Manila – Urban Challenges Overview

Recently, we commissioned a rapid scan of our two pilot cities to help frame and contextualise the specific urban challenges we work to address. To follow-up on this, and to begin making connections to foster the work of a lasting coalition, Human Cities Coalition Directors Ronald Lenz and Fleur Henderson paid the pilot cities of Manila and Jakarta a visit. In this installment we focus in on the city of Manila, or rather what is known as Mega Manila. These scoping efforts – based both on desk research and site visits– offer insight into the political context, living conditions, and urban challenges residents of Manila face.

The Philippines – Manila’s urban profile

Manila is the capital of the Philippines. Founded on June 24, 1571 by a Spanish conquistador, it is one of the oldest cities in the Philippines and was the seat of power for most of the country’s colonial rulers. Nowadays the Philippines has an urbanization rate of 45.3 percent and is considered a highly-urbanized nation. Research shows that the steep increase in urbanization over the last decade has contributed to an increase of 300 percent in inequality across the country.

Alongside one of Manila’s many rivers

The Philippines’ capital is Metro Manila, also known as the National Capital Region or NCR. Metro Manila is the 12th most populous city in the world, with a population of 12,877,253. It is made up of 16 cities and one municipality and a land area of 620 square kilometres. Metro Manila contributes 36.5 percent of the country’s GDP. Mega Manila, which comprises Metro Manila and surrounding cities makes up 50 percent of the nation’s total GDP. The region has an employment rate of 93.5 percent – one of the highest rates in the country.

Directors visit to Manila

To follow-up on the rapid city scans and to meet with identified stakeholders, HCC Directors visited Manila and Jakarta in late November. Human Cities Coalition used the site visits to get an understanding for the slum areas in Manila, to hold first focus group discussions with the target groups, and to speak with all the types of stakeholders with which we aim to work in the coming year. The trip provided the Directors a thorough overview of the different interests and power relations at work between local stakeholders. Furthermore, this trip served to meet with candidates and ultimately hire the Manila-based Programme Manager.

With the help of the Dutch embassy, HCC was able to meet with the Vice President of the Philippines, related financial intuitions like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, and various local government bodies. They also visited various slums across several of Mega Manila’s smaller cities. This experience was perhaps the most impactful. Given it was their first visit to Manila, the Directors were struck again and again by the power of the people – through ingenuity, strength and resilience – to survive and make a life for themselves in such conditions.  How do you run a business without resources? They find a way regardless.

Photo credit: Housing & Urban Development Coordinating Council
Meeting with the Vice President by Housing & Urban Development Coordinating Council
Meeting with women in the slums

In Manila, the impact of flooding cannot be emphasized enough. Locals indicated that the rainy season last for four months and causes considerable business disruption along with a host of other issues around health and sanitation. For many of the city’s poorest, the rainy season creates conditions so severe they can no longer work. For HCC, the Manila visit also highlighted how interconnected water-related systems and issues are. For instance, without flood prevention and management, regular flooding will occur. The combination of sediment carried by floods along with other waste leads to further clogging and river overflow, which in turn, contributes to contamination and pollution.

Another true eye-opener was the cost of accessing water – water used for wash and cooking as well as water that is safe enough to drink. For many this can cost up to one third of their total income. Water continues to be highly rationed. Those in informal settlements have it even worse given that you cannot get a water pipeline unless you own the land. In turn, such insecurities and lack of access to basic amenities does little to encourage locals to invest in their houses or local infrastructure. What you end up with is scenarios where there are 4 pit toilets for more than 25,000 people – a health and sanitation nightmare beyond imagination.

Notably, and unlike Jakarta, there was a huge contrast in the history and conditions of two slums HCC visited in the sub-cities of Malabon and Tondo. The slums in Malabon were built anew by a community after resettlement whereas the Hapilan slums in Tondo represent the poorest of the poor and the country’s main port area. Those living in the newer and more planned Malabon tend to have a higher income, children attend school on a more regular basis (about a half a day each weekday), and residents have access to sewage and waterlines. In contrast, those living in Hapilan live day-to-day, lack basic schooling, and have no water and sewage systems. What this means is that interventions in Tondo will need a different approach than those in Malabon. Thankfully, due to the Presidential Commission for the Urban Poor (PICUP) – a semi-governmental body that shares best practices and trains organisations that work with the urban poor – we are hopeful there’s effectively work with community organisations in Mega Manila’s sub-cities.

Tondo, Manila
Hapilan slum in Tondo, Manila
Slum conditions in Malabone, Manila

Manila’s main urban challenges – rapid scan findings

  1. Rapid urban growth – The Philippines is one of Asia’s fastest urbanizing countries, with: 138 cities, 1,496 municipalities, and 42,027 barangays. Metro Manila’s population is projected to reach 14 million by 2030, while Mega Manila’s population is projected to increase from 23 million to 30 million by 2030
  2. Habitation challenges – More than a third of the Philippines’ urban populations are slum dwellers. The country has 5 million informal settler families (ISFs), 2.2 million of whom are receiving government services. Furthermore, 778,458 people live in danger areas.
  3. Increasing unemployment and limited economic growth – Increasing unemployment and underemployment rates, and economic growth that is limited in reaching the poor, are reasons for the increase in urban poverty and the number of informal settlements. Of key concern is the quality of as estimates place informal labour at 63-75 percent of total labour force. Youth unemployment was an alarming 28.1 percent, more than four times the rates for adults.
  4. Lack of urban basic services – There is an ever-widening gap between demand and supply in infrastructure services. Basic services are simply insufficient in urban areas. The government itself states that 92.5 percent of households had access to sanitation in 2011 while less than 5 percent of households are actually connected to a sewerage network. The government has allocated less than 1 percent of the total government expenditures for the housing sector in recent years, or less than one-tenth of a percent of GDP on the average. This makes Philippine public spending on housing one of the lowest in Asia. Simply put, expenditures for urban infrastructure and the delivery of municipal services have not kept pace with urbanization, and consequently, the urban environment in most cities is deteriorating rapidly.
  5. Ineffective urban planning and land management – Local Governments Units (LGUs) have been given the principal role in urban and land use planning, including socialized housing. At the macro level, the absence of a strong national agency to assume the urban mandate makes a fragmented and incomplete institutional framework. The political cycle contributes to the lack of strategies for urban development.
  6. Increasing vulnerability of the urban poor – Urban poverty in the Philippines is pegged at 14% in 2014 with 778,458 informal settlements in danger areas. Given the deprived living conditions – both in informal settlements and relocation sites – the urban poor are more vulnerable to climate-related risks.
  7. Water management issues – As described above and depicted in the photos below.

Initial Findings from Manila and Jakarta Site Visits

Overall, the site visits served as a first step to obtaining a better understanding of the urban development agenda and its main stakeholders and policy frameworks. What we learned is that there is considerable political complexity in both locations. The stakeholder ecosystem is very complex, plus local governments can be very fluid. Given the vastly different ecosystems between and within each city, it is likely that programs in each city will have their own speed and planning. As such, the inclusive business case will likely be blended.

The site visits also helped emphasize the potential role of embassies in our coalition’s work. Embassies can play a vital role in liaising with stakeholders ranging from local politicians to international companies. Furthermore, two theme arose from these visits: affordable housing and water challenges.  Given the complexity of the urban field and interconnecting/cross-cutting challenges of water-related issues, continued scoping is needed.

Children at play in Manila’s slums

Within the pilot cities, we will begin our work by creating and convening a multi-stakeholder platform – one for each city. This platform is expected to create a space where the water-related needs of Manila’s urban poor meet with sustainable marketable solutions that address those needs. This requires involvement from urban poor communities and (international) companies willing and able to understand and respond to such market opportunities. Bringing together demand and innovative marketable solutions (supply) is meant to help the platform define actionable inclusive business opportunities that can meet water-related challenges.


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