Prepare for the Big One

Aries Rufo, Purple S. Romero

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What needs to be done: raise money, sacrifice votes, curb corruption

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Newsbreak.

MANILA, Philippines – Various experts have already raised the scenario of a killer earthquake that could hit Metro Manila anytime. The country is ill prepared for it.

Certain factors behind this scenario pertain to things that could no longer change: key cities in Metro Manila that lie in the Valley Fault System, which has been recorded to have a recurrence interval of 200-400 years of 6-7 quakes; soil composition not generally suited for big infrastructures; and the presence of the Pasig River and Manila Bay, which could worsen things for cities in the wake of a giant quake.

But there are three things that the national government and local government units (LGUs) can do to help prepare the capital for the Big One:

  • Increase budget for disaster preparedness;
  • Undertake drastic measures to deal with informal settlers;
  • Curb corruption in building construction and inspection

For a country prone to disasters, the national government only has P15 billion annually for disaster preparedness, Newsbreak research shows. This is as big as the budget of the Department of Agrarian Reform this year.

At least P6 billion of the total already comes from the national calamity fund (P5 billion) and the contingency fund (P1 billion) of the President. The rest of the budget is scattered in various departments and agencies.

The allocation is a curious mix, with one bureau getting as much as P5 billion and another getting only half a million.

The Philippine Navy, for example, has a measly P586,000 for disaster response. Compare this to a P159.6-million disaster response budget for the Air Force and P7 million for the Army.

Two key agencies that Filipinos usually rely on to anticipate disasters, the weather bureau Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services (Pagasa) and the Philippine Institute for Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs), have a budget of P1 billion and P200 million, respectively (see table below).

At least P800 million of the Pagasa budget is used for disaster monitoring—data management, weather research, flood forecasting and other activities.


Office of the Secretary P 40 million
National Police P 191.888 million
Bureau of Fire P 5.701 billion

Office of the Secretary P 7.4 million
Office of the Civil Defense P 90.89 million
Philippine Army P 7 million
Philippine Navy P 586,000
Philippine Air Force P 159.6 million

Flood control projects P 1.5 billion

Pagasa P 800 million
Phivolcs P 150 million

Office of the President
Calamity fund P 5 billion
Contingent fund P 1 billion

TOTAL: P 14.44 billion

More than three-fourths of Phivolcs’ budget, on the other hand, or P150 million, goes directly to its operations, as well as equipment upgrade and the rehabilitation of its seismic stations. Both agencies are under the Department of Science and Technology.

The Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI), which is now busy monitoring Japan’s nuclear crisis and informing Filipinos about it, has a budget of P135 million this year.

But outside the national government, it is the LGUs that ought to carry the bulk of the work in disaster preparedness.

Local execs’ burden

A 2004 study conducted by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and Phivolcs raised the scenario of a 7.2-magnitude  earthquake in Metro Manila that could kill around 35,000 people and destroy 170,000 buildings.

SEE: Killer quake scenarios: what Metro Manila needs to prepare for (These are select slides from the Philvolcs presentation on the Metro Manila earthquake impact reduction study funded by JICA)

The recommended ways of reducing the impact of this disaster are not only scientific but political.

According to the Earthquake Impact Reduction Study for Metro Manila, the earthquake could originate from the West Valley fault line, which runs through Marikina, Pasig and Muntinlupa.

The same report called on local government officials to take drastic and even unpopular measures to lessen the consequences of this possible tragedy. These include the following:

  • Resettle informal dwellers
  • Provide incentives to building owners
  • Curb corruption in the processing of permits
  • No-nonsense and corruption-free monitoring of compliance with building regulations

The last time a strong earthquake – 7.8— hit the country in July 1990, at least 1,621 people died. The earthquake struck Baguio, and the provinces of Aurora and  Nueva Ecija.

Sacrificing the vote

A densely populated area, Metro Manila is home to millions of informal settlers who live in makeshift shanties along riverbanks, railroad tracks, shorelines and waterways.

Despite frequent campaigns to resettle them, the informal settlers have remained in Metro Manila—on account of their political power.

“The reason for the permanent residence of informal settlers in unapproved area is highly related to the system of the government,” the JICA-Phivolcs report said. “Usually, prior to election, candidates for mayors and congressmen has budget for the use of constituents. Informal dwellers do not have access to tenured land of their own. However, they are accepted as the city resident of the settlement.”

As a result, the report added, “the candidates promise and use the budget for the environmental improvement of the informal settler’s livelihood in exchange for their votes.”

Providing poor people with shelter is part of the mandate of LGUs, but this becomes a problem if the informal settlers are provided houses but not land. “Informal settlers are not seeking for better living condition but are seeking for any small piece of land. If informal settlers ever acquire a small piece of land, they will construct buildings with several stories for rent,” according to the report.

Thus, informal settlers would mushroom again in another area, triggering an endless cycle. This aggravates the effects of an earthquake because shanties are built closely to each other. “Houses are heavily crowded and, very closely built to each other, tending to collapse easily in case of a strong earthquake,” the report stated.

LGU officials should therefore find ways to make sure informal settlers would not revert to their old status once they are relocated.

One good practice, the report noted, is Marikina’s. The city has a real estate property tax system where taxes are also collected from original informal settlers.

Barangay incentives

Incentives should also be given to barangay officials who are in the best position organize community-based disaster management activities.

Metro Manila has 1,689 barangays. Leaders in these villages could strengthen disaster awareness among the residents and help ensure that rescue equipment is available in their community.

However, the report noted that compared to villages in other cities, “Manila barangay officials receive a relatively lower honorarium and have to manage the barangay with a relatively limited budget.”

Mayors and governors should then find ways to motivate barangay officials to play their part in disaster management, the report said.

The good news, however, is that 7 years after the report came out, the role of barangay officials in disaster risk reduction has been institutionalized.

The passage of Republic Act No. 10121, or the “Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act of 2010,” requires barangay officials to be equipped with technical knowledge and planning skills since they would be part of the Local Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office (LDRRMO).

The LDRRMO is responsible in implementing the disaster risk reduction plans of each LGU, based on the new law.

Property owners

On the part of the private sector, meanwhile, a system of incentives is needed for building owners.

Dr. Benito Pacheco, a disaster management specialist and engineer, said that incentives could encourage property owners to retrofit existing structures to withstand earthquakes.

Pacheco explained that existing structures have been constructed without reference to earthquake fault maps, which are now readily available and accessible. These maps help engineers and building designers make sure that structures to be constructed are more than 5 meters away from faults.

“That’s your first line of defense,” he said.

Under the 2010 National Structure Code of the Philippines, building designers are required to prove that they would construct in areas that are far from faults and contain earthquake monitoring mechanisms—before they are given building permits by LGUs.

That is not the case though with existing buildings. “The code is quite silent on what to with old buildings,” Pacheco said.

He added that they are only required to follow what the code says when there would be a renovation or expansion. Other than these, the only option for building owners is to retrofit their properties.

“For us, voluntary compliance of building owners is more crucial,” he said.

Dr. Mahar Lagmay of the UP National Institute of Geological Sciences said that retrofitting is important, but it’s an option that not so many are willing to make because it entails additional expenses.

He said this is needed though because there are lots of structures that are located in faults. “There are school buildings, malls and hospitals on top of faults, ” he told Newsbreak.

But the rate of voluntary compliance could be increased if there are financial and bureaucratic incentives, Pacheco noted, such as reducing building fees.

Sadly, he said this has not yet been adopted by local officials. “I’m afraid none of the LGUs are doing this.” –

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