Manila, Philippines – As a young engineer in the early 1980s, Edgardo Perea worked on a project that hoped to provide a reliable supply of clean water to families throughout Metro Manila. Forty years later, he’s still waiting.
Berea worked for the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System, a government agency, as part of a team that did the initial work on a dam that he and his colleagues hoped would tap into the region’s vast freshwater resources.
“All the feasibility studies have been done, all you need is implementation,” Beria told Al Jazeera.
But politics got in the way. In 1986, the Philippine people’s power revolution led to the overthrow of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Under the new government, many projects approved under the previous regime withered out or were cancelled.
Beria has been thinking a lot about his experiences these days as his country prepares for another transition of power, while many old problems linger. Besides being highly personal, it is a symbol of the struggle to improve infrastructure in the Philippines, an archipelago of about 110 million people where many people still live without basic amenities. And in an extra layer of irony, the next president is the son of a ruler who was ousted 40 years ago.
New President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., better known as Pong Pong, will take office on June 30. His predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, made infrastructure a core policy as part of an initiative he called Build, Build, Build. Duterte promised that the program would create jobs and improve the quality of life for many Filipinos whose heavy traffic jams and other inconveniences are a fact of life.
Duterte, who has called patchy infrastructure the “Achilles heel” of Philippine economic development, pledged Php8-9 trillion for the program, which he said will lead to a “golden age of infrastructure,” adding bridges and railways with expansion. A major airport north of Manila.
Filipino voters and political analysts are not sure how Marcos Jr will govern. Throughout his campaign, he has been invoking nostalgia for what some Filipinos believe, accurate or otherwise, as a happy time under his father’s rule. But he was lacking in policy details, leaving the question of whether he would continue Duterte’s infrastructure campaign unanswered as he prepares to start his term.
Duterte called on the new president to keep building, building, building, and the Asian Development Bank pledged to continue supporting the initiative even as the administration changed.
The program has a mixed record, with some analysts arguing that it has brought beneficial improvements to underserved areas of the country, while others argue that it has fallen short of its goals.
Ronald Yu Mendoza, dean of the School of Government at Ateneo de Manila University, said Filipino politicians are using public infrastructure to prove to voters that they “brought bacon home,” although the long-term desire for such projects is questionable.
“During the infrastructure boom – not only under Marcos but also in Duterte – the impact on different parts of the country has been stimulating and creating jobs … Hence it is very much welcomed by citizens and it is very tangible and visible,” Mendoza told Al Jazeera.
“It’s easy to get nostalgic for the infrastructure boom when you fail to appreciate the crisis and the difficulty associated with bad decisions and corruption during the spending portion of that debt-fueled experience. If there’s bad governance and bad decisions, the party has to end at some point.”
Implementation of the ambitious initiative has also been flawed, according to Gian Carlo P. Bunongbayan, associate professor at the University of the Philippines School of Economics.
“Good, although his intention was, build, build, build, unfortunately, he failed to meet expectations,” Bunongbayan told Al Jazeera. “Poorly thought out spending plans led to frequent changes to the main list of the initiative project. Only part of the promised projects were implemented.”
The Marcus dynasty also has a reputation for corruption. Watchers of Philippine politics worry that such corruption could cast a shadow over the next administration.
“Marcus Jr. comes from a well-known kleptocratic family that thrived during the years of martial law through crony capitalism,” Bunongbayan said. “Hence, he is not expected to do much work to stop corruption and, in fact, may make it worse.”
The Philippines ranks poorly in global corruption ratings, coming in at 117th out of 180 countries in the latest ranking by Transparency International. Parts of the Filipino electorate seem to have accepted the stubborn presence of corruption in government and businesses.
Although Duterte took office and portrayed himself as an arrogant outsider who would stop corruption, the same elite has retained control of Philippine business, according to analysts.
“Duterte never intended to root out old power networks, and I think there is a degree of resignation now,” Josh Kurlanczyk, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, the basic needs of much of the population are not being met. According to the Sustainable Development Goals Fund, “significant numbers” of people suffer from scarcity of water and access to basic sanitation, which puts them at risk of contracting water-borne diseases.
A report by 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 linked to the rural-urban expansion. Immigration, as many Filipinos leave the countryside in search of jobs in large cities, particularly Metro Manila, causing severe traffic congestion resulting in exorbitant commuting times and delays in moving goods to points of sale.
Beria, a former waterworks engineer, remembers having to go through the process of getting signatures from government officials in various departments before going ahead with the project.
“This is where corruption begins,” he said.
After experiencing the shock of the failure of the water project he was working on, Beria quickly became disillusioned with public infrastructure policies.
“I saw how the system really worked… When the project stopped, I was criticizing everything. I said too much and I had to eat my word,” 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, Beria resigned. After unsuccessful attempts to cross into private engineering companies, he ran a few small businesses, including the Academy of Martial Arts.
He eventually settled, in the late 1980s, with a less confrontational form of business – a bookshop in a busy commercial district near Manila’s Guadalupe High Rise Train Station. He named JERVS Bookstore, a combination of the initials of his five children, and found peace running his own store.
In the pre-internet age, when reading was a more popular form of entertainment, Beria found a lucrative model to rent novels and magazines. He ran the library until the COVID-19 pandemic, when the Philippine government implemented strict closures that froze much of the country’s street-level commerce.
Over those years, and throughout the gap imposed by the epidemic, Beria had time to reflect on the political history of his country, including the present moment when the son of a dictator overthrown by the revolution of the people’s power is about to move to the presidential palace.
He does not consider himself a supporter of Marcos but hopes the new government will continue to invest in infrastructure as the Duterte administration has. He also understands how the ruling family has managed to attract voters in a country where many governments have failed to solve the same old problems.
“The ’60s and ’70s seem like a golden age for people who lived through war and everything that came before that,” he said.
“These urban legends live through generations and, at times, are amplified.”