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We must be prepared for a big quake

January 17, 2010

IN THE WAKE OF THE WIDESPREAD DEVASTATION CAUSED BY A MAGNITUDE 7 EARTHQUAKE IN THE CENTRAL AMERICAN NATION OF HAITI, I AM RENEWING MY CALL FOR THE PHILIPPINE GOVERNMENT TO TAKE FIRM MEASURES TO COPE WITH AN EQUALLY POWERFUL EARTHQUAKE THAT COULD PROVE CATASTROPHIC AND CAUSE LOSS OF MANY LIVES AND EXTENSIVE DAMAGE TO PROPERTY.
As United Nation’s Asia Pacific champion for disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation, I extend my deepest sympathies to the people of Haiti for their sufferings from the present tragedy.
The grim reality is that the Philippines is among the countries most vulnerable to earthquakes and other natural disasters.
It is not a question of whether a big earthquake will hit the Philippines sooner or later. That much is clear from our geographic location. Rather, it is a question of when the big one will hit the country. So it is crucial for us to be adequately prepared. We certainly can avoid the devastation experienced by Haiti, for as long as we are prepared.
I don’t want to sound too alarmist. But I have long issued a warning that we must be prepared for a big earthquake. Haiti’s devastation underscores the need for us to take this very seriously. We have no time to lose.
A major study back in 2003 indicated that in the event of a magnitude 7.2 or stronger temblor in Metro Manila, many structures, including high-rise buildings, could be destroyed, and 16 million people displaced.
We must therefore prepare for the worst, Metro Manila in particular. What happened in Haiti can happen too in Metro Manila—with far worse consequences.
I have repeatedly issued this warning a number of times. At the World Debate on Disaster Risk Reduction conducted by the British Broadcasting Company last year, I argued that since the Philippines is vulnerable to a host of natural disasters—earthquakes, typhoons, flooding, landslides, volcanic eruptions—the government must create awareness among the people on how to cope with them, so that the risks can be reduced.
In my keynote speech at the Second Session of the Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction Conference in Geneva in June last year, I likewise challenged world leaders to initiate a new brand of politics and governance to address disaster risks. I told the forum that we must shepherd proactive laws and policies and their implementation, and translate political commitments to real actions. I highlighted the importance of developing new policies that would strengthen people’s resilience to disasters and set aside investments for disaster risk reduction.
Today, with the Haiti earthquake, disaster risk reduction is once again in everyone’s consciousness. But it should not be a seasonal thing. We must move now to substantially reduce losses from natural disasters. We cannot prevent earthquakes and destructive typhoons from happening, but it is within our power to control the human elements, such as how we manage our lands, where we develop our cities, and how we build our houses and buildings.
The Philippines has a very bright future ahead in economic growth. But we need to find a way to reduce our exposure to the risks from disasters. Exposure is the number of people and economic assets prone to the effects of possible disasters because of their location and their vulnerability.
To reduce death and destruction from earthquake disasters, the government must immediately conduct a nationwide structural evaluation of all schools and hospitals. If necessary, these structures should be retrofitted to make them withstand destructive earthquakes.
Let me emphasize that earthquakes don’t kill. Unsafe structures do. Disaster vulnerability is essentially caused by humans. Not all structures collapse in a strong earthquake, only the poorly built ones. We can save lives if we ensure that our home and offices, our schools and hospitals, and our malls and public buildings could withstand strong earthquakes. This is possible if we invest in proper and safe construction.
This is possible if we stop corruption and cheating in the construction of our public infrastructure. It is downright criminal to compromise on public safety.
The key to public safety is good urban governance. While the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) has been trying to raise public awareness on earthquake risk in Metro Manila, public attention is fleeting, and concrete preventive action remains lacking. Local governments must relentlessly assess and rectify the vulnerability of public structures in their respective areas. Administrators of office buildings and malls must also ensure earthquake safety in their premises and have contingency plans well in place and tested for preventing panic and stampede and handling the injured in the event of an earthquake. There must be strict enforcement and monitoring of building code compliance.
Prevention is better than cure, and more cost-effective. Building disaster-safe hospitals or protecting existing hospitals is surprisingly cheap. The small investments required are nothing compared to the risk of partial or complete destruction during a disaster, the death of patients and staff, and the equally high health, economic and development impacts in the aftermath. The cost of a disaster-safe hospital or health facility is negligible when included in early design considerations.
The government and the private sector should also start looking into the feasibility of disaster insurance or risk transfer to ensure resources for quick response, minimal socio-economic disruption and early recovery from earthquake impacts.
The government should likewise look at the problem in a broader context. Contemporary development practices have been irresponsible since they have allowed disaster risks to grow. Poor urban governance, ecosystems decline, vulnerable rural livelihoods, turbo-charged by climate change, have altogether created enormous risks in our cities and communities. We must therefore adopt a more integrated, holistic, and proactive approach to reduce vulnerabilities and strengthen our resilience to disasters.