Earthquake devastation linked to corruption

By Sen. Loren Legarda
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 03:59:00 01/25/2010

Filed Under: earthquakes, Education

Earthquakes don’t kill. Unsafe structures do. That’s one lesson Filipinos can draw from the recent magnitude-7 quake that devastated Haiti.

A recent study at Columbia University found that the Philippines has the biggest number of schoolchildren at risk from earthquakes.

According to the study, the Philippines has 15.6 million school-age children in earthquake zones, the highest exposure it cited. I doubt the Department of Education is even aware of this.

We must not wait for another strong earthquake to reduce our school buildings to rubble. School authorities must act now. They must consult structural engineers, assess the vulnerability of school structures to strong tremors, and institute immediate measures to strengthen parts found weak and likely to collapse.

My proposal is for the government to make all schools, as well as hospitals, earthquake-proof. We must immediately conduct a nationwide structural evaluation of all schools and hospitals. We should retrofit these structures to allow them to withstand strong earthquakes.

We should likewise ensure that our homes and offices, shopping malls and public buildings are able to survive strong shocks. We must ensure proper and safe construction, and stop corruption and cheating in the construction of both public and private infrastructure.

Like a time bomb
Not all structures collapse in a strong earthquake, only the poorly built ones. Corruption in public works is like planting a bomb that is timed to explode when an earthquake strikes.

There’s a direct correlation therefore between endemic corruption and high death tolls and widespread property damage from earthquakes.

Studies on recent earthquakes in other parts of the world bear this out.

The 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila in central Italy rated 5.8 on the Richter scale, killed more than 300 people and rendered 65,000 more homeless. It also damaged between 3,000 and 11,000 buildings in the medieval city, including a dormitory of the University of L’Aquila.

Poor building standards or construction materials were found to have contributed to the large number of victims in the Italy quake. According to firefighters and other rescuers, some concrete elements of the fallen buildings “seemed to have been made poorly, possibly with sand.”

Data falsified
In the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China, a team that investigated a destroyed school building in Dujiangyan reported: “… There’s no steel in the concrete … the debris was basically sand—not even pieces of concrete … It was built in a very short time. They added one floor at a time, and continued building as they had money for it. So the base was not made for several floors. It was too weak. The whole building collapsed, straight down, hardly without shaking, even.”

In earthquake-prone Japan, authorities declared 78 buildings, including 36 hotels, as unsafe in 2005 because of falsified earthquake resistance data submitted by their architects during pre-construction stages. It was reported that in some cases, steel structural members were one-quarter of their required size.

In Turkey, a strong earthquake in August 1999 affected a densely populated area in the northwest and killed more than 17,000 people. Forty-four thousand were injured and 600,000 were left homeless; damage was estimated at $8.5 million. The culprit: Inadequately constructed buildings, and buildings in inappropriate places.

Metro scenario
Experts are one in saying that failure of construction can be due to the following factors: Inappropriate siting; inadequate design and materials specification; buildings constructed before enactment of current regulations; earthquake intensity in excess of level addressed by codes;

Inadequate building codes and regulations; codes and regulations not applied; unauthorized omissions or substitutions on site during construction; absence of, inadequate or dilatory construction inspection; construction in rural areas being less likely to be inspected; re-use of building components from buildings previously demolished.

We know that the Philippines is among the countries most vulnerable to earthquakes.

The Metro Manila Earthquake Impact Reduction Study conducted by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in 2004 showed that a 7.2-magnitude earthquake could damage 38 percent of residential buildings, 38 percent of buildings between 10 and 30 stories high, 14 percent of buildings between 30 and 60 stories high, and 30 to 35 percent of all public buildings.

The study points out that such an earthquake could cause 33,500 deaths, an additional 18,000 deaths from fire, and 114,000 injuries.

The figures are disturbing indeed. A very strong temblor in Metro Manila is likely to reduce a big part of the city to rubble and kill many thousands, much like what happened in Haiti.

Children vulnerable
As a mother, I am particularly bothered by schools crumbling during earthquakes. School buildings that collapse and kill scores of children have become a common occurrence during earthquakes.

In the recent Haiti quake, a school in Petionville collapsed during classes, trapping about 500 students. In China, a 7.9-magnitude earthquake that shook Sichuan in 2008 killed 15,000 schoolchildren and teachers and destroyed 7,000 classrooms.

In the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, about 17,000 children died in more than 7,000 schools that collapsed.

In the 1990 Luzon earthquake, we also lost 154 schoolchildren in the collapse of the Christian College of the Philippines in Cabanatuan City, Nueva Ecija.

Endemic corruption
That any illegally constructed building should be demolished is not ridiculous. Japan and Spain have considered this course of action.

Inspection during construction therefore is important. The additional expense required for making structures safe from earthquakes is worth it compared to the amount lost to bribery and theft from construction budgets.

From a broader perspective, corruption in public works in the Philippines is not surprising given endemic corruption in society as a whole. If corruption in public works is widespread, it is because the government has not succeeded in curbing graft and corruption at all levels of the bureaucracy and done very little to bring the big fish to jail.

Nevertheless, the best protection against earthquakes is sound engineering practices. We must not wait for another earthquake to revisit our construction standards, codes and practices. We must examine them now and correct any deficiencies.

We must save lives now as we speak, before any major earthquake hits Metro Manila.

(The author is chair of the Senate oversight committee on climate change and the United Nations Regional Champion for Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation in the Asia-Pacific. She is running for vice president in the May elections.)




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