Column: The Paranaque spillway and its discontents

Published on November 10, 2009.

In Singapore, where I am spending a couple of days, almost all roads lead to the Apec Leaders’ Summit. I am on a mere byway, a well-worn path, but away from all the pageantry. I am consulting experts on Southeast Asian nationalism.

Sojourn, a scholarly journal published by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), used its last issue to raise the provocative question: What are the most influential books written about Southeast Asia? (The issue should be recommended reading for Apec leaders, even Indonesia-raised Barack Obama.)

The number of titles devoted to Indonesian topics on the journal’s Top 14 list testifies to the vigor of Indonesian historiography. But the Philippines is ably represented, because the list includes what must be, hands down, the most influential book about the Philippines of the last half-century: Reynaldo Ileto’s paradigm-shifting “Pasyon and Revolution: Popular Movements in the Philippines, 1840-1910.” Another book on the list owes a spark of inspiration to the Philippines too: Benedict Anderson’s even more influential “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.” “Imagined Communities” has not only effectively reshaped the study of nationalism, it has also (at least in this amateur’s view) reinvigorated the study of Rizal.

The journal’s international advisers chose the most influential books from a long list of 45 that included two Philippine books: Cesar Adib Majul’s “Muslims in the Philippines” (which I have yet to read) and the groundbreaking “Philippine Social History: Global Trade and Local Transformations,” edited by Alfred W. McCoy and Ed. C. de Jesus.

Perhaps in time, when ideological passions have cooled and research-driven summations become fashionable in the Philippines again, more Filipinos will recognize John Schumacher SJ’s magisterial “The Propaganda Movement” as the nation-making masterpiece that it truly is.

* * *

One of the many points raised by Albay Gov. Joey Salceda, during his virtuoso number-crunching at last week’s Inquirer Briefing, did not involve numbers at all (although I suppose it assumes the art of counting heads). The President’s favorite economic adviser took issue with the view expressed by top architect and urban planner Jun Palafox (a view that reflects popular belief, I should think) that “political will” was needed to do what now needs to be done, after the damage left behind by “Ondoy” and “Pepeng.” I do not believe in political will, Salceda said, more or less in these words. Instead, I believe that “corporate management skills” will do the trick, are what we need.

What I think Palafox meant, what most people would say when pressed for a definition, is that political will empowers a politician to do what needs to be done regardless of the cost.

At another point in the discussion, Salceda described an effective politician as someone with an enlarged definition of “enlightened self-interest.” But corporate management skills create new opportunities. Could it be that political will also means reducing the cost of what needs to be done?

* * *

While leading architects Jun Palafox and Dinky von Einsiedel agree on many aspects of the challenge of post-Ondoy reconstruction, it may be instructive to trace the fault lines, so to speak, of their disagreements.

At the same briefing last week, both made compelling if contrasting presentations, backed by decades of tenure at the highest reaches of their profession. But they disagreed on the need for a Parañaque spillway. The spillway is meant to help drain Laguna de Bay of excess water; the country’s largest lake has only the Pasig River for an outlet. (One of the many ways to reach the Inquirer head office on Chino Roces in Makati City is via the Mandaluyong bridge, which affords a wide, largely unobstructed view of the Pasig. These days the current is positively rippling, driven by the excess water Laguna de Bay is struggling to expel.)

The case for the Parañaque spillway is straightforward, and it is a case Palafox has argued almost since Ondoy made landfall. Laguna lake needs another major outlet; dredging has not worked and is too slow; the shortest distance between the lake and Manila Bay is through the densely populated sliver of land in Parañaque. The World Bank-funded MMETRO PLAN of 1977 listed the spillway among its recommendations. (To be sure, and as von Einsiedel pointed out, the idea of a Parañaque spillway was already being kicked around as early as 1972.)

But von Einsiedel argued the opposite: The Parañaque spillway is not the only way to drain the lake. Another spillway could be built, over a longer distance, but through less populated areas, eastward, to the Pacific Ocean. He pointed out that, at a time when the Marcos government could have enforced the construction of a spillway through Parañaque, it declined to do so—on the advice of some of the best flood control experts in the world.

As an ordinary citizen, I happen to think that that advice obviously, ultimately, proved disastrous. The regular dredging that should have been done, even if it had been done, could not have been enough to prevent the flood that now haunts the lakeshore. But von Einsiedel makes a good counter-argument: How do we know that a recommendation made in 1977 should be recommended again in 2009? Don’t jump to conclusions, he pleaded.

Upon Palafox’s recommendation, the President has approved the Parañaque spillway. It would be interesting to watch how the tectonic plates under the fault lines move.

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