2018 Gilbert F. White Thesis Award (American Association of Geographers–Hazards, Risks and Disasters Specialty Group): Discourses of ‘danger zone’ evictions and the aestheticization and territorialization of disaster risk in post-Ondoy Manila

This thesis won the 2018 Gilbert F. White Thesis Award, given by the Hazards, Risks and Disasters Specialty Group (HRDSG) of the American Association of Geographers (AAG) at the 2018 AAG Meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana. 

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This thesis asks why disaster-induced evictions focused only on slums and excluded subdivisions with high flood susceptibility. It also inquires into how ‘danger zones’ are delineated and what becomes of evicted spaces; what the implications are of this process of delineation on slum communities; as well as how notions of resilience are crafted and deployed by the state.

Drawing on a critical discourse analysis (CDA) of key informant interviews and documents spanning laws, policy texts, frameworks, plans, project reports, and eviction notices, this thesis seeks to understand the phenomenon of ‘danger zone’ evictions. It explains why only the slum, as both a geographic space and population, was evictable, and how it was made to be so, through an examination of the production of the discourse of evictability. To explain why only the slum had to go, it traces the origins of ‘danger zone’ evictions to the anti-slum discourse of the 2009 Ondoy disaster, as well as describes how these were assembled from narratives of slums-as-blockages and slum unbelonging. It then examines how expert and elite knowledges re-problematized and simultaneously produced the slum as the cause of flood disasters and as the epicenter of disaster and urban climate risk—processes which made the slum the object-target of Metro Manila DRRM policy. To explain how the slum was made to go, this thesis forwards the concept of aestheticization of risk, which it defines as the adjudication of flood/disaster risk based on an aesthetics of danger informed by the territorial stigmatization of the slum. It also proposes the framework of territorialization of disaster risk to understand the phenomenon of ‘danger zone’ evictions. It defines this concept as the attempt by the state to control and expel undesirable populations from the city by demarcating the areas in which they live as dangerous and uninhabitable. This process unfolds in three discursive and material practices: first, in the aestheticization of flood/disaster risk; second, in the delineation of geographies of homelessness and urban marginality as ‘danger zones’; and finally, in the eviction of informal settlers from the city. This study argues that the territorialization of disaster risk drew from expert epistemologies of the Ondoy disaster, and reproduced revanchist imaginaries of flood, disaster, and climate ‘resilience’, which displaced, re-placed, and replaced riparian slum communities. Finally, it forwards the idea of benevolent evictions to describe the manner by which ‘danger zone’ evictions are enacted and urban revanchism is obscured.

Disaster-induced evictions focused only on slums and excluded subdivisions and private enclaves with high flood risk because only informal settlements were defined as ‘danger zones.’ As the basis of evictions, the political category of ‘danger zones’ is at the center of the systematic expulsion of Metro Manila’s informal settlers in the post-Ondoy era. ‘Danger zones’ were defined as the geographies of homelessness and urban marginality, and were therefore delineated according to this definition, which was drawn from a clause on eviction and demolition of the Urban Development and Housing Act of 1992 (UDHA). The classed delineation of ‘danger zones’ led to the dispossession of 6,171 families living along waterways in Pasig City, and some 20,000 families in riparian settlements across Metro Manila. As slums were demolished and informal settlers were removed from the city, evicted spaces were replaced with ‘flood-/disaster-resilient’ infrastructure and linear parks with access roads, or were left barren and overgrown. The state understood resilience as a set of structural mitigation measures to flood-/disaster-proof the city, as well as an urban development agenda obstructed by informal settlers. It defined it, too, in terms of the social capital of affluent residents, as well as of the structural integrity of properly built homes.

Author: Khristine Alvarez

I am a critical urban sociologist, geographer, and political activist previously based in Manila, and currently working on a PhD The Bartlett Development Planning Unit (DPU), University College London (UCL). I am the recipient of the 2018 DPU 60th Anniversary Doctoral Scholarship Award, as well as the 2018 Gilbert F. White Thesis Award from the Hazards, Risks and Disasters Specialty Group (HRDSG) of the American Association of Geographers (AAG). My PhD research examines how ‘danger zone’ evictions as a consequence and requirement of resilience-seeking in post-Ondoy (2009-present) Metro Manila transformed coastal and riparian corridors in the urban core and created relocation hubs in the periphery. Through a critical genealogy and ethnography of the Metro Manila Flood Management Project and the Informal Settler Families Housing Program, it aims to weave a critical account of ‘resilient’ city-making and theorise the new drivers and new modes of dispossession that reconfigure urban and peri-urban space in vulnerable Southern coastal cities.

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