Metro Manila Is Dying

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

I am not from Metro Manila (MM). Just like most of its population, I was born somewhere else and later moved to the metropolis. And just the other migrants to MM, I had my own reasons for coming here.

That was almost fifty years ago when I enrolled in a university in Quezon City. I never left since, then except to occasionally visit relatives in my hometown. That makes me also an almost native Metro Manilan. My memories of my home and youthful life in the province, though, remain clear in my memory and in my heart. I guess that makes me a dual citizen.

My first memory of Manila when it was not yet Metro Manila was actually in Quezon City, but all towns and cities near it were already called Manila. I had a two-year stint in a high school somewhere in Highway 54, now Edsa. I remember how Guadalupe Bridge was a wooden one, with wooden planks for the two lanes that served going north and south. Even then, in whatever budding state the metropolis-to-be was in the very early 60s, it was already the center of modernization in the Philippines.

Going to school was the main reason why I came to Manila. School was again the reason why I returned later, for college. But marrying a Manila-born native, work and raising a family were the reasons why I stayed. I know many others have the same story. At the same time, I know that most have very different reasons for their own migration to MM. And that is what I want to focus on – that going to, and staying in, Metro Manila was a personal choice.

Through almost the last five decades, I can remember the sense of progress, as it is known in society. That sense came across to me not just through the emergence of vertical and horizontal infrastructure but most especially through the growing population and vehicular traffic. Of course, I do not understand now why it was called progress but I never questioned it then. When I was in the province, I often wanted to be in Manila because it had so many other things that rural areas did not have. Again, I must have been one of many millions who thought like this.

By and large, because it was not for economic reasons that I became a resident of Manila just a few years before it became Metro Manila, I know I was luckier than most. I had to work like everybody else but I had choices where to work that most other migrants did not. That means my transition from a promdi (from the province) to an urban citizen was much easier. There was little reason to leave, to return to my hometown, except for the family who stayed there and the fondest of memories. But I know most others did not have gentle shift from provincial to urban because they had much lesser options in life.

Throughout the last several decades, I remember the more difficult times of living in the metropolis. I remember most of all the traffic that even then I thought was the worst thing about city life. Living in Quezon City but working in Makati forced me to travel almost 15 kilometers from home to office. It was an ordeal many times, but leaving before 7 am would see me in the office before 8 am – after passing by Pasig to bring my daughter to school. I had no idea that it was not an ordeal after all, that the greater horror was yet to come.

There were the flash floods, of course. I remember how I once stayed overnight in the office for fear of driving through flash floods from Makati to Quezon City. And in that particular instance almost 40 years ago, I remember how some areas in Marikina already had floodwaters up to their roofs. The sister and family of one officemate had to stay on top of their roof and we were frantically calling a rescue team from the Philippine Navy.

The most pitiful and frightful experience of all was the earthquake that felled the Ruby Towers in Manila. I vividly remember it, holding on to the lamp beside my bed as the earth rocked and rolled beneath me. That fear of an urban earthquake had forever influenced me not to ever live in high-rise dwellings. The more recent Bohol earthquake reminded me again to the dire possibilities, and I fear all the more for what could happen to Metro Manila if such an earthquake would happen here.

The greater tragedy, though, is not even a deadly earthquake but simple traffic. When it takes three hours after just a one-hour rain to drive, or ride, in Metro Manila, then the hard question about the quality of life has to be asked. Traffic is not mere traffic, traffic is not about vehicular movement—traffic is about people living in dangerous density.

Clearly, life in Metro Manila is not sustainable if we ever want to associate life with reasonable quality. Metro Manila does not produce anything that is essential for life, not land for food, not water to drink, not clean air to breathe. It only has money and the illusion that money can buy the essentials.

And then, the greatest tragedy of all – blaming others for what we do. In my almost fifty straight years of residing in Manila, I do not remember ever that government forced Filipinos from somewhere else to move to and live in Metro manila. And I do not remember at any time, even during martial law, that government, both national and local, could have stopped the in-migration to Metro Manila. Maybe, the establishment of an Imperial Manila did trigger an attraction to it by stoking the desires of many Filipinos. That is all I can concede that can be the fault of government is that it never used force to stop migration into Metro Manila.

They say half of the residents in Metro Manila are informal settlers. They say more than half of the population in Metro Manila are not originally from the cities comprising it. We all are choking the metropolis to death, and may even live to see it die.

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