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Everything you wanted to know about Tacloban’s ‘No Build Zone’ but are afraid to ask

Tacloban City—Two questions: What exactly is the No Build Zone? And why was it imposed on Tacloban’s coasts?

Clearly, the latter isn’t as easy to answer as the former. After all, when environment and public works officials put up their “No Build Zone” signs in February, they cited presidential decree 1067, issued in 1976. Under the decree, also known as the Water Code, the government allotted public space along the Philippines’ waterways for recreation, fishing and navigation. The presidential edict, in turn, disallowed construction of houses within three meters from riverbanks and seashores in urban areas, 20 meters in agricultural lands, and 40 meters in forest areas.

No question about it: the code’s intentions remain well and good. However, you don’t immediately and arbitrarily impose a 40-meter No Build Zone in Tacloban (and other towns nearby) three months after super-typhoon Yolanda struck Eastern Visayas without any public consultation at all.

Except that’s what exactly happened, thanks to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), which issued the declaration; and the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), which put up the signs. The move enraged many people, Yolanda survivors and otherwise, including those who built property—a handful of which survived the typhoon—along the city’s coasts. In so many words, both scathing and sober, Tacloban City Mayor Alfred G. Romualdez has publicly opposed the No Build Zone declarations more than he can ever care to remember.

Palo, Leyte Vice Mayor Ronna Christian M. Reposar—himself an ally of the Aquino administration—has echoed these same sentiments. “The [no build zone] declaration is just an announcement,” says Reposar, who is also a lawyer belonging to several alternative law groups. “It became complicated when it was declared in Tacloban. We saw it was delineated and suddenly, they put up signages,” he adds.

In an interview on the sidelines of a forum held in Tacloban City weeks ago, Reposar mentions that not all areas destroyed by Yolanda need to be covered by the No Build Zone. “We have maps and other geohazard information [about Tacloban and nearby areas] and we should formulate policies based on that,” he says. “If you’re living in a flood-prone zone,” he adds, “then proper action should be taken to ensure that you don’t put up dwellings within a certain distance from the shore or riverbank.”

Reposar admits that these matters may even be way too technical and/or theoretical in the current context of the unhurried pace of rehabilitation work undertaken in Eastern Visayas.

He points to a more basic, fundamental precept. “No consultation process was ever conducted regarding the declaration,” says Reposar, adding that his group is eyeing to file a case before the Supreme Court, if only to make the national government get its act together regarding the No Build Zone declaration.

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However well meaning, the declaration (and the signs that accompanied it) spawned grief and suffering among Yolanda survivors—inside and outside of Tacloban City.

Take Lilia A. Yman, a housewife who is also the president of Love Tacloban Homeowners Association, an informal settlers’ group in the city’s fish port area.

Yman lives in a structure that she herself admits can hardly be called a house. With a used tarpaulin for its roof and various kinds of materials making up its walls, Yman shares these rickety quarters with her husband (a tricycle driver) and two daughters (a third one, the eldest, already has a family of her own).

Immediately after Yolanda, all 1,000 families in the area—including Yman’s—were displaced and scattered all over Leyte. Not long after Yolanda, they all came back, save for a few families, because they wanted to defend their claim to their land, which the government was in the process of giving them in the first place even before the typhoon struck Tacloban. Because Yman’s community is located in a No Build Zone, that claim—as well as negotiations for turnover of land titles—is now in limbo. And that is just one of her community’s many problems.

Like many others staying in a No Build Zone, Yman and her family have been disqualified from receiving any shelter assistance from international non-government organizations, which are waiting for government to settle the issue once and for all. Global relief and rehabilitation agencies have been prompted to withhold aid because they don’t want to be perceived as “encouraging” people to stay in areas considered “risky” by the government.

Nowadays, every time it rains, Yman tries her best—given her meager resources—to protect her children from the downpour. “They’ve already been traumatized enough by Yolanda,” she relates in an interview.

Currently, as a leader of an informal settlers’ group, Yman is doing her best to let their voices be heard. She has been unsuccessful so far. The Aquino administration has yet to issue a formal clarification about the No Build Zones. Unfortunately, it seems to be taking its own sweet time to do so.

The national government has to speed it up, Reposar says. “We’re not proceeding [with rehabilitation] because we’re waiting. There are no parameters at all. And the No Build Zone is not even a policy,” he states.

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