Manila, Philippines – As a young engineer, Edgardo Perea worked in the early 1980s on a project he hoped would provide households across Metro Manila with a reliable clean water supply. Forty years later, he is still waiting.
Perea worked at Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System, a government agency, as part of a team conducting preliminary work on a dam that he and his colleagues hoped would take advantage of the area’s vast freshwater resources.
“All the feasibility studies have been done; all it took was implementation,” Perea told Al Jazeera.
But politics got in the way. In 1986, the Philippine People Power Revolution led to the ouster of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Under the new government, many projects approved under the previous regime languished or were canceled altogether.
Perea has been thinking a lot about his experiences lately as his country prepares for a new power transfer while many of the old problems remain. They are highly personal and symbolize the struggle to improve infrastructure in the Philippines, an archipelago of about 110 million people, where many still live without basic services. In an added layer of irony, the incoming president is the son of the ruler who was ousted 40 years ago.
New President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, commonly known as Bongbong, is set to take office on June 30. His predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, made infrastructure a key policy as part of an initiative he called Build, Build, Build. Duterte promised the program would create jobs and improve the quality of life for many Filipinos facing severe traffic jams and other inconveniences.
Rodrigo Duterte, the outgoing president of the Philippines, described spotty infrastructure as the “Achilles heel” of Philippine economic development [File: Veejay Villafranca/Bloomberg] (Bloomberg)
Duterte, who described spotty infrastructure as the “Achilles heel” of Philippine economic development, pledged to allocate between 8 and 9 trillion Philippine pesos to the program that he said would usher in a “golden age of infrastructure,” building bridges and add railroads and expand a major airport north of Manila.
Philippine voters and political analysts are unsure how Marcos Jr will rule. During his election campaign, he evoked nostalgia for what some Filipinos consider, rightly or otherwise, to be a happy time under his father’s rule. But he was short on policy specs, leaving unanswered whether he will continue Duterte’s infrastructure efforts once he is ready to begin his term in office.
Duterte has called on the new president to continue to Build, Build, Build, and the Asian Development Bank has pledged to continue to support the initiative even with the change of governance.
The program has had mixed results, with some analysts arguing that it has made useful improvements in underserved parts of the country, while others claim it fell far short of its objectives.
Ronald U Mendoza, dean of the School of Government at Ateneo de Manila University, said Philippine politicians are using public infrastructure to show voters that they have “brought home the bacon.” However, the longer-term desirability of such projects is questionable. Is.
“During an infrastructure boom — not just Marcos’s but Duterte’s as well — the effect on different parts of the country is invigorating and job-creating… That’s why it’s very welcomed by the citizens and quite palpable and visible,” Mendoza told Al Jazeera.
“It’s easy to be nostalgic about an infrastructure boom if you fail to see the crisis and the difficulties associated with the poor decisions and corruption during the spending portion of that debt-fueled experience. If there is bad governance and bad decisions, then the party has to end at some point.”
The implementation of the ambitious initiative was also flawed, according to Jan Carlo B Punongbayan, an assistant professor at the University of the Philippines School of Economics.
“Well, although it was intended, unfortunately, Build, Build, Build did not live up to expectations,” Punongbayan told Al Jazeera. “Ill-considered spending plans led to repeated changes to the initiative’s project master list. Only part of the promised projects was implemented.”
The Marcos dynasty also has a reputation for corruption. Observers of Philippine politics worry that such lawlessness could cloud the next government.
“Marcos Jr comes from a well-known kleptocratic family that thrived under martial law through crony capitalism,” Punongbayan said. “Therefore, he is not expected to do a lot of work to stop corruption, and he could very well make it worse.”
The Philippines ranks poorly on global corruption assessments, ranking 117th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s most recent ranking. Sections of the Philippine electorate appear to have accepted the persistent presence of government and corporate corruption.
Although Duterte took office, portraying himself as a reckless outsider who would pull the plug on corruption, analysts say the same elite has retained control of Philippine affairs.
“Duterte never really set out to wipe out the old power grids, and I think there’s a degree of resignation now,” Josh Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, the basic needs of much of the population remain unmet. According to the Sustainable Development Goals Fund, “significant numbers” of people suffer from water scarcity and access to basic sanitation, putting them at risk of waterborne diseases.
A report from the World Health Organization and UNICEF found that only 47 percent of Filipinos had access to safely managed drinking water in 2020, a slight improvement from 46 percent in 2015. The country’s infrastructure challenges are related to large-scale rural-to-urban migration. Many Filipinos leave rural areas to look for work in major cities, especially Metro Manila, causing severe traffic congestion resulting in excessive travel times and delays in transporting goods to outlets.
The Philippines’ poor infrastructure has led to chronic traffic congestion and other social problems [File: Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg]
Perea, the former waterworks engineer, recalls having to go through a process to get signatures from government officials from various departments before a project could proceed.
“That’s where corruption starts,” he said.
Thrilled by the failure of the water project he was working on, Perea soon became disillusioned with the politics of public infrastructure.
“I saw how the system worked… When the project ended, I criticized everything. I said too much and had to eat my words,” he said. “Some older colleagues took me aside and said you can’t fight the system by constantly hating it. You have to play the game, get to the top, and then you can make some changes.”
Instead, Perea resigned. After unsuccessful attempts to move into private engineering firms, he ran a few small businesses, including a martial arts academy.
Finally, in the late 1980s, he settled on a less aggressive business form: a bookstore in a busy commercial area near Manila’s elevated train station in Guadalupe. He named the bookstore JERVS, a combination of the first initials of his five children, and found peace of mind running his shop.
In that pre-Internet era, when reading was a more common form of entertainment, Perea found a profitable model renting out novels and magazines. He ran the bookstore until the COVID-19 pandemic when the Philippine government introduced strict lockdowns that froze much of the country’s street trade.
Edgardo Perea is familiar with the Philippines’ struggle to build quality infrastructure [Courtesy of Steven Borowiec]
In those years, and during the lull caused by the pandemic, Perea had time to reflect on the political history of his country, including the current moment when the son of a dictator overthrown by a popular power revolution is about to state to occupy the presidential palace.
He does not consider himself a Marcos supporter but hopes that the new government will continue to invest in infrastructure like the Duterte administration. He also understands how the dynasty appealed to voters in a country where many governments have failed to resolve the same old problems.
“The 1960s and 1970s seem like a golden age for people who have experienced war and everything that has happened before,” he said.
“These urban legends survive for generations, and sometimes they are exaggerated.”