Alisa Zomer in Manila

How to study a megacity: Metro Manila.

Step 1: Go to a megacity. Step 2: Take public transport (and hold on tight).

Jumping into a jeepney in Manila sucks the unknowing Joe into the rushing, chortling capillary system that is the transport life blood of the Philippines. Reminiscent of the Dick Tracy gangster-style automobiles, jeepneys are remnants of American occupation in the early twentieth century and the archipelago’s role in World War II. It’s your ticket through history and to the next barangay (neighborhood in Tagalog) and all for eight pesos (less than 20 cents).

Jeepneys were originally made out of old US Army trucks, stripped and fitted with two long benches for up to twenty passengers. Each truck has its own name, unique essence, and is tagged with a mind-blowing mix of anime, astrology, and Catholic icons. Glowing skull decals on the hood and animal-sound horns are a plus – pigs, ducks, take your pick.

Riding a jeepney is exhilarating: squished upside my new best friends, sweat dripping down my neck, smells and sounds assaulting the senses. This is the real travel experience, and I feel giddy with excitement. Or maybe it’s just the gas fumes getting to my head.

While riding jeepneys and endless traffic is part of living in Manila, the reason I am here is to try and make some sense of this complex system. I want to better understand how decisions are made here – decisions that impact how people live in the city and the many resources (energy, water, air, soil, ect.) required to fuel the system.

The focus of my independent study is how Manila is planning for climate change.

Home to nearly 12 million Filipinos, approximately 12% of the country’s population, Manila is built on the intersection of two floods plains, so seasonal flooding is part of daily life here in the rainy season. The urban geography of Manila, combined with the Philippines’ rank as one of the most vulnerable countries to natural hazards, including typhoons, cyclones, and earthquakes, is a recipe for an actual disaster.

These factors along with the added pressure of rapid urbanization, make Manila a prime case study for urban climate change action.  According to the recent World Bank report Getting a Grip on Climate Change in the Philippines, coastal and urban populations are identified as two of most vulnerable groups to climate change impacts. Informal settlers, who make up nearly half of the urban population and who live along flood-prone waterways, were recognized as a particularly vulnerable subset.

Though I’m still in the initial stages of my research, here are some interesting issues that I’m looking out for:

  • Tensions and tradeoffs: There is a strong push to integrate climate change into the Philippine’s National Development Plan, which requires careful consideration of both adaptation and mitigation strategies. Given immediate adaptation needs, what responsibility does the Philippines have to mitigate? And, how do adaptation activities differ from traditional development?
  • The local-global convergence: The Philippines has a strong presence in the international climate negotiations, especially on climate justice, but the path towards inclusive growth at home is less clear. Metro Manila, for instance, is governed by 17 decentralized local government units, all having varying  resources. Can strong decentralized urban governments successfully commit to a regional metro climate plan?
  • Creative solutions: While city level climate action may be slow, progress is being made in individual sectors. The Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities conceived and operationalized a fleet of ejeepneys that run on electricity, which has both greenhouse gas mitigation and clean air benefits.  Can these sector-specific initiatives expand to have wider implications for city level climate action?

It will be interesting to see how these different issues play out and what new ones emerge. While there is not one way to study a megacity, traveling to one is a good first step. As I make my way home in a jeepney, the rain falls, the streets fill, and life in Manila goes on.

Alisa Zomer

Alisa Zomer is a Master's student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies whose work focuses on natural resource decision-making in urban and rural settings. Prior to attending F&ES, Alisa worked at the World Resources Institute in Washington, DC, where she concentrated on environmental governance and justice issues related to global sustainable development. Follow her on twitter @azomer.

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