So some residents of Metro Manila now know how big or how little a risk they face in the event of a strong earthquake hitting sometime in the future. A certainty, we are told. But information is only useful when it is actionable.
The information so far being circulated by the Philippine government comes primarily from the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PhiVolcS) which issued detailed data on the areas traversed by the now-infamous West Valley Fault Line. The other source of information — on how individual and small local community efforts can be mounted to mitigate risks — comes mainly from the public service efforts of various activists.
Various local politicians have also come out to assure their constituents of the state of disaster preparedness in their respective jurisdictions.
Suffice to say, however, disaster preparedeness really comes down to how much resources one has at their disposal. To put it bluntly, the rich are the safest and the poor, as usual, are most vulnerable when disaster strikes. In the event of an earthquake — or, for that matter, a big flood or a powerful storm, or any other natural calamity — the biggest proportion of body bags will likely be used to collect the poor’s dead. For example, it is easy to guess which communities all the big typhoons that hit the Philippines killed in the past — squatters.
Perhaps, some say, earthquakes won’t kill as many squatters — because they all live in sprawling colonies of houses that are made of lightweight junk, unlike the vertically-oriented hollow-blocks-and-mortar structures more affluent Filipinos live in. That’s a bright light shining on the problem that will easily blink out when one considers what happens after the first big strike. Emergency services become crucial in disasters’ aftermath. What will be the priority deployment areas of what are likely to be severely-strained disaster response capability?
Obviously, disaster response, is a challenge. There is lots of information about city-level measures being taken, but what everyone is holding their breath for is some insight on what the national capability brings to the table. The Philippine National Government’s track record on the matter of disaster response capability is not as reassuring. The Philippines has the weakest military in the region and has to rely on the charitable disposition of wealthier societies in its frequent times of need.
Whatever capability the national government wields is funded after all the informal “taxes” are collected by various politicians and government officials who’ve got siphons dipped into the public funding channel from the budgeting process all the way down to the disbursement procedures. By some accounts this thievery makes off with up to 80 percent of original appropriated amounts.
Most disturbing of all, no amount of physical resources available can mitigate the petty squabbling between political families that rule their respective fiefdoms across the archipelago. This reality about how well (or unwell) Filipinos work together was on exhibit in the days following Super Typhoon Haiyan’s deadly strike on Tacloban City when Interior Secretary Mar Roxas and Mayor Alfred Romualdez bickered over who was responsible for what.
The Philippines’ notoriously world-renowned red tape alone could leave an abundance of critical equipment, food, and medicines languishing in warehouses and staging areas for days. Add to that the lack of a credible crisis management command structure and you have a complete recipe for the continued banal squandering of vast opportunity to prevent loss of life. Reporting from the ground in 2013 when Haiyan struck Tacloban, CNN correspondent observed “no real evidence of organized recovery or relief” effort coming from the Philippine government in the critical days following the disaster wreaked by the storm.
The real deal is in the effort and resources poured into disaster preparedness. Unlike responsiveness, preparedness requires far more foresight — something Filipinos cannot be considered to apply in abundance in their “nation building” efforts. Sadly, the six-year electoral cycle that fatally hobbles national development offers no relief to long-term planners and strategists.
Rather than focus on the future, presidents after president focus more on crushing their predecessors and replacing their infrastructure development initiatives with their own pet projects. Back in 2010, newly-minted Philippine President Benigno Simeon ‘BS’ Aquino III for months busied himself killing many critical disaster-mitigation infrastructure projects started or continued by his predecessor former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. This along with other cuts was blamed for a collapse in economic growth in the first couple of years of the Second Aquino Government and the likely devastation-by-flooding suffered by millions of Filipinos that marked the following several years of his administration.
Indeed, it is disturbing that the issue of the West Valley Fault menacing Metro Manila suddenly resonates today. The risks of eathquake destruction hanging over Metro Manila were identified in various detailed studies done going back many years. But the timing of this renewed “interest” in the subject is quite tragic. The 2016 presidential elections is only a few months away. This means, the Philippine government is effectively in a state of complete paralysis — focused on politics foremost at the expense of strategic leadership — that will last well past the next 12 months.
As activists now insist, it really is up to individuals and their immediate communities. There is no nation to rely on. Kanya-kanya na lang.
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