Tuesday, 15 March 2011

The Philippines and the ‘Big One’

Business Mirror

In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Japan, it is perfectly normal that people question the government’s ability to respond to a similar disaster in the Philippines. However, the answer to the question of the government to be able to effectively respond is simple: it cannot. Further, it should not.

Japan has spent a generation preparing for the “Big One.” Mass earthquake drills are conducted on a regular basis. Building codes for all types of structures are the strictest in the world and are upgraded regularly. Supplies are stockpiled and the government constantly revises and improves disaster plans. However, at the end of the day, the government does not and will not ever have the capability to protect its citizens from this sort of event.

Japan was ready for this “Big One.” And yet even after decades of planning and preparation, all the efforts were not enough. While no major buildings were destroyed in this largest earthquake to hit Japan, all the planning could not prevent a tragic disaster.

The tsunami hit with such speed and ferocity, the waters were impossible to escape for tens of thousands. In hindsight, the only solution would have been to keep large populations from living within miles of the coastline.

Japan’s nuclear-energy industry, too, has been one of the most regulated and monitored in the world. Although the Japanese government has at times been less than truthful and not fully honest about past plant failures, Japan is currently operating nearly 60 reactors as does France. South Korea and India each run more than 20. Russia generates electricity from more than 30 plants while Canada has 18, Sweden with 10, and the United Kingdom has 19. The US runs over 100 nuclear plants. There are more than 400 nuclear plants around the world. Overall, in spite of this current event and what nuclear-power gloom and doomers want you to believe, nuclear-power generation has a positive track record. By the way, China has 27 nuclear-power plants under construction and is planning to build 100 more during the next decade.

The Japanese nuclear plants that have gained world attention survived the earthquake with minimal damage. But they could not survive unscathed through the loss of commercial power and the tsunami that destroyed back-up generators. The infrastructure damage prevented a quick enough response to keep the situation from going critical.

The Philippine government, through its various agencies and with the help of the responsible media, did an excellent job of informing the public about the potential of the Philippines experiencing problems from the Pacific-wide tsunami. Very cautious evacuations along some coastal areas progressed without apparent problems. Yet, in spite of these admirable efforts, irresponsible citizens, along with some irresponsible media, created more anxiety and worry than was necessary. The cell-phone companies made extra profits on Friday as text messages flew around the country with foolish and silly words of impending doom.

While the government did a good job, too many people reacted like uneducated savages experiencing a solar eclipse. So, too, some of the media. When the tsunami warning was first broadcast from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, the Philippines was told to expect under the worst-case scenario, increased water levels of .25 to .50 of a meter along the Pacific coastal areas. Yet, to hear some people and media talk, Davao was destined to be totally consumed by water and we in Manila would have been fighting for a safe spot at the top of the Philippines’ tallest PBCom Tower. All foolish talk.

The town of Otsuchi, north of Tokyo, in Iwate prefecture, saw thousands of its citizens killed.

Within minutes after the initial earthquake stopped, the mayor of Otsuchi and other town officials did what government people are really good at; they had a meeting. Unfortunately, while they were discussing “safety measures” on the ground floor of a two-story building 1 kilometer from the ocean, the tsunami hit and they have not been seen since. Common sense would have dictated to “Run for your lives,” but public leaders are not often elected for that characteristic.

So what should the Philippine government do to protect the people? The most sensible comments came from the BusinessMirror editorial, “Government must get a grip on the big ‘what-if?’” Instead of calling for a master disaster plan, the BusinessMirror spoke of the need to provide opportunities and jobs for the overseas workers who may be sent home from the “disaster” areas of the Middle East and now Japan. The only thing I would have added is that the government should be making major plans to deploy thousands of Filipino construction workers to rebuild Japan.

Every nation, even countries like Japan, has a limited amount of financial resources, capital, and the winners are those that use that capital most effectively and efficiently. I am sure that over the next weeks, Congress will hold hearings and appropriate large sums for new “disaster preparedness,” perhaps like the town officials of Otsuchi were discussing when they were swept away.

Yet any funds allocated for preparation and planning should be looked at in the bigger picture, not some sort of “feel good” newspaper headlines.

Already, the foolish are talking about the possible effects on the Philippines of a Japanese “nuclear fallout.” More stupidity. But that is human nature. As a side note, I was staying in Europe during the Chernobyl nuclear facility catastrophe. And all of the dire health predictions following Chernobyl—increased cancer rates and deaths—have been proven to be completely wrong.

While our prayers go out to the survivors and the dead, the Philippines needs common sense and a proper perspective. Yes, a major earthquake in Metro Manila is the worst thing that could happen to this country. But there is not a lot that we can do if it happens. As individuals though, we need to protect ourselves (some reasonable stocks of food and water at all times) and depend less on a government that honestly, should have other, more important priorities.

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