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[Editorial] Philippine officials lack sense of urgency

The principal lesson from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan is that even the richest and most disaster-ready country in the world cannot have enough of disaster preparedness. Historically earthquake-prone and -battered, Japan is also temblor-hardened and -geared-up. But despite its legendary obsessive-compulsive ways that would leave no stone unturned as far as priming up for disasters is concerned, its contingencies for the worst scenarios have been overturned and proven wanting. True, the earthquake, originally measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale but now upwardly revised to 9, seems not to have shaken the unflappability of Japanese construction. The number of edifices that crashed on the main island of Honshu appears negligible. But the undersea upheaval also triggered killer tsunamis that swept away entire towns, industries and populations, as well as the best laid-out disaster-defense plans.

The good news is that it could have been worse: aside from the world’s commiseration over her sufferings, Japan also has the world’s admiration for standing up to nature’s destructive whims, preparing enough to minimize their toll on life and property, and generally bearing everything with the proverbial Oriental mask. The bad news is that if disaster preparedness by a world economic power and global-strategy master is never enough, how much more that of the poor and the inexperienced, and in the case of the Philippines, of the short of memory, the fatalistic, and the happy-go-lucky?

We say short of memory because the Philippines, like Japan, lies on the same Pacific Ring of Fire that geologically makes both countries predisposed to earthquakes and other natural disasters. Japan and the Philippines are cousins in disaster, so to speak. But while the latter has made a career out of preparing for disasters, the latter seems bent on embracing them.

It’s a truism by now to say that the Philippines keeps on forgetting the lessons of the immediate past. But it cannot ignore the lesson of March 11, especially since the victim is not only the most disaster-prepared country in the world, it is also the most authoritative as far as anticipating disasters is concerned. In fact, according to architect and urban planner Felino Palafox Jr., the Japan International Cooperation Agency has made a study several years ago with the Metro Manila Development Authority and Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology that warns that the active phases of the Marikina Fault are approaching and that an earthquake may be imminent ― one as big as that which struck in 1990.

What is unique about the study is that it did a simulation of what would happen should a magnitude 7 earthquake rock the Marikina Fault. The horrible projection? It would cause some 40 percent of residential buildings in Metro Manila to collapse or be damaged, resulting in the deaths of 34,000 persons! The devastation, according to the study, would be aggravated by “secondary disaster”: fires breaking out as a result of buildings collapsing, electrical installations going haywire, and combustible materials having been stored even in residential areas because of Metro Manila’s chaotic or nonexistent zoning regulations.

The study has identified 105 action plans to cope with the possibility of such a disaster. Forty of them are considered “high-priority plans” and should be put in place in three to six years. Have any been implemented? None, judging by the frenzied development in areas on the Marikina Fault itself and immediately around it. In fact, as Palafox has pointed out, more and more open spaces are being gobbled up by developers with the blessing of local and national officials. He said that there’s not only need to make buildings sturdier and safer, but also for provisions for parks and open spaces not only to provide fresh air for choked lungs in the cities, but for fire prevention and emergencies.

It is not that the Philippines has not formulated initiatives for better disaster preparedness. In the last months of the previous administration, for example, the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management measure was passed by Congress but it was left unsigned by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Coming as it did right after “Ondoy” in September 2009, the fact that our leaders and policymakers would take their sweet time before acting on a most important bill underscores their lack of a sense of urgency and their skewed priorities. The one disaster that Filipinos should always prepare for is government. 

(Editorial, Philippine Daily Inquirer)

(Asia News Network)
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