By Jason Gutierrez
MANILA, March 17, 2011 (AFP) – The Philippine capital is woefully unprepared for a major quake that could hit at any time and kill tens of thousands of people, flattening nearly half the city’s homes, experts warn.
Authorities in the Philippines have been anxiously looking at the vulnerabilities of Manila, a megalopolis of more than 12 million people, following the devastating earthquakes to hit Japan and New Zealand.
Like those countries, the Philippines sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire — a belt around the Pacific area dotted by active volcanoes and tectonic trenches.
And heavily populated urban areas on the Philippines’ main island of Luzon, including Manila, sit on or near at least four fault systems.
The most active of these, the Valley Fault System, cuts through the eastern section of the island, including across Manila and suburban areas to the south.
Paleoseismic studies indicate the fault moves once every 200 to 400 years, the last time in the 17th century.
It is now primed to trigger a violent quake with an estimated magnitude of 7.2 that would plunge the country into crisis, Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology deputy director Bartolome Bautista said Wednesday.
“The fault is ripe for movement. It can move anytime,” Bautista told a Senate inquiry into the country’s state of disaster preparedness that was called in the wake of last week’s 9.0-magnitude quake in Japan.
He acknowledged that it was scientifically impossible to predict the exact time of a quake.
“But what is for sure is that there is a very high probability the fault system will move in the future,” he said.
Bautista said a joint study by his office and the Japan International Cooperation Agency in 2004 showed that, with a 7.2 quake, about 40 percent of all residential buildings in Manila would collapse or be damaged.
At least 34,000 people would be killed and 114,000 injured, the study said.
Nearly 20,000 more would die due to secondary disasters, with an outbreak of fires expected to engulf large parts of the capital.
“The human loss, together with properties and economy losses of metropolitan Manila will be a national crisis,” said the report, which was presented to the Senate and a copy of which was obtained by AFP.
A more recent report by the Manila-based think tank Pacific Strategies and Assessment, which provides risk analysis to foreign embassies and companies, issued similar dire warnings, saying a quake would plunge the capital into chaos.
Homes, buildings, elevated highways and bridges would crumble, killing tens of thousands of people, while the resulting inferno blazes would leave hundreds of thousands of others homeless, it said.
“Phone lines would be toppled, inhibiting communications, roadways would be impassable for relief and rescue vehicles, and critical utilities including electricity would be shut down across the city for weeks,” the report said.
Jun Palafox, an internationally renowned architect and Harvard-trained urban planner, blamed entrenched corruption for the weak implementation of building codes that have over the years led to dangerous urban sprawl.
“Where else in the world can you find clusters of residential areas atop fault lines, where entire houses could be swallowed up when the ground cracks due to an earthquake?” he told AFP
He said the government had failed to impose “no build zones” in areas such as along waterways that make the populace highly vulnerable to disasters.
Unscrupulous contractors had for years conspired with corrupt officials for permits allowing them to build shabby structures wherever they pleased, he said.
“The sad reality is that many people will simply die because of this,” he said.