Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author's.
Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In the wake of the recent Metro Manila earthquake, which produced the leaning tower of Emilio Aguinaldo College, the entire Greater Manila, Area is rattled with questions: What will happen when the Big One strikes? Can our buildings withstand it? Are we doing enough to prepare for it?
What could have happened if Monday’s magnitude 6.1 earthquake was one notch higher on the Richter Scale? It shines the much-needed spotlight on building safety, in the event our worst apocalyptic nightmares of the Big One come to life. With videos of buildings swaying like bamboo and rooftop pools pouring out of buildings like waterfalls waterfalling that circulate our social media feeds and Viber groups, it is not difficult to imagine the worst.
The Big One
As if we need more reminding, the last big quake that the West Valley Fault produced was in 1658. That is 361 years ago, less than a generation short of its rough 400-year cycle. If you are still in the dark about the imminent West Valley Fault earthquake, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) paints quite the picture.
To their credit, PHIVOLCS has teamed up with the MMDA and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to put together the 2004 Metro Manila Earthquake Impact Reduction Study (MMEIRS). This comprehensive study covers earthquake damage scenarios and estimation results. It outlines which areas are most vulnerable, the extent of worst-case-scenario damage, and recommended action plans to mitigate these. Without sugarcoating it or obscuring it in more technical terms, the report includes some terribly alarming figures.
Residential buildings will be most at risk, with at least 25.6 percent or 339,800 damaged and another half of this figure heavily damaged. There will be a potential 18,000 casualties from fire-related incidents, and 113,600 may be left injured. The direct human impact is estimated at 33,500 deaths, and 3.1 million people homeless. MMEIRS isn’t imagining these figures; it is scientifically estimating the worst-case scenario, but that should not diminish their likelihood.
How are we preparing?
This very bleak and bitter tea is enough to convert your most doña tita into a doomsday prepper. So who or what then, is safeguarding us from this fate? Government agencies have recently been providing some relatively cookie-cutter answers. They urge the need for awareness campaigns, earthquake drills, and list the ‘evacuation quadrants’ they have identified.
A deeper dive into the 2011-2028 Master Plan of National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC, your favorite textmate), provides equally broad bullet points. While not necessarily a step in the wrong direction, quite frankly, the wording of the mandates are more reminiscent of high school essay answers — increase level of awareness, enhanced capacity of the community, develop action plans, strengthen partnerships, increase resiliency, etc. We're all for this. But reading through these dense documents still leaves the unanswered question of — how?
There are promising initiatives outlined for all of the above. However, as a member of the building industry, I am surprised to find that, out of the more than 30 Priority Projects and subprojects in the NDRRMP, only two directly relate to building safety and resilience: “Development of guidelines on..Infrastructure redesign and/or modifications,” and “Review, amend and/or revise the following: ...Building Code and integrate DRRM and CCA.”
If studies identify collapsing buildings and tsunamis as the main causes of casualties in an earthquake, you would expect that we would be doing more about the latter. After all, there is only so much ‘duck, cover, and hold’ we can do when a building is pancaking above you. In theory, how much can designated evacuation centers do, when the city will be littered with electrical fires, inaccessible roads, and ruptured water lines?
Residential buildings will be most at risk, with at least 25.6 percent or 339,800 damaged and another half of this figure heavily damaged. There will be a potential 18,000 casualties from fire-related incidents, and 113,600 may be left injured.
A page from our neighbor’s book
There is much to learn from how other earthquake-vulnerable nations deal with the threats of imminent disaster. For one, California, whose earthquake codes ours are patterned after, have been very aggressive in executing awareness and drill programs, to the point that my four-year-old niece visiting from San Francisco knew exactly what to do when Monday’s quake hit.
New Zealand, in particular, experiences about 100 to 150 earthquakes a year, but is able to keep the average number of fatalities down to three per year. This is achieved in part by enforcing mandatory retrofitting for buildings not up to par with current earthquake codes. That is on top of a strict compliance policy for all new developments. In their case, however, the low population spread out through less urban areas makes a massive difference. This makes a stronger case for implementing more stringent standards in city areas and reevaluating urban density.
Japan, on the other hand, has taken on the challenge of earthquake-proofing their metropolitan areas, by doing what they do best — engineering their way to safety. They’ve pioneered engineering and building methods for earthquake protection. Reportedly, 87 percent of Tokyo’s buildings are earthquake resistant. If only the same can be said in every earthquake prone country.
Up to code?
If the type and quality of building construction plays a critical role in mitigating the human impact of earthquakes, can we find salvation in our own building codes and standards?
A building’s resilience to seismic stress is determined by its compliance with the National Structural Code of the Philippines (NSCP). Standards against earthquakes were first mandated by the National Building Code via the NSCP in 1972, after the Casiguran quake in the late ‘60s. Further landmark revisions have been made since. These include an edition released following the devastating 1992 Luzon earthquake, the 2010 Seismic Provisions, and the 2015 edition, which accounts for the 315 kph winds wrought by Typhoon Yolanda.
In order to be granted a building permit from any municipality, high rises need to submit an earthquake analysis to comply structurally. To put it simply, the design principles of this code pivots on the objective of preventing a building's imminent collapse. It recognizes that physical damages to a structure will be inevitable in any earthquake. But the structural design must be resistant enough to give its inhabitants enough time to evacuate. It prioritizes the prevention of the loss of human life over the damage to property. Though our codes are not perfect, in theory, this approach makes perfect sense. What is the worth of any casualty against the cost of repairs? Why then, do we still have four-story grocery stores collapsing over innocent people?
Although structural investigations are still being conducted on the Chuzon supermarket in Porac, it serves as the opposite example of what our structural codes aim to achieve. DPWH reports this was the only building that collapsed in the quake. That statistic is enough to make us question if the building ticked all the boxes in terms of structural compliance.
We can say that the issue is not necessarily in the content of our building standards, but in the implementation and enforcement. In the first place, how many of our buildings (especially those built prior to 1992) are constructed in accordance to these earthquake standards? Or worse, how many structures are even built with proper consultation from a structural engineer and architect? The infrastructure of the urban poor will give you an idea of just how many. Even the MMEIRS study confirms residential buildings will be the most vulnerable. With 3 million informal settlers living in Metro Manila, that is at least a fourth of the metro’s population in immediate risk.
We have all this science to back the importance of compliance. So why are we still falling short? Why do the center of our preparations still revolve around drills and evacuations, instead of infrastructure resilience? The short answer is politics and economics — the overlapping jurisdictions related to ensuring earthquake resilience, and the cost of enforcing compliance.
Without going into a wild flow chart of data, let us try to break down all the parties whose feet are dipped into this concern. First, we have the PHIVOLCS under the DOST, which covers the scientific research and data gathering relating to earthquakes. Next, there is the Association of Structural Engineers in the Philippines (ASEP), the authority who develops and reviews our structural codes. Then, there are the LGUs who, in part, enforce these codes by monitoring compliance prior to issuing of building permits. We've also name-dropped the NRRDMC a few times. They, on the other hand, are under the Office of Civil Defense, and chaired by the Secretary of the Department of National Defense. The agency tasked to carry out the NRRDMC's projects relating to the resilience of infrastructure is the DPWH. In Metro Manila, MMDA also plays a part in disaster awareness and response. Meanwhile, the DILG and DBM hold essential roles in overseeing all LGUs' investments in disaster risk reduction.
The design principles of this code pivots on the objective of preventing a building's imminent collapse. It recognizes that physical damages to a structure will be inevitable in any earthquake. But the structural design must be resistant enough to give its inhabitants enough time to evacuate.
These are only a few of the major players involved in ensuring that we all live to see the light of day. Despite the standards contained in the National Building Code, these different agencies all have some sort of influence in how these codes are enforced. Say, if we wanted to benchmark what other countries are doing and initiate mandating the retrofit of noncompliant buildings in Metro Manila, where would the directive come from? The DPWH, who are the disaster preparedness arm of the NRRDMC? Is it the MMDA, which blankets multiple LGUs in greater Manila? Or is it the DILG which coordinates with the individual LGUs? Or do we start with the Legislative branch to enact the mandates?
For a layman, there are more questions than answers. With each agency having their own list of priorities, directives and agendas, navigating through some of their overlapping functions can pose challenges in making relevant headway.
The cost of compliance
Simultaneous with the establishment of the NDRRMC was the enactment of the Local Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Fund (LDRRMF). This is an effort to decentralize disaster management by making it mandatory for LGUs to set aside 5 percent of their annual budget for disaster response, prevention, mitigation, preparedness, rehabilitation and recovery. With all that ground to cover, it is a stretch to expect LGUs to subsidize any mandatory retrofit efforts. Or, at the bare minimum, effectively enforce building standards. Especially since LGUs themselves appear to have their own compliance issues. For instance, the Makati City government reportedly tried to skirt compliance by underallocating to this LDRRMF in their proposed 2019 budget.
More often than not, the responsibility is left up to the building owners. And a better quality house or structure will almost always involve coughing up a larger investment, at least in the short term. If the numbers don't match, or the margin of savings isn't large enough, quality often ends up taking a backseat to cost.
The nature of the problem lies in the fact that, despite the overwhelming science, people will still be influenced by what they immediately see and experience. We don't know when and if the Big One will come. Many adopt the brutal rationalization that most of those before us have lived and died without experiencing a major quake. With only so many resources to dispense into a building, will people prioritize keeping their wallets fat, or will they invest in mitigating the effect of a disaster that appears more like a myth than imminent reality?
The bottom line is, even in the most ideal scenarios, no building may ever be 100 percent safe in the face of a magnitude 8 or 9 earthquake. Nature has always been the great equalizer. But do we wait to see the damages wrought before we do something about it? At what cost do we take on that risk? We may short cut and save a bit now, but at the end of the day, after the tremors calm, who pays? How much is the cost of a human life?