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Deadly fires expose poor urban planning

Men sift through the rubble of their burnt homes to salvage materials to rebuild anew. Thousands of people lost their homes when a fire raged through the Bahay Toro slum in Manila

A spate of deadly fires in the capital, Manila, has reignited the issue of poor urban planning, which has resulted in mushrooming slums.

Experts say the fires also underscore the government's failure to alleviate the plight of the poor - with the majority of slum dwellers living in extreme poverty and subsisting on less than a dollar a day, official statistics show.

On 15 February, an estimated 10,000 people lost their homes, and a child died, after a fire gutted the Bahay Toro slum, one of the city's largest.

A week earlier, a fire destroyed 600 homes made from light wooden material clustered near a major highway in suburban Quezon City, north of the capital. About 20,000 people were left homeless.

And last month - 12 people, most of them children - were killed when a fire swept through an impoverished residential area along Manila's Navotas coastal suburb.

"These accidents [reflect] the Philippines' poor urban planning and how unsatisfactorily it is combating poverty," said Dennis Murphy, an urban planning expert, whose NGO, the Urban Poor Associates, works to help families living in slums.

Authorities had for years virtually turned a blind eye to the mushrooming informal settlements in many susceptible areas, including along waterways, near river banks and even on the city's sprawling city dumps, he said.

Because the majority of those who live in these areas are extremely poor, do not pay taxes and are seen as potential criminals, they are often neglected.

"There is no direct co-relation or evidence, but the majority of the people in the slums feel that when fires break out, the government is not quick to come to their aid because they feel the government does not want them there anyway," Murphy said.

With homes clustered tightly together and often accessible only by foot paths, fire trucks cannot get to them. Many of the homes are also built out of flammable light material. Adding to the problem is the common practice of stealing electricity through illegal connections using only one outlet for several households.

A December 2010 study by the state-run Philippine Institute for Development Studies about slum proliferation said the country was among those Asian countries with large numbers of slum dwellers. In Manila alone, 37 percent of its 14 million population live in shanty towns. By 2050, it estimates the slum population in Manila to reach nine million.

"The people living in slums are highly vulnerable to different forms of risks - both natural and man-made," the study said. "While the country has made substantial progress in water and sanitation targets of the MDGs [Millennium Development Goals], it has done poorly in improving the lives of people in slums and in providing quality of life for most of the urban poor."

A scene in a congested slum in Manila. By 2050, estimates suggest the city's slum population in Manila will reach nine million

David Swanson/IRIN
A scene in a congested slum in Manila. By 2050, estimates suggest the city's slum population in Manila will reach nine million...
Friday, February 18, 2011
Deadly fires expose poor urban planning
A scene in a congested slum in Manila. By 2050, estimates suggest the city's slum population in Manila will reach nine million...

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
Manila's slum population could reach nine million by 2050


Among the factors that fuel the growth of slums is migration from rural areas, with many leaving their farms to seek jobs in Manila, which accounts for 12 percent of the gross domestic product and 12 percent of total employment.

"There are no jobs in the provinces. There are large tracts of land, but they are not ours and it had become very difficult to live," said Mario Penatello, a 46-year-old father of three young children, whose house they shared with another family was among those burned in Bahay Toro.

"I do not have enough money to take my family back to the province," Panatello, a dock hand at Manila's pier, said as he appealed for assistance from city officials while temporarily staying at a covered basketball court with other displaced families.

He said the government had tried to evict the slum dwellers in the past, and offered to relocate them to the outskirts of Manila, where there was no electrical connection, water was inaccessible and the commute to work at the pier would take an average of six hours daily.

"We are poor, but we are struggling not to live like animals," he said.

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