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Can Manila survive a Nepal-level earthquake?


Can the Philippine capital—one of the world's most densely-populated cities—survive an earthquake similar to the one that gripped Nepal on April 25?
 
With an official death toll of over 10,000 people and rising, the Kathmandu disaster is an ominous reminder that our own nation's capital can all too easily suffer a similar fate.
 
Philippine vulnerability
 
The Philippines is currently the fifth most vulnerable country in terms of disaster risk implications for development capacity, according to the 2015 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction.
 
Just last year, a magnitude 2.7 earthquake hit Mandaluyong city on September 29. The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) indicated that the Valley Fault System could have been the earthquake’s possible source, specifically, the West Valley Fault.
 
And in 2013, a magnitude 7.2 earthquake hit Bohol, killing more than 100 people. Phivolcs said that the earthquake’s force was equivalent to 32 Hiroshima bombs.
 
Not if but when
 
 
The West Valley Fault that cuts across the metropolis moves an average of once every 400 years, and the last time it did was in 1658—and we're less than 50 years away from its 400th anniversary.
 
So it’s clear that the reality of “the big one” hitting the Philippines is not a hypothetical question: it's not a matter of "if" but "when." 
 
And it's going to happen very, very soon.
 
But what’s the government doing to address this eventuality?
 
Baby steps
 
According to a report on CNN Philippines, members of the Philippine government met with British disaster specialists in a training exercise to determine how to act if a magnitude 7 or 8 earthquake hits the country.
 
This year, the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) is conducting the lifting of the Ayala Bridge in San Miguel, Manila, and adding high-damping rubber bearings and base isolators to increase the bridge’s earthquake resistance. This is part of the department’s Urgent Infrastructure Development Project (UIDP), which aims to rehabilitate bridges that haven’t been conforming to current seismic code.
 
The high-damping rubber bearings transform energy during lateral earthquakes into heat, allowing the bridge to absorb energy. Base isolators place roller bearing on the sides of the bridge, making way for movement and increasing the the bridge’s chances of surviving a seismic impact.
 
Phivolcs, in cooperation with the Association of Structural Engineers of the Philippines (ASEP), Japan International Cooperation Agency, and the Japan Science and Technology Agency, created a manual to help Filipinos conduct self-checks of their homes. The manual is only applicable for “1 to 2-storey Concrete Hollow Block” houses.

Click here to see Phivolcs' checklist for disaster-proofing your home.
 
Points are granted for every item the homeowner ticks off on the checklist. Total points can range from 0 to 12.
 
And yet, even these measures may not be enough.

PHL building codes

According to Carlos M. Villaraza, ASEP President, the 2010 National Structural Code of the Philippines was written with a magnitude 8.4 earthquake in mind. “[The code] can even withstand a magnitude 9 without collapse,” Villaraza said, though buildings will still suffer severe structural damage.
 
He added that while regular building inspections are conducted in cities like Makati, Manila, and Quezon City, he’s not sure if it’s being done in other places.
 
So if all buildings follow the Code to the letter, then majority of them should be able to survive if a Nepal-level earthquake hit the country. Any non-compliance with building safety codes is punishable by fines from local building officials or local government units, or the non-issuance of an occupancy permit.
 
The bigger question, however, is how many structures are actually in compliance—especially in a country where many lawbreakers act with seeming impunity and where law enforcers are known to look the other way.
 
Lessons from Nepal
 
It's important to note that Nepal, despite having its own disaster management policy, was hobbled by a lack of resources and coordination on the ground.
 
A recent study concluded that Nepal's disaster management was not adequately disseminated at the local level. “Disaster management practitioners create and enforce disaster management programmes without location-specific knowledge,” said the authors of the study.
 
This isn't so surprising: With a total annual GDP of just USD 20 billion—compared with a third-world country like the Philippines' USD 272 billion GDP—Nepal’s capacity for disaster relief and reduction is sorely limited.
 
“We were not prepared for a disaster of this scale,” said Interior Minister Bam Dev Gautam just four days after the earthquake hit. “We do not have enough resources and will need more time to reach out to everyone.” — TJD, GMA News
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