Goodbye waterways, welcome flooding

Wala Lang

After a heavy rain, I avoid España in front of UST, Araneta Avenue by Talayan Village, Taft Avenue, and San Luis. I learn something new, however, with each typhoon. Yoling taught me to avoid Quezon Memorial Circle near PHILCOA—she trapped me there for three hours. My daughter now knows better than to leave her car on Timog Avenue—in the few hours that she was away, a flood had risen, drowned her battery, and receded. A kumpare who lives on Mother Ignacia built a dam on his front yard to keep mud, water, and dead rats away from his ground floor. And of course Tatalón in Quezon City and Provident Village in Marikina are in the news every time it rains.

The reason of course is that we have built on or narrowed God-given waterways—rivers, streams, ponds, lagoons—and reclaimed seashores thereby blocking rainwater or rising tide to find outlets and harming the people who should not have been there in the first place.

Dr. Maricor Soriano of the University of the Philippines gave a very interesting talk at last week’s PHIMCOS (Philippine Map Collectors’ Society, Inc.) webinar. The U.P. National institute of Physics pored over old maps to identify esteros, rivers, lagoons, seashores that existed when the maps were drawn, and verified their subsequent fate via Google Maps and field work.

Their findings reveal narrowed or vanished rivers, esteros, lagoons, and small lakes. In their place are new communities, including informal settler colonies, often flooded and therefore clamoring for improved drainage.

WHERE HAVE THE WATERWAYS GONE Maps of vanished rivers, esteros, lagoons, and small lakes: Manila City Center, 1899, 1908, and 2021

Manila. The U.P. study compares 1899, 1908, and 2021 Google maps and shows progressively disappearing waterways, most extensively in Quiapo and San Miguel.  These could have been filled in or are now in culverts under streets.

The 1899 map, BTW, draws the Pasig River outlet of the Intramuros moat that must have been filled in when the moat was drained and made into a golf course. It was downstream of the Bridge of Spain and would be under the National Press Club Building. The stream in the 1908 map parallel to Misericordia (now Tomas Mapua) Street in Santa Cruz no longer appears in todays’ maps but it may still be under Rizal Avenue.

Manila has been eating away at its waterways for a long time. An 18th century map shows Arroceros (now Antonio Villegas) Street as a stream between Intramuros and several small villages. Estero Cegado (literally “Blinded Estuary”) Street in Quiapo perpendicular to Carriedo was probably a branch of the Pasig River filled in and made into a street during the Spanish regime. Starting from the Puerta Real area was a canal connecting the Intramuros moat with a stream about where Taft Avenue is and from there to the still extant Estero de Balete, a black canal by the corner of Ayala and Taft Avenues. I also used to pass by a narrow garbage-clogged canal on Legarda Street near C.M. Recto. There’s a building there now.  Small wonder that those areas are quickly flooded.

Iloilo City. An 1833 map shows old tributaries of the Iloilo River and bodies of water that have since disappeared. The city government is installing culverts to improve drainage in the area. The City Mayor also told the researchers that a five-story building along Dalan Montinola began to tilt even before it was finished. The place used to be part of the Iloilo River and is in danger of liquefaction in case of an earthquake.

Tacloban. A 1944 map of Tacloban shows a sizeable pond at city center. The pond has disappeared and streets have been laid out in its place. The area is flood prone and the city is improving the drainage system.

Davao. The Davao River has changed course since 1944 and communities now occupy the old river course. Residents say that they suffer waist-level floods, particularly during high tide.

Cebu. An 1833 map of the Pari-An district shows a body of the water opening to the sea. By 1873 the bay had been reclaimed, leaving only a small lagoon. Land reclamation has continued and now it’s dry land, the area known as Tinago. An estero leading in used to be navigable but is now practically waterless. It seems the real problem is that the neighborhood is below sea-level and therefore frequently floods.

WHERE HAVE THE WATERWAYS GONE Maps of vanished rivers, esteros, lagoons, and small lakes: Cebu Pari-An District, 1833, 1873, and 2021

Naga City. The main parts of Naga River still exist but river islands have vanished.  An old waterway leading to the cathedral had disappeared.


Nature created streams to convey rainwater from mountains and highlands toward the lowlands’ larger rivers and thence to the sea. Sometimes there’s a pause at lakes and lagoons. Construction in these areas trap water. Rather than forever spending on drainage improvements, clearing and replacing clogged culverts, raising street levels, rescue boats and evacuation centers, why not respect nature? It will be cheaper to relocate illegal occupants, clear and maintain waterways, adopt and strictly enforce proper zoning and building regulations.

Note.  This article is based on “Lost Waterways: Clues from Digitized Historical Maps of Manila and Other Philippine Cities” by R.G. Jubillo, et. al., National Institute of Physics, University of the Philippines and Advanced Imaging Technology Laboratory, Graduate School of Engineering, Kyoto University.


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