Metro Manila is getting uninhabitable

Philstar.com by Boo Chanco, 12-05-2014

I saw how dirty the air we breathe is from a hill in Antipolo. Metro Manila is down there enveloped by a gray soot with only the tall buildings in Ortigas Center managing to pierce through. I was glad I was above the polluted air, but realized that in a few hours I would be breathing that unhealthy brew of carcinogens too.

I have consulted several doctors about the headaches I get and stuffy nose almost the whole year through, and they all say it is our polluted air. Early this month my sinusitis took a turn that's worse than usual. I started having fever and needed a week's dose of antibiotics.

The worse part is that the childhood asthma I thought I outgrew is back, triggered by my sinusitis and that pesky post nasal drip. It seems we shorten our life span simply by breathing.

Now I can't wait to fly across the ocean to be with my kids in California for the holidays. Perhaps, the mild climate of San Francisco and its relatively cleaner air compared to Metro Manila's will do me some good.

I posted my health problems on Facebook and my friends suggested moving out of my house in Quezon City, a few blocks away from C5, to somewhere in the Santa Rosa area. Or better yet, move to Tagaytay.

Metro Manila is deteriorating at a pace faster than I have ever seen. Most of the pollution in the air comes from old jeepneys and buses. Forget the Clean Air Act or the mandatory smoke emission test. You have to be blind and an idiot to think the LTO is doing its job in enforcing this law. It is sheer hypocrisy of government to go all out with graphic warnings on cigarette packs, only to force everyone to inhale poisoned air in our streets and seriously damage our lungs anyway.

Indeed, it seems government has given up. It had been at least a decade since we had a public measurement of how bad our air pollution is. There was once a billboard with a device that measures the pollution level on EDSA. Maybe the pollution reading busted the equipment, and our government - like the one in Beijing - has no incentive to fix it and provide proof of its incompetence.

Of course having the right measure of how bad our air is will do us no real good, unless authorities are ready to do something about it. It also isn't as if the guys in DOTC and LTO, as well as in DENR care if our health has suffered because of our air pollution level. The DOH must sound the alarm bells.

It will only get worse. In a briefing I once attended, Shizuo Iwata, a JICA consultant made a comment that we need to take a more comprehensive approach to our urban planning. It isn't just the trains and buses and roads, but where people actually live. He said Metro Manila is simply congested.

The JICA expert said their comprehensive study made recommendations on satellite communities around Metro Manila that would be linked by mass transport. I remember him saying that Metro Manila is unlivable as it is now. We need to spread out, but we can only do that if we have an effective mass transit system. So that ended my daydreaming. With DOTC's legendary incompetence, abandon all hope.

According to Dax Lucas of Inquirer, a real estate consultancy executive of KMC Mag Group warned: "The long-term economic growth of the Philippines is dependent on whether or not it can address the issue of decongestion and make smart, sustainable decisions to improve its infrastructure."

In a Bloomberg  interview, Gil-Hong Kim, the Asian Development Bank's director of sustainable infrastructure said: "If the government fails to address the infrastructure gaps, this will become an unlivable city. Traffic jams will become a nightmare, more people will move into slums. Its wealth and business opportunities will be gone."

JICA is working on a proposal that indicates the Manila area will need a P2.6-trillion upgrade by 2030, including 1,260 kilometers of expressways and roads, 318 kilometers of rail lines and a new airport, according to Iwata, author of the study.

Metro Manila's 17 cities have a population of about 12 million. The market research people at ABS-CBN are now talking not of Metro Manila, but Mega Manila, or about 25 million people. That almost reaches Malolos to the north, beyond Antipolo to the east, halfway to Tagaytay in Cavite in the southwest and beyond Santa Rosa to the south. That made me think moving towards Santa Rosa may give me fresh air for now, but not for long.

The big private schools are now relocating in the Nuvali area being developed by Ayala, and that means it is a matter of time Mega Manila will be like Los Angeles and Orange County in Southern California. Congestion in the expansion areas will happen within my lifetime and with it, pollution and traffic jams too.

On the other hand, maybe in the areas managed by Ayala and other more responsible land developers, things will not be so bad. Nuvali is impressive and Ayala is doing an even more ambitious expansion in a totally new city in Porac, Pampanga. In fact, if Ayala invests the P75 billion it said it would invest to develop Alviera, a 1,100-hectare mix-used community in Porac, Pampanga, a truly new growth center away from Metro Manila would happen.

Now I appreciate what that Ayala executive boasted about in a newspaper interview in Singapore about Ayala being a government in itself with its own urban planning department. It is true and it is good. This is how private business picks up where government fails. It takes not just money, but guts.

Not too long ago that part of Pampanga was lahar country devastated by the eruption of Mt Pinatubo. Indeed, I do not understand why Ayala chose to build its planned community there rather than in Clark. Anyway, it is close enough to Clark where there would be facilities like the international airport and a tertiary hospital of Medical City.

If the manufacturing and service industries now in Clark expand operations or new ones come in, Alviera would be the ideal place for executives to live. Meean Dy, Ayala Land vice president and Strategic Landbank Management Group head, promised that "Porac will be transformed to a masterplanned township unlike any other in the province and in the whole of Central Luzon."

It could have happened earlier. The idea of moving some parts of government to Clark was explored by former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Rufo Colayco, who was head of BCDA at that time, proposed developing a second metropolis in the Clark-Subic corridor.

It was presented as a long-term solution to Metro Manila's serious congestion problems. But it must be properly planned, Colayco pointed out, and administered to avoid having yet another hopeless mess like what we have in Metro Manila. Besides we need an alternative in case that dreaded West Valley fault line shakes us with a seven to eight magnitude earthquake soon and Metro Manila becomes no man's land.

The idea is nothing new. Brazil created the capital city of Brasilia in 1957 in the hinterlands. They wanted to move people away from the coastal cities which have grown too big in a haphazard manner. They tried to do things right by making Brasilia a well-planned city of the future in the interior of the country. 

We could have done the same for Clark/Subic. The SCTEx expressway connecting both is already in place. But it was all talk for former President Arroyo. Despite Pampanga, her home province, being a major beneficiary of the move, Arroyo didn't have the political will to get it done.

For now, there is little reason to be hopeful. With Metro Manila busting at the seams, new growth centers ought to be developed and this time, with proper planning. But that's not going to happen in a big way to make a difference.

Proper planning is not on the minds of our officials. Worse, we Filipinos seem to have gotten used to mediocrity, as a Spanish PhD student's very apt observation puts it.

This is what Jorge Mojarro wrote in an article in InterAksyon: "As an example, let's talk about something simple: sidewalks, a basic public asset that facilitates mobility and the livability of a city. Except for a few areas, sidewalks are absent. Or if they do exist, they are occupied in very different ways. Streets for pedestrians are science fiction. The terrible consequence is that elders, small children, and handicapped people are excluded from the streets."

Things will remain chaotic as our mega cities grow in all directions like some giant amoeba. Metro Manila is becoming uninhabitable or maybe, already is.