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Political ecology of flood disasters in coastal cities in the Philippines

Political ecology of flood disasters in coastal cities in the Philippines

Ria Jhoanna Ducusin

Ria Jhoanna Ducusin’s doctoral research in Geography examines how ecological conditions and socio-political relations create and shape flooding in coastal cities. On a global scale, 53% of the world’s population resides in coastal areas in 4,285 coastal cities. By 2050, about 70% of the population is projected to live in these cities. However, the scale and speed of the urbanization process on the coast have transformed socio-economic and environmental landscapes, increasing the exposure of the population to climate change impacts, particularly flooding. Such floods exact a heavy cost in terms of lives, property, and livelihoods. Relocation, internal migration, changing livelihood, and redesigned housing units have been common local adaptation strategies to mitigate flood damage. Although these risks and impacts are clearly linked to climate change, some discourses used by state actors seek to depoliticize natural disasters by blaming them on climate change. By asserting that flood disasters are, in this sense, inevitable, such discourses reduce governments’ obligations and conceal the socioeconomic processes that leave vulnerable populations at risk. This misplaced understanding of flooding is what Ducusin's research examines. While climate change contributes to the magnitude and frequency of flooding, Ria will explore how flooding is produced as an outcome of political decisions, economic interests, and power relations. By including power relations between state, non-state, and individual actors, she will develop an integrative approach that provides nuanced insights into how social power and environmental conditions critically shape flooding in coastal cities.

Despite the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters, the social production of disasters, particularly in coastal cities, is insufficiently understood. While floods themselves may be caused by natural events such as heavy rainfall or storms, the impacts of floods and the extent of damage they cause are influenced by a range of social and economic factors, including land-use practices, urbanization, and the effects of poor mitigation and preparedness. Traditional approaches to disaster governance continue to privilege the knowledge and perspectives of experts and technical or infrastructural fixes, which often perpetuate existing inequalities and exacerbate vulnerability. Ria’s dissertation will consider neglected knowledge in disaster governance to recognize and value the understanding and experiences of marginalized and affected communities. While much research has focused on the immediate impacts of disasters, there is a lack of understanding about how urbanization and choices of disaster approaches have long-term differentiated consequences on the lived experiences of coastal communities. Informed by a political economy of local urbanization and feminist political ecology scholarship, her doctoral research examines how urban flooding results from political decisions, economic interests, power relations, and the ways in which intersectional axes of gender and class shape differential impacts of flood disasters.

Aerial view of flooding in Manila, Philippines, aftermath of typhoon Vamco in 2020. Photo credits to Reuters.

The overarching aim of her research is to strengthen the understanding of causes, experiences, and mitigation of flood disasters in urbanizing and industrializing coastal cities, with case studies in Bacoor and Rosario in the Philippines. These cities are in the peri-urban region south of Metro Manila and have seen some of the most rapid urban and industrial development processes in recent decades. Bacoor and Rosario are also located on coastal plains and are two of the country’s most vulnerable cities to flooding, but they also present a contrasting set of approaches to flood management and disaster response. Bacoor City focuses on top-down and technocratic flood mitigation approaches, including the construction of dams, drainage systems, and retarding basins. In Rosario City, on the other hand, there is village-level disaster governance, recognizing the importance of local knowledge and empowering communities to take an active role in reducing their vulnerability to disaster. While both case studies contain some elements that characterize the other, the emphasis is quite different, and they offer an opportunity to examine contrasting models of flood prevention and disaster response.

Ria’s motivation to work on this research stems from her first-hand experiences growing up in a country with a high vulnerability to natural disasters. Typhoons Milenyo in 2006 and Glenda in 2014 were some of the worst episodes of disasters she experienced, which flooded her family's home, and led to weeks without electricity, water, or communication services. This is an example of how, in the Philippines, everyday lives and routines are profoundly disrupted by natural disasters. Some political actors even blame the inevitability of climate change for the unending disasters they experience, thereby normalizing a disaster mindset and constructing an expectation that being resilient must be part of their everyday lives. It is this cycle of climate disasters and resiliency narratives in the Philippines that has led her to work on the political ecology of disasters. By bringing a critical perspective, she strives for a future where the most vulnerable are equipped with effective structures of disaster risk management and where Filipino resilience does not need to be romanticized.


Ria Jhoanna Ducusin is a PhD student in Geography, supervised by Dr. Philip Kelly, Dr. Nga Dao, and Dr. Abidin Kusno. Her research interests lie primarily in political ecology, critical disasters, and human dimensions of environmental change. Before joining York University, Ria worked as a science research specialist on climate-smart agriculture and mining impact assessment projects at the University of the Philippines Los Banos (UPLB), and a lecturer at the Department of Forestry and Environmental Science at Cavite State University. She holds an MS in Environmental Science and a BS in Human Ecology from UPLB.