By Kristian Karlo Saguin, author of Urban Ecologies on the Edge: Making Manila’s Resource Frontier

Cities around the world are learning to live with the challenges of increasing urban ecological precarity. In watery Manila, the metropolitan population of around 25 million is constantly exposed to the threats of monsoon rains and typhoons. Attempts to address the problem of urban flooding have historically relied on constructing a network of infrastructure that transfers risk across space and time, occasionally breaking down but always transforming lives and livelihoods in the process. Keeping the city dry requires relying on spaces beyond the city, which are expected to deliver vital resource such as food and water.

In Urban Ecologies on the Edge, I explore these conflicting fluid urbanisms in Manila through stories of resource flows and I show how the environmental trajectories of cities are tied to “urban resource frontiers.” The layered and intertwined urban socioecologies bring together natures, landscapes and peoples, and imaginaries, politics and materialities in finding geographic solutions to urban challenges.

The following passage is excerpted from pages 140-143 of Urban Ecologies on the Edge.          

A few months after one of the worst floods in its history struck Metro Manila in 2012, I paid a visit to the operations center of a flood control infrastructure that managed stormwater flows in the city. Anna, a state engineer, showed me a map of the stations that recorded water levels and pointed to the channel capacities of different streams within the hydrological network of Metro Manila. She explained the details of the complex hydrological design and the need for synchronizing flood control operations through infrastructural control from this particular site and a few others in the city. For the flood control infrastructure to work and keep the city dry, stormwater flows must be diverted away from the urban core and into Laguna Lake to its southeast, turning the large body of water into a temporary stormwater reservoir. This happened in 2012 when engineers had to close the floodgates to save Manila from the possibility of worse flash flooding after monsoon rains dumped near-record rainfall. During the time of this particular visit to the flood control operations center, Laguna Lake had already been flooded for ten weeks, and water levels that rose to double the lake’s volume would not return to average conditions until December, some two months later.                                                                  

Images of disrupted lives greeted me several kilometers southeast in the Laguna Lake village of Navotas, where up to a foot of lake water had invaded most homes weeks earlier. Lampitaws or outriggers plied the streets instead of the usual motorcycles, ferrying villagers who otherwise would have had to carefully wade through the near knee-high floodwater. Over a meal of adobong kanduli, Julie, my host, recounted how the floodwaters had risen slowly in her house a few weeks earlier and had stayed high since then. The turbid waters had cleared enough by then such that I could see a small school of tilapia fry swimming in her living room. She mentioned that she had lost her appetite from seeing her house flooded as she and her family tried to maintain a semblance of normal everyday life and resume making a living off the lake. The impact on their livelihood of the lake swelling caused by stormwater from elsewhere reminded lake dwellers of the urban infrastructural control of Laguna Lake. Over the succeeding weeks, fisherfolk groups routinely called for the opening of floodgates downstream, which they believed were responsible for the extended lake swelling, as these prevented the outflow of water to Manila Bay.                                                          

These contemporary encounters revealed an aspect of the imaginaries of an urban frontier and the ecological work such spaces are expected to perform. Socioecological risk takes place as a result: risk is spatialized and territorialized through material flows from the city and the construction of Laguna Lake as a particular type of space in relation to the city. Urban flood disasters have erupted with increasing frequency, especially between the years 2009 and 2013. But the production of urban flood risk has deeper historical roots, stretching back decades to colonial Philippines, and intertwines the city and the lake through flood control infrastructure and flows.                                                               

As Anna, the city engineer, had shown me, understanding flood risk in Manila must be situated within the context of the hydrological spaces and engineering interventions in the city and beyond, as well as the bureaucratic work and infrastructural politics associated with which sites would get flooded, by how much, and why. Julie and her flooded village illustrate the implications of urban risk for everyday lives and livelihood already transformed by other urban metabolic relations. The physical transfer of flows intersects with patterns of vulnerability shaped by past modern interventions in the lake such as aquaculture.

Manila’s network of flood control infrastructure was constructed with the modern aim of efficiently draining the city of stormwater and wastewater. Despite shifting governance contexts, flood control remained a crucial component of Manila’s urban modernity and the promise of accumulation. Similar to the modern networked infrastructural ideal, state knowledge recognized the need to expand the network of flood control beyond the city to account for the scale and scope of urban hydrology, making the urban drainage frontier legible by tracing both the upstream origins of floodwaters and possible spaces where they could be redirected. The land- mark monsoon floods of 2012 and the years before and after demonstrated the breakdown of this infrastructural ideal and the limits of its design. The politics of infrastructure resurfaced and laid bare the urban metabolic connections that shape city and frontier lives.