x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Elements conspire against Philippines

The country is battered by 20 to 25 typhoons a year and sits on the edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire, home to 75 per cent of the world's active volcanoes and 80 per cent of earthquakes.

MANILA // Natural disasters are nothing new to the Philippines. Last weekend's tropical storm Ketsana, which dumped a month's worth of rain on Manila and surrounding provinces in just six hours, left hundreds dead, flooded 80 per cent of the metropolis of 12 million and directly impacted on the lives of nearly three million people. It was the worst storm to hit the Philippine capital in more than 40 years but it should not have come as a complete surprise in a country where natural disasters are commonplace and the government's inability to cope is well known. The World Bank, in a report four years ago, described the Philippines as "one of the most disaster prone countries on earth". "Due to its geography the Philippines is highly prone to natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tropical cyclones and floods," the report said. Budget constraints, shortsighted planning and corruption have all contributed to the country's inability to cope with natural disasters. The Philippine archipelago stretches along the Asian edge of what volcanologists describe as the Pacific seismic belt commonly referred to as the Pacific Ring of Fire. Shaped like a horseshoe, it stretches around 40,000km of the Pacific and is home to 75 per cent of the world's active volcanoes and 80 per cent of the world's earthquakes. The Philippines has more than 300 volcanoes of which 22 are active and earthquakes hit the archipelago almost daily, although most are too small to be felt, according to the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs). Mount Pinatubo, which erupted north-west of Manila in 1991, was the second biggest volcanic eruption recorded in the 20th century. It sent more than 10 cubic km of debris into the atmosphere, causing major global climatic changes for more than a year. The eruption killed an estimated 1,000 people and affected the lives of another three million. The last major earthquake was in 1990, when a quake measuring 7.7 on the open-ended Richter scale flattened the northern city of Baguio leaving around 2,000 dead. Earlier this year Arjun Kartoch, the head of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs Emergency Services, told a conference in Geneva that an earthquake of magnitude seven to eight would kill more than 100,000 people in metropolitan Manila, destroy 16,000 buildings and injure 150,000 people. Renato Solidum, the head of the state-run Phivolcs, said that if the government failed to prepare, a quake with such magnitude would affect about 38 per cent of residential buildings, 14 per cent of high-rise buildings and 35 per cent of public buildings in the metropolis. "We are used to disasters," Mr Solidum said. "However, responding to typhoons and earthquakes are two different things." While volcanoes and earthquakes may be difficult to predict, tropical storms and typhoons are not and are an annual event. According to the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services (PAGASA), the Philippines is battered by between 20 to 25 typhoons a year. A World Bank report, called Natural Disaster Risk Management in the Philippines, said the "social and economic cost of natural disasters in the country is increasing due to population growth, change in land-use patterns, migration, unplanned urbanisation, environmental degradation and global climate change". Natural disasters are said to cost the Philippine government an average of 15 billion pesos (Dh1.2bn) a year or around 0.5 per cent of the national gross domestic product - money that an emerging economy can ill afford. The full cost of the latest natural disaster could exceed 47bn pesos and will impact on the country's economic growth and budget plans for next year. Much of the damage, however, could have been averted years ago, analysts say. Equipment used by the weather bureau (PAGASA) is outdated and in urgent need of upgrading. Last month PAGASA said it needed 2.9bn pesos to increase the frequencies of its bulletins from six hours to three hours. The country's first Doppler radar, which will allow the weather bureau to better tracks storms and typhoons, is not expected to be operational until the end of this year. But one of the biggest problems, especially in Metro Manila, has been years of poor urban planning. The architect and urban planner Felino Palafox said much of the recent property loss could have been averted if developers were not allowed to build on flood-prone areas. He said as far back as 1977 a World Bank study identified the Marikina Valley, the western shores of Laguna de Bay and the Manila Bay coastal area as among flood-prone areas, but developers continued to build. He said after the massive typhoon that slammed into Manila in 1970, recommendations by private consultants called for the construction of a series of floodways to divert water away from Metro Manila, but no action was taken. Pete Troilo, the director of political risk consultants Pacific Strategies & Assessment in Manila, said rubbish built up over the years aggravated the problem last weekend. "Metro Manila's antiquated sewerage system and creeks are clogged with garbage, inhibiting drainage of rain and floodwaters, making flooding inevitable," he said. foreign.desk@thenational.ae