migration Commission in Manila.
He said local government officials are often at fault when disaster strikes communities in identified danger zones.
"Alam mo totoo naman 'yun. Hindi naman mangyayari 'yan kung walang kapabayaan sa bahagi, lalo na ng barangay captain. Kaya ba noong ako'y mayor sabi ko 'yang mga problemang ganyan kayo ang unang-unang may kasalanan niyan dahil sa pinababayaan niyo 'yan," he said.
"The president [has] spoken already. It's also for their protection, danger zone 'yun," Binay added.
The ODI paper cited disaster risk management in Davao City and Albay as contrasting examples.
"The hazard risk we were shown in Davao City clearly indicated the areas of the city that are prone to floods and which have, in the past, suffered high numbers of casualties due to floods. The maps show that these areas are densely populated. But why are people allowed to live there?" it said. "The answer lies in the economic and political costs associated with relocation."
The study said Davao City is struggling to prevent houses built within 3-meters of river banks because it has limited resources available for monitoring regulations. "The number of informal settlers in risk areas has been estimated at around 18,000 families, and relocation would be expensive, as moving families involves legal proceedings and assistance, as well as the identification of a suitable new and safe site."
"Political risks are also high, as forced relocation would inevitably spur protests and even riots. Therefore, what may be technically sound (i.e. relocation) may not be politically feasible. Scientific evidence, even if legitimate, is therefore not used if the political risk is high," it reiterated.
In 2011, Davao City Mayor Sarah Duterte mauled a court sheriff who wanted to enforce the demolition of a shanty community in the area.
Duterte was asking for an extension of the deadline to demolish shanties but demolition teams pushed through with their operation. She later apologized to the court officer.
If relocation is next to impossible, the ODI paper said "what is politically feasible is to direct part of the funds available for relocation into investments in adaptation and defense against natural disasters."
Disasters and strong leadership
However, disasters can also become an opportunity for political gain for local leaders, according to the study.
"The exceptions are disaster-prone areas with strong and aware leadership, as in the case of Albay and, to some extent, Iloilo City. At these times, it is not a domain for contentious politics, and no rational politician would ever oppose any policy that would promote resilience to disasters," it said.
The study said in the province of disaster-prone Albay, Governor Joey Salceda was able to build political will on disaster prevention and establish close links with the experts to prevent the loss of lives.
"Salceda was able to turn disasters, and the need to prepare for natural disasters as a source of political capital, around, and was able to create not only a constituency, but develop policy mechanisms that address natural disaster resilience," it said, adding that strong leadership is often key in disaster risk management.
"Urban resilience interventions and policies by LGUs are not (necessarily) linked to good governance. For example, cities like Marikina, which has been recognised as a local government unit with remarkable governance mechanisms, did not develop a resilience system and policies comparable to the one in Albay," the study said.
"The key difference between the experience in Albay and that of Marikina is not the quality of governance but rather the leadership role of the Governor, who understood that he could gain political capital by addressing the issues of natural disasters and resilience," it added.