Building the resilience of Manila’s slums

With a population of over 20 million people, the capital of the Philippines is highly exposed to a variety of natural hazards, and the poorest communities are systematically at the receiving end of these recurring climatic events.

The European Commission is funding an innovative pilot project to improve disaster resilience in some of Manila’s slums. © EU/ECHO/Pierre Prakash.

When it comes to disaster preparedness in its cyclone prone regions, the Philippines is one of the better performing countries in Asia. However, this track record cannot be applied for urban areas. In an effort to boost both the preparedness and the resilience of these poor urban communities, the European Commission is funding an innovative pilot project in some of Manila’s slums, calling upon both local authorities and the private sector.

“Flooding is so common here, we only really consider floods the ones in which we have to swim,” laughs Nenita as she sits on the floor of her wooden shack.

Her shack is part of a maze of 3 000 shanties built on stilts and interconnected by rickety wooden pathways, standing just a couple of feet above the dirty stagnant water lying below. “Recently, flooding has happened twice, in 2009 and 2012,” recalls the sixty-year-old as she cooks on the open fire in the middle of the one room structure.

Many of Manila’s slums consist of precariously constructed shacks which stand a few feet above dirty, stagnant water. © EU/ECHO/Pierre Prakash.

In the slums of northern Manila, stories about floods are commonplace; there are tales of babies evacuated in floating tubs, the impact on the fragile livelihoods, and the long days spent in ill-equipped evacuation shelters.

“People head for nearby schools or the local government office, but these places become so crowded, it’s unbearable,” recounts Rosemary, a widow and mother of five who makes ends meet by weaving doormats and selling frozen food in her neighbourhood.

“With the kids there was no other choice but to stay there, but it was so bad I would swim back here every time I needed to use the bathroom,” Rosemary says.

A congested metropolis made up of 18 different cities and located on a narrow strip of land, the capital of the Philippines is highly exposed to natural hazards: a few millimetres of rainfall causes massive flooding in the low-lying areas, and the city lies on a seismic fault line which could result in a massive earthquake.

With a population of over 20 million people, the capital of the Philippines is highly exposed to a variety of natural hazards, and the poorest communities are systematically at the receiving end of these recurring climatic events. © EU/ECHO/Pierre Prakash.

Due to its extreme vulnerability to such hazards at the national level, the Philippines is among the better performing countries of the region when it comes to disaster preparedness, with well-established mechanisms put in place by both the authorities and local communities. In cyclone prone areas, well-oiled early warning systems have become the norm, and the institutionalisation of preparedness is such that, under the Philippines’ Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Law, all local government bodies have 5% or their budget earmarked for disaster preparedness and response. The money may be used on a variety of programs, such as training, equipment, supplies, and medicines.

Under the Philippines’ Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Law, all local government bodies have 5% or their budget earmarked for disaster preparedness and response.

But while this legislation has ensured that cyclone-prone rural areas have made the necessary investments to raise their preparedness levels, cities are lagging behind. Higher population density, a different social mix, the lack of open spaces, and simply the immensity of the task at hand in a megacity like Manila, where an estimated four million people live in slums, mean that “most evacuation plans remain on paper,” summarises Joel Abellinde, Action Against Hunger (AAH). In fact, the cities of Metro Manila actually have a surplus of disaster risk reduction (DRR) funds that remain unused.

The cities of Metro Manila actually have a surplus of disaster risk reduction (DRR) funds that remain unused. The EU, alongside its partners aim to help local authorities to better harness these resources to benefit poor urban communities. © EU/ECHO/Pierre Prakash.

In this context, EU Humanitarian Aid has partnered with AAH, Plan International and CARE to pilot a project in three of Manila’s cities, with the objective of helping local authorities to better harness these resources in favour of the urban poor. For example, by identifying alternative transitional sites that could be used in case of evacuations. “Each neighbourhood already has a list of such sites, comprising mostly of schools and government buildings,” explains Joel Abellinde.

But when you actually go there, you find they are much too small for the population they are supposed to cater, ill-equipped and sometimes illogical in terms of location.”

Finding new evacuation locations in an already highly urbanised — and therefore congested — environment can prove quite challenging. Action Against Hunger and other implementing partners quickly realised they would therefore need to approach the private sector — particularly factory owners — to find large enough locations.

“We are trying to build bridges between these private actors and the local authorities. For example, the city could pay them rent using its DRR funds, in order to both secure the plots and store relief items there for use in times of emergency,” Joel concludes.

The pilot project will benefit over 30 000 urban poor in 15 neighbourhoods of three different cities of Metro Manila, with the objective that it will then be replicated in other municipalities. © EU/ECHO/Pierre Prakash.

Taking the logic of this public private partnership further, AAH is also in touch with insurance companies, in order to explore possibilities of boosting the resilience of the slum-dwellers — for example the feasibility of cities securing some sort of micro-insurance scheme for their poorest populations, again by using some of the unused DRR funds they have.

“We are basically trying to create a system through which local bodies can subsidise the risk transfer for their urban poor as part of their disaster management plans,” sums up Zuhaina Abubacar, AAH’s disaster risk reduction supervisor. This is an innovative approach which could have a huge impact. Sylvie Montembault Jamal, EU regional DRR advisor for the Asia Pacific region offers her take:

This is a very interesting approach, as such a system would greatly improve the resilience of these very poor urban communities, who for now lose what little they possess after each disaster.

With the same objective, the project also provides some financial literacy training sessions designed to help people set up and run small businesses, and better inform them about existing government schemes they can access. “This complements our existing programmes, which tend to focus on skills training,” comments Thelma Funa, a trainer from Valenzuela city’s livelihoods department.

Overall, the project will benefit over 30 000 urban poor in 15 neighbourhoods of three different cities of Metro Manila, with the objective that it will then be replicated in other municipalities. While it does not replace the need for some of the people living in Manila’s “danger zones” to be relocated to new areas, it will hopefully also influence how these relocation sites are developed in the future.


By Pierre Prakash, Regional Information Officer, EU Humanitarian Aid.

Learn more about the EU’s work in disaster risk reduction here.