Wobbly Linchpin

by Juan L. Mercado

Plan ahead, Confucius would drill into his students.  Otherwise, you’ll find  trouble at your doorstep.

‘Plan for the next 30 years”, civic leader Roberto Aboitiz  told  Cebu Rotarians in a 21st century replay of counsel from this Asian sage  (557- 479 BC) “The  future does not belong to small, unprepared, incoherent and divided cities. If we don’t create a vision, we’ll be bypassed.”

Cebu is linchpin for the country’s second largest metro area. Over 2.13 million men, women and children are crammed into 13 cities and towns. It is port for 80% of the country’s shipping firms.  The second largest number of international flights take off from Mactan.

Births, migrants and rapid  economic change  are  shoving  borders outwards. Ripley may not swallow this. But Cebu never  crafted a long range plan.

“Urbanization has been rapid,” notes Neeraj Jain of Asian Development Bank.  “Planning processes however lag.”  The result is fragmented 19th century-style fiefdoms in Cebu —  and elsewhere.

Pin much of the blame for poor urban management on government.  National Institute for Policy Studies Lambert Ramirez told Time magazine. He was then salvaging appliances from his home that Typhoon “Ondoy” wrecked. “There’s no coordinated policy for cleaning up garbage. There’s no political will to get even simple things done.”  

Local officials often bicker over perk and pomp while constituents stew in garbage and disease. The “Nimby”  (“Not In My Backyard”) syndrome persists.  Cebu blocks jeepneys from next door Mandaue.  Enroute to landfills, Cebu garbage trucks,  are flagged down in Mandaue.

Long term planning is often  first victim of short term election plans. Ask Metro Manila’s officials. The need is for leaders who, as “descendants of the past, nonetheless, act as parents of the future.”  These peer beyond 2013 polls and face up to critical issues from solid waste disposal, flood control to health and nutrition.

Many are skeptical, admitted the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation president. They’re seared by “scorch-earth” experience. Whenever a new administration takes over, even sound policies and projects are jettisoned.

Can officials, members of civil society and business groups talk to each other?  You don’t need a crystal bowl for that  But that’d help craft a shared vision, embed the process of strategic thinking and development planning

“Some say long-term plans take too long,” Aboitiz noted.  But when do we start?. I am optimistic we can change the way we think, change the way we plan.”

Cebu  has many assets, including good schools, dynamic civic groups and modern private hospitals. But it lacks the  ability to spur and handle growth. “Twenty kilometers of travel shouldn’t take an hour”, he added.  But it does.

Potholed roads stud this “Queen City of the South”. It is short of water, lacks drainage, swamped by periodic floods from denuded watersheds.. Ex-mayor Tomas Osmena 296-hectare south reclamation project is treeless 10 years after it started. Public medical facilities are shoddy.  

Coddled by politicians, squatter colonies proliferate on contaminated rivers and creeks, source of their water — and gastroenteritis.  Repayments for yen loans, until  2025, hobble Cebu’s capacity to be pace-setter for the future. “About  40 thousand minor girls have been trafficked into prostitution.

These seem deadend problems.  Paradoxically, they offer a “strategic opportunity” to break free from obsolete geographical boundaries and curdled  mindsets, stressed  Aboitiz.  Take  the long view. “Success is no accident.  It is a planned journey. This is our future.”

“Nothing is ever done in this world until men are prepared to kill one another if it is not done,” George Bernard Shaw  wrote. Indeed, there are welcome metro area success stories.

Vancouver untangled initial boundary turf-guarding by Canadian towns. Curitiba in Brazil stitched together 25 municipalities to make elbow room for residents.  Shanghai, diffused the impact of urban concentration by creating 10  suburban districts.

An informal group with an integrated goal for Cebu is now trying to provide a forum for stakeholders, Aboitiz said.  The  informal Metro Cebu Development Coordinating Board (MCDCB ) is probing areas where consensus is possible. These could serve as stepping  stones to untangle more prickly issues.

Forward planning would reverse today’s piece-meal reacton to interlocking crises. Six IBM executives from Germany, the US, Italy and Sweden will “serve as partners in the program.”

One hopes this initiative sets a better record than others.  Davao’s city council created a Task Force on Climate Change –-  and promptly forgot about it. That task force never met.

Yet, there is broader understanding of security being anchored in cooperation beyond  narrow legal borders.  

Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, for example, suggested law (House Bill 5908) to get Bukidnon, Misamis Oriental and Lanao to co-manage waters that cascade from the towering Mount Kitanglad in Bukidnon and Kalatungan range in Lanao down Cagayan de Oro river. That would prevent floods from smashing everything on it’s way to Macajalar Bay.

The  MegaCebu initiative offers a chance to break free of today’s policy stalemate. The alternative is for the country’s  second largest metropolis to steadily crumble. Stop fixing the blame for the past, John F. Kennedy  counseled… “Let us  accept instead our own responsibility for the future.”

(Email: juanlmercado@gmail.com)

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