Philippines bringing its experience in urban resilience to Habitat III

‘We can build the best infrastructure,’ said one official, ‘but the end goal to keep our cities resilient to climate change impacts, natural hazards and disasters is a means to create liveable communities for everyone.’

A father and daughter look out of a rescue craft as Typhoon Yolanda lashes Tacloban in the Philippines, 2013. (Anna Valmero)

This report is part of an ongoing series looking at the issues and actions that characterize select countries’ engagement in the Habitat III process; read more in this series here. See also Citiscope’s explainer “Who are the Habitat III major players?

MANILA — The Philippines has played a key role in the global debate on sustainable urbanization that has taken place over the past year and a half under the auspices of the Habitat III process.

That process is set to wrap up next week as some 50,000 people meet in Ecuador’s capital, where representatives of 193 countries are slated to adopt the outcome of those negotiations — a global 20-year strategy called the New Urban Agenda.

But in June, that political debate was suffering a crisis of leadership, throwing into question whether the U. N. negotiations would be able to result in a document that all parties would agree to sign. Eventually two countries stepped up to offer top diplomats to lead the complex negotiations. Mexico was the second. The Philippines was the first.

[See: Habitat III impasse resolved with Mexico, Philippines to lead talks]

Those talks wrapped up successfully in September, when all countries agreed on a final draft of the New Urban Agenda. But even while the Philippines’ chief diplomat was tasked with keeping in line the many competing interests in the Habitat III talks, what have been the Philippines’ own priorities for this new urbanization agenda? The country, after all, is unique, made up of several thousand islands — inevitably impacting on its own urbanization patterns and urban development strategies.

The country’s delegation to Habitat III has focused on a handful of issues in the New Urban Agenda discussions, according to interviews with key members. Officials have been keen to focus on opportunities to tap the country’s young population for growth, for instance. And, as with many countries throughout the region and beyond, they are looking to the New Urban Agenda for strategies on improving access to decent housing and basic services.

But first and foremost, the country wants to use this process to bolster local urban resilience — and to share its own experience in this regard with the rest of the world. That makes sense for this country that has been buffeted repeatedly by disasters resulting from natural hazards, including 2013’s Super Typhoon Yolanda (elsewhere called Haiyan).

“Urban resilience is a major part of our core message for the New Urban Agenda,” said lawyer Avelino Tolentino, director of Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC). “For development to become sustainable, we need to strengthen the capacity of urban areas, our communities for economic growth, to withstand shocks from natural hazards and disasters that can easily wipe off decades of economic growth in just a day.”

HUDCC is the national agency coordinating urbanization and shelter agenda in the Philippines and one of the lead agencies that authored the Habitat III Philippine National Report, which is being released at Habitat III and which follows the country’s urban development over the past two decades.

[See: In the Philippines, a model for confronting climate change and nearly every disaster you can think of]

The Philippines is serious in its commitment to champion the need for urban resilience, according to interviews for this story — especially for island nations that are more vulnerable to the impacts of increasingly strong typhoons and the disasters they can bring due to floods and storm surges.

This emphasis is underscored by the fact that the country’s elected vice president, Leni Robredo, will lead the Philippine delegation at next week’s Habitat III conference. Robredo is also chairman of HUDCC, following a pattern of the past three administrations. At a July international forum on resilience held in Manila, Robredo vowed to champion multi-stakeholder participation in outlining the country’s urban resilience plans.

According to Tolentino, the lawyer, “The accelerated pace of urbanization in the Philippines, with its archipelagic nature and geographic location of the Philippines, making it highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, calls for some modifications to the country’s existing urban governance framework.”

Sub-national readiness

The Philippine capital is one of the world’s 20 megacities and is the country’s main financial hub. It’s also is home to some 11.9 million Filipinos, about a tenth of the total population of 101.5 million. Covering just 613 sq km, Manila is also one of the world’s densest cities, with at least 19,000 people per sq km. That means the capital’s urban experience is characterized by congested living spaces, enormous traffic jams, and high prices for access to clean water and other basic services.

Meanwhile, the metro’s population continues to balloon. It is, after all, where much of the country’s economic vitality is found. Attracting the country’s top talents and investments has made Metro Manila the country’s dominant economic player, contributing 36 percent to the national gross domestic product. But it also stunts development in most other parts of the country.

[See: Cleaning up Manila’s Pasig River, one tributary at a time]

Growth is important, but the continuous influx of people competing for scarce resources in the capital is not sustainable, experts say. That’s especially the case in view of the growing threats of climate change, such as stronger, more frequent typhoons from the Western Pacific, said Veerabhadan Ramanathan, director of the Center for Clouds, Chemistry and Climate at the University of California.

In 2009, Metro Manila was submerged in two-storey-high floods for weeks when Typhoon Ondoy (known elsewhere as Ketsana) brought massive rains. The storm caused losses equivalent to 2 percent of national GDP and damaged almost a quarter-million homes.

That experience prompted lawmakers to look at readiness at the city and community level. The following year, they passed the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (DRRM) Act, which sought to mainstream climate change adaptation and DRRM into sub-national planning.

[See: New disaster-risk framework seen as first step toward sustainability]

Four years later, the world saw the face of climate change even more clearly, when Super Typhoon Yolanda struck multiple regions in the Philippines and flattened low-lying Tacloban City, a booming economic hub in the middle of the archipelago. About 16.1 million people were affected, with most displaced and left homeless. The U. N. has said it will take decades for affected regions to recover fully, and today many families remain displaced and awaiting new housing.

Parts of the worst-effected areas of the country registered negative growth for 2013, said Ramon Paul Falcon of the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA)’s Social Development Staff, the lead agency drafting the country’s development agenda. And there’s more of that to come, he warned: “The lives and livelihoods of more than 100 million Filipinos will be affected by what is done to manage the impacts of climate change in Philippine urban areas over the next decade.”

That’s why the issue of climate resilience is key in the country’s national report for Habitat III, Falcon said. In turn, that report will inform the National Urban Development and Housing Framework (NUDHF), a comprehensive development plan for urban settlements and housing programmes, as well as the drafting of the Philippine Development Plan, the country’s comprehensive economic blueprint through 2022.

[See: Will Habitat III note the unique urbanization of small island states?]

That’s happening none too soon, some say. “We need to strengthen linkages between national urban policies and the lessons from communities and national agencies to make the NUDHF more relevant. Partnerships are key,” said Commissioner Linda Hornilla of the Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board, the agency that leads the writing of the NUDHF.

Of a sample of the largest 327 coastal cities worldwide, the Philippines has by far the largest number at risk of storm surges, with a total of 48. It is followed by neighbour Indonesia, with 28, according to a survey from the Center for Global Development, a U. S. think tank.

“Countries in the Pacific, especially island nations such as the Philippines, can take an aggressive role in championing the call for resilience in cities and communities,” said Ramanathan, “because they face the twin challenges of stronger typhoons due to a warming Pacific ocean and sea level rise that can erase countries off the map.”

Climate connection

So what exactly does it mean for a country to focus on urban resilience? And what can Habitat III do to assist in this process? Part of it has to do with broader policymaking around climate change.

“The challenges of climate change and sustainability requires urban planners and builders to rethink what it means to build the infrastructure and mindset for future sustainable cities,” said architect Christopher de la Cruz, founder of the Philippine Green Building Council (PhilGBC).

[See: How to globalize the sustainable city]

In 2013, the council launched new industry guidelines for building environmentally sound buildings and retrofitting old ones so that they are made more energy-efficient. The guide was used in forming the country’s Green Building Code in 2015, which new construction projects now follow.

“A green building can be considered as a way of building new projects that takes into consideration resilience to climate impacts and also serves as a way of climate adaptation,” said de la Cruz. “Green buildings use 40 percent less water and energy, while also producing less waste.”

He said the impact of green buildings in the construction and property sector is significant. On average, around 3,000 building permits are issued in Metro Manila alone, according to government figures. The Philippines has pledged to cut its greenhouse-gas emissions by 70 percent by 2030, including options such as the use of green infrastructure.

[See: New alliance seeks to tap major climate potential of building sector]

But urban resilience is “not only based on infrastructure, as it requires the whole of community to be knowledgeable on disaster preparedness to avert disasters,” said Cedric Daet, executive director of Albay province’s DRRM program, an initiative that has received global attention for championing a “zero-casualty goal” in the face of stronger typhoons.

Albay, which lies along the Pacific typhoon belt, receives most of the 20 typhoons that visit the Philippines each year. The province has regular disaster-preparedness trainings for its communities, where even grade-schoolers are expected to know what to do immediately in the event of an earthquake or typhoon. This, said Daet, is key to building a community resilient to disasters.

This close interdependence between climate adaptation and disaster management is one of the lessons that the Philippines aims to bring to Habitat III, part of a delegation that will include city mayors who champion disaster resilience and officials in the urban planning sector.

[See: Habitat III process paying ‘insufficient’ attention to resilience and urban crises]

“The threats from the impact of climate change will remain,” said Tolentino, the housing director. “The Philippines, for example, has one of the longest coastlines in the world, and most of its economic hubs, cities and communities are built next to the sea. There is no way for sustainable growth without adaptation to climate change as a way of building better, safer, resilient cities.”

“The city is its people,” he continued. “We can build the best infrastructure, but at the end of the day, the end goal to keep our cities resilient to climate change impacts, natural hazards and disasters is a means to create liveable communities for everyone.”

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