MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson has remained adamant in refuting allegations of corruption over temporary bunkhouses for Yolanda (Haiyan) survivors.
In a #TalkThursday interview on January 9, Singson said the accusations were unfair to workers who volunteered even during the holiday season, as well to contractors who have not been paid for their services.
“It’s so unfair to the contractors, to our employees who had to volunteer from as far as Region III, NCR, Mindanao just to help in the construction. Our workers were sleeping on dump trucks. They were sleeping in temporary shelters. Whatever they could finish, that’s where they slept. To tell them that there is corruption, it’s really unfair,” Singson said.
The Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) has been under fire for building temporary shelters well below the international standards for typhoon survivors. (READ: DPWH didn’t know standard for shelters)
On top of this, Rehabilitation Secretary Panfilo “Ping” Lacson earlier revealed he had information that “at least one politician is colluding with contractors” to get kickbacks worth 30-35% from the cramped bunkhouses.
In the wake of criticisms, Singson made an appeal.
“Every year, we’re averaging about P8 billion-10 billion in savings. And here, this is only an P84 million project. It’s so lopsided. People have to look at the big picture,” Singson said.
Local politics involved
What has now become a national issue stemmed from conflict in local politics.
It was the municipal engineer of Guiuan, Eastern Samar who reported the alleged irregularities to Lacson, Singson said.
Guiuan Mayor Christopher Gonzales’ sister, former Guiuan Mayor Annaliza Gonzales Kwan, ran against incumbent Eastern Samar Rep Ben Evardone in the May 2013 elections. She lost by more than 12,000 votes. (Editor’s note: We earlier reported Kwan lost by 4,000. We regret the error.) The Gonzaleses belong to the Nacionalista Party while Evardone belongs to the administration Liberal Party.
“The issue here comes when there’s political conflict between him and the congressman,” Singson said.
“When we bidded out or called for contractors who were willing to build this, the contractors did not come from Guiuan, there are no contractors in Guiuan. They are coming from the center of Eastern Samar, Borongan, which was not heavily damaged. So, contractors were coming from Borongan. It’s good that they would hire locally,” he added.
Shortly after the controversy surfaced, Evardone denied any involvement in the issue, saying that his “conscience is clear.” Lacson, so far, has not named the local politician and the elections officer he earlier said were asking for commissions.
“When I talked to the mayor, I told him, ‘Please don’t get us involved in these political bickerings,'” Singson said.
‘Better than tarps, tents’
The bunkhouses in question are 28.8 meters by 7.2 meters in size with 24 rooms, costing P836,000 – made cheaper than the original estimate of P959,000 after DPWH removed all price margins.
Each unit initially measured 8.64 square meters – only half of the 16.45 square meters prescribed under international standards. (READ: Palace: Shelters need not follow int’l model)
Singson said the department’s intention was to build shelters that were “better than tents and tarpaulins,” stressing that the bunkhouses were only temporary.
“Our thinking was, they were better off staying in these bunkhouses than tents and tarpaulins,” Singson said.
As far as Singson is concerned, the bunkhouses are not overpriced. But he admits there might be issues regarding the quality of the shelters.
“The charge of overpricing, it is more of underspecification, non-compliance of specifications because the materials are not readily available, so if the contractor can not find a 0.4-mm thickness (for galvanized iron sheets), they’d probably settle for what’s in the market, which is probably lower than that,” he said.
Even then, Singson said there was “no damage to the government” yet because the contractors have not been paid.
The DPWH is presently assessing whether the shelters are up to government standards.
“There’s no way I would accept a very thin GI sheet,” Singson said. “If it’s not marine plywood, they would have to change that or we don’t pay them. So there is no damage to government, there is no overpricing.”
As of January 8, the DPWH has built 126 out of the 222 bunkhouses targeted for typhoon survivors.
What happens now?
Following criticisms, the government doubled the size of each bunkhouse unit to 17.28 square meters.
This has pushed the DPWH to reconsider the sustainability of the shelters.
“This is where the economics of it come in. Do we continue to build bunkhouses and until when? I, personally, if we can construct the permanent houses tomorrow, we don’t need the bunkhouses because it’s temporary and that’s an additional expense especially now that they need us to build bigger units in the bunkhouses,” Singson said.
The DPWH chief is foreseeing possible constraints in the supply of needed materials.
With over 500,000 houses damaged by Yolanda, authorities would need about 12 million galvanized iron sheets to rebuild a house measuring 20 square meters. Singson said the local market can’t provide this at the moment.
Singson called on the private sector – including corporations and organizations such as Gawad Kalinga and Habitat for Humanity – to get involved. He cited the case of Aceh, Indonesia, where the post-tsunami reconstruction of permanent shelters were funded by grants or donations.
“It will take at least two years,” Singson said. “In case the private sector starts helping out then we hope to be able to accelerate the construction.”
Singson earlier gave assurances the DPWH can complete the shelter program before President Benigno Aquino III steps down from office in 2016. (READ: Singson: I will resign if bunkhouses are overpriced.) – Rappler.com