Manila’s “Danger Areas”

Clearing urban waterways creates new challenges for the city’s most vulnerable inhabitants.

Estero de Paco cleanup project
View from the roof of an affluent homeowner who benefited from a clearance project on the Estero de Paco in Manila. Together with a private foundation, the National Housing Authority demolished informal housing, built new walkways, cleaned the water, and planted vegetation along a 2.3 kilometer section of the estero. Former residents were relocated to resettlement sites outside Manila. [All photos by Nancy Kwak]

Manila today is one of the densest cities in the world, notable as much for its unruly physical growth as for its economic expansion. Devastated by Japanese occupation during World War II, the city urbanized rapidly after 1945. Rural migrants poured into the capital in desperate search of work and food. They settled on the slimmest margins of land, and when there was none, they built makeshift homes on stilts above Manila Bay, the Pasig River, and its tributaries.

In 1992, the government began labeling informal settlements as “danger areas” under the Urban Development and Housing Act. Officials promised not to pursue eviction and demolition as general housing policy, but the new law allowed the National Housing Authority to evict “persons or entities” who “occupy danger areas such as esteros, railroad tracks, garbage dumps, riverbanks, shorelines, waterways, and other public places such as sidewalks, roads, parks, and playgrounds.” In relocating informal dwellers, the NHA was required to observe the rights of “underprivileged and homeless citizens,” even as they cracked down hard on the “nefarious and illegal activities of professional squatters and squatting syndicates.”

By distinguishing between ‘informal dwellers’ and ‘squatters,’ the law created the possibility of mass eviction.

Were Manila’s informal settlements actually dangerous? Without doubt, occupants faced serious hazards, including inadequate sanitation, disease, crime, and vulnerability to natural disaster. Many lived on the edges of unstable waterways and polluted spaces, or dangerously close to railways.

But “danger area” is not merely a straightforward assessment of risk. To regard it as such ignores the long and complicated history of state action with respect to the urban poor. Informal settlements were declared illegal under martial law imposed by Ferdinand Marcos in 1972. After Marcos was deposed in 1986, democratic president Corazon Aquino and successive administrations asserted informal dwellers’ rights to just and humane treatment, and removed their criminal status. That left the government without a mechanism for redeveloping settlement lands.

By making a legal distinction between “informal dwellers” and “squatters,” the 1992 law created the possibility of mass eviction under the rubric of a public welfare-oriented state. People who complied with benevolent government relocation and resettlement plans would receive full housing assistance and the neutral moniker, “informal dweller.” Those individuals or groups resisting resettlement would be criminalized as “squatters.”

Resettlement Housing


The designation of danger areas proved effective at generating compliance. It also provided a framework for government workers to understand their larger mission. In private interviews, government workers expressed what they called genuine Christian concern for their fellow citizens living in danger areas; charitable dimensions of public work in the Philippines slip easily into religious rhetoric in a nation that is 86% Catholic. (In fact, the NHA’s general manager regularly leads workers in prayer.) Government workers told me they worked long hours because they believed poor people deserved to live in safe, secure homes. Many experienced sincere joy at removing families from treacherous living conditions.

Rising awareness of global warming has escalated the use of ‘danger’ as an organizing principle.

For policymakers, however, resettlement was fundamentally about moving people “living at risk in blighted communities” out of the way of development. One NHA publication argued that if the Philippines intended to “build infrastructure and other government projects to help push the country into the ranks of the newly industrializing nations in Asia,” government workers needed to win the “hearts and minds” of those living in “unsafe and squalid conditions.” 1 Informal dwellers would be asked to move to remote resettlement sites and housing projects, often located up to two hours away from the city center. If persuasion failed, “forcesuasion” would be applied. Informal dwellers might not immediately realize the benefits of resettlement, but the government expressed confidence in the approach: “The NHA’s work goes beyond building shelters. When we enable informal settlers to own a home, we help them build their lives.” 2

At least some residents in resettlement communities have bought into this vision, taking on leadership positions and committing themselves to building and improving rudimentary homes. Others are more defiant; they complain bitterly about lost jobs and unsafe living conditions for their children. Although the government organizes job training seminars on all resettlement sites, the sessions are often poorly attended. Many men return illegally to work in central Manila, leaving female partners and children behind.

Estero de Paco Clearance Project


Rising awareness of global warming has escalated the use of “danger” as an organizing principle. One of the most significant efforts in the Philippines today is financed by the ABS-CBN Foundation, a philanthropic arm of the country’s largest media conglomerate. Led by Gina Lopez, the foundation’s river rehabilitation project, Kapit Bisig para sa Ilog Pasig — literally, link arms for the Pasig River — highlights the dangers illegal inhabitants face on the banks of the esteros, and the dangers they pose to the city by polluting and clogging natural drainage systems. Together, the foundation and NHA have begun a campaign to rehabilitate the esteros, removing informal dwellers from under bridges and from three-meter easements along the banks. They have trained “River Warriors” to clean waterways and plant local vegetation and reclaim walkways for public use.

The photographs shown here document the esteros’ reclamation and the resettlement sites. By the foundation’s account, the rivers and estuaries have become greener, and the city safer from floods and natural disasters. As “danger areas” rise into green prosperity, however, the prospects for the displaced are less clear.

  1. NHA, Power to Build: the NHA and the North-South rail resettlement project (Quezon City: NHA, 2010).
  2. Former NHA General Manager Federico A. Laxa, in Power to Build.
Nancy Kwak, “Manila’s “Danger Areas”,” Places Journal, February 2015. Accessed 05 Jun 2023.

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