Modern Living

Lungsod Disaster 2: Steps to Readiness

CITY SENSE - Paulo Alcazaren -

It must be the supermoon effect. The proximity of that big ball of cheese in the sky is causing strange things to happen around our planet. The spate of earthquakes and tsunamis that has hit countries in the Pacific has been attributed to it, at least according to loony Internet sources.

People in the Middle East, who have been drinking more processed water than most, have been drawn to a higher level of consciousness and action (daily tides are caused by the moon’s attraction). The Libyans have taken the initiative to remove that big rat Gaddafi and Muammar’s murderous men are now running around like mice after the coalition strikes.

In the meantime, the rats here in the Philippines are getting harder and harder to impeach, er, I mean flush out. Many of our local two-legged variety have also taken to invoking their right to refuse to answer any questions, as any honest answer may incriminate them. Others, as murderous as Gaddafi’s men, have resorted to buying full-page ads in newspapers to decry the “lack” of due process. It all makes you wish for giant tsunamis to sweep away all the garbage of our society and backhoe them all into oblivion.

Relocating government officials

Speaking about giving the conscience and responsibility-challenged a taste of their own medicine, someone gave me a great suggestion (at the launch of the book Lungsod Iskwater, which I featured in my column last week). He said that it would be a good idea to require public officials in Metro Manila to live on top of the West Valley fault line or along the edges of Manila Bay, the Pasig River and its esteros. You can bet that we’ll see less talk and more real “disaster-risk reduction” in a hurry if that happens.

The team behind the book: Neal Oshima, Toni Yulo, Luis Ferrer, Bing Icamina, and Paulo Alcazaren.

The subject cropped up as one of the many issues debated among guests at the launch of the book last March 17. Over 200 guests came and for this, my publishers, the Luis Yulo Foundation for Sustainable Development and Anvil Publishing, and I would like to thank the Podium and Millie Dizon of SM for providing a great venue (which also hosted an exhibit of Neal Oshima’s haunting images from the book). Our thanks go out also to our launch partner BluPrint magazine (of which I am editor in chief), a prestige publication of Mega Magazine Publishing Inc (MMPI).

BluPrint’s upcoming “City Beautiful” issue will feature the book extensively among other articles that highlight urban design and planning.

In my remarks at the launch I also thanked the Philippine STAR for allowing me the opportunity to bring urban design, architecture, landscape architecture, planning and sustainability issues to the public for over a decade.

It was, in fact, my writing that got the attention of Toni Yulo Loyzaga. I got an e-mail from her in 2000 (a year after I started writing for the STAR) asking for a meeting. I eventually got involved in a series of events she and the foundation organized that tackled city design and sustainability issues.

Jumping a decade from then to today, Toni has extended her environmental and social advocacy by now heading the Manila Observatory based at the Ateneo de Manila University. I’ve gone on to trying to practice what I preach with a design office that covers site planning, urban design and landscape architecture.

Despite inroads to pubic consciousness on issues concerning planning and environment, we and others in the crusade for urban sanity, continue to face an incomprehensible fatalism from people living in informal communities teetering on the brink of catastrophe, apathy from those who think their higher economic status shields them from any disaster, and a five-minute attention span from a dysfunctional metropolitan and national government already addled by corruption.

Seven steps to safety

What we face is a clear and present danger. Natural processes, exacerbated by climate change (manmade or at lease man-induced) do not recognize political boundaries, class, political or religious distinctions. We have to take action now.

There are long-term steps to ready ourselves for the “big one.” There are also immediate measures. Lest I be faulted for just spouting alarmist rhetoric, below are a number of steps we can take to mitigate disaster:

1) Start with yourself and your family. Those emergency packs with water, food, flashlights, whistles, emergency clothing, radios and batteries should be on hand in our homes, cars, offices (and replenished every few months). Secure your home, school or office by making sure earthquakes will not topple heavy furniture or objects over people. A cistern with emergency water would also be a good idea. The web is filled with personal disaster survival techniques in urban situations. Check them out and make it a family thing after you find information applicable to you.

That’s me with my BluPrint family: CK de la Cruz and Jeff Uy, group and associate publishers for MMPI, respectively

2) Check the condition and location of your house, school or office. The hazard maps for Metro Manila are available from the websites of the DOST, the Manila Observatory and MMDA. If you find out that you are in a hazard zone (or even if your are not) check your home or building for telltale signs of structural instability — cracks on beams and posts, changes in levels of floors. If you find any, enlist the services of a licensed and reputable structural engineer to assess the situation and provide retrofitting options.

3) It is not only your home or building that you should check. Check your neighbors’ houses or structures too (as far as they will let you). It will not help if you are solidly built but your neighbors look like they defied the building code. Also, some earthquake studies point to midrise or five- to 10-story buildings as more susceptible to damage in earthquakes. They may topple over you if they are shoddily built or ill maintained.

4) Within your village, neighborhood or district, check if access roads are blocked or turned into parking lots, barangay halls, or markets. These may compromise the ability of rescue teams or firetrucks to reach you. Check for the nearest open green space free of tall structures. These may be used for refuge after disasters. Oh, but wait ...I forgot, sorry, there are few open green and publicly accessible spaces like parks in Metro Manila. And please, a real city park has a substantial area in the tens to the hundreds of hectares. A few hundred square meters leftover space under a flyover is a poor excuse for a park (and who wants to take refuge under a flyover when aftershocks happen?). So much for that.

5) Check your neighboring village, district and nearest public infrastructure. Check if these have any of the preceding elements that may compromise your neighborhood, village or district. It is a sad fact that although informal settlements are usually made up of light structures, they are prone to the inevitable fires that can start after an earthquake and result in many casualties. These spread rapidly within informal settlements and eventually to more formal gated residential villages, as the two types are often never far from each other (look at the aerial photographs of Neal Oshima in the book).

6) Thank the heavens above none of us live beside a nuclear plant (and we pray for the safety of those in Japan who do). Filipinos, however, live beside other potential hazards whose effects are more immediate. The long list includes rivers and esteros that are silted up or blocked by structures and easily overflow, slopes that are prone to landslides when compromised by floodwaters gigantic billboards that may topple over and skewer innocent citizens, bridges and flyovers that are never inspected or maintained, a multitude of utility poles weighed down with a seemingly increasing number of sagging cables, or LPG tank farms and fuel depots that may fuel a monstrous conflagration (hey, isn’t there a kinda big fuel depot in Pandacan?).

Board of Interior Design head Johnny Hubilla, Senator Franklin Drilon, Ramon Orlina, and the author Paulo Alcazaren

If you find any of these, raise a howl with your homeowners association, barangay captain, councilor, mayor, congressman, senator, parish priest (there are clearer dangers to their flock than allowing the sale of condoms ...besides many church constructions defy building and heritage conservation codes), or alert news media or social media until something gets done. Or... you can move.

7) You can move to safer cities or provinces. Palawan is the only area that is generally hazard free (unless they push through with mining, which has already proven to cause death to those who oppose it).

Let me think of any disaster free or ready Philippine city? Hmmm, well, there is none!

There is not one city or highly urbanized town in the Philippines that does not have one or more of the hazards enumerated above. In fact, because of our bursting population, lousy infrastructure, the lack of proper regional planning, degraded forests and waterways, and lack of authentically comprehensive and rationally thought out land use plans, we are all in the situation of being informal settlers.

We are all informal

It is a point made clear in the book Lungsod Iskwater (available at National Book Store, Bestsellers and Powerbooks). We, in informal communities as well as formal gated enclaves, are all building haphazardly. We all build informally in immediate if not larger physical contexts that leave much to be desired when faced with the wrath of Mother Nature.

There is so much talk about disaster preparedness and disaster mitigation and so many new or recycled government bodies have been formed to address these problems — same people, same talk, no results.

What I find wrong is exactly that we seem to just accept the fact that we cannot change the way we build our communities, towns, cities and regions. Proper regional, city and town planning is, in fact, planning so that disaster is the last thing that will ever happen.

We currently address the symptoms and not the real root causes of our catastrophe-prone cities. The physical basis for planning at the regional, provincial, city, town and barangay levels is framed by political boundaries that are disjointed from environmental and ecological boundaries (fault lines do not stop at city lines, floods will flow through countless jurisdictions).

With my better half Twink, Senator Franklin Drilon and Congressman Gilbert Teodoro

Town, city and provincial maps are in fact based on arbitrary boundaries set as far back as the 17th-century when settlements occupied less than five percent of the country and the hinterlands’ natural ecology was fairly intact.

Our fractured local governance does not work in large metropolitan conurbations like Metro Manila, Cebu, Davao, and Baguio, for the provision of basic services much less the mitigation of disaster risks. The development agenda of national government and of the private sector (despite the millions they spend on CSR-PR) is based on short-term goals, profit-centeredness as opposed to people-centeredness, stop-gap fixes like OFWs, call centers, or resorting to loans and aid that filters only to political (and military) pockets.

We do little to create a sustainable economy, produce our own food and essentials, house and ensure the safety of citizens, or manage a runaway population. Yes, we pray a lot …what else can we do? It is sheer madness …and the moon is not to blame.

* * *

Feedback is welcome. Please e-mail the writer at [email protected]. For more information visit the websites of the Manila Observatory at www.observatory.ph; contact the Department of Science and Technology, www.dost.gov.ph; MMDA at www.mmda.gov.ph, The Association of Structural Engineers of the Philippines at 410-0483, mobile 0917-8237739, ww.aseponline.org; the Philippine Institute of Civil Engineers, www.pice.org.ph; and the Philippine Institute of Environmental Planners, ww.piep.org.ph.










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