Noynoy's Tardy Disaster Preparedness

Asia’s cities risk disaster unless they devote resources into protecting cities across the region that are increasingly vulnerable to the impact of natural calamities, the Asian Development Bank is warning in a report this week.

And probably there is no place in Asia as vulnerable as the ADB’s own home city of Manila, where two devastating typhoons, Ondoy and Peping, put vast areas under water in 2009. The city is about as susceptible to another round of cataclysmic storms as it was then. The country is typically hit by as many as 20 major tropical storms per year as well as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.

Ondoy, known internationally as Tropical Storm Ketsana, hit on Sept. 25, 2009, causing US$1.09 billion in damage and drowning 747 people. It was followed two weeks later by Pepeng, known internationally as Nesat, which swept across the main Philippine island of Luzon, then turned and crossed it again, doing US$609 million in damage.

After the storms ravaged the Manila metropolitan area, then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo awarded 19 rehabilitation projects without competitive bid supposedly to protectt the vast metropolitan area, home to more than 11 million people and covering 636 square kilometers. The contracts, however, were nullified by Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson in July of 2010 after President Benigno S. Aquino III took office as president.

Within months of coming to power, the new government either froze, modified or cancelled outright scores of infrastructure projects over allegations that an unknown number of them had been awarded illegally without competitive bidding.

Today, nearly two years later, Aquino’s cancellation of the projects and many more has been met with mixed reactions. It has led to widespread use of the term ‘noynoying,’ a play on the president’s nickname which questions his work ethic, particularly on his tardy response to disaster preparedness.

Aquino’s adherents point out that cancelling the contracts resulted in far lower prices for the contracts that have been awarded, that most of the flood control projects eventually were tendered and many of them implemented.

The ADB, in its report, presented in a seminar during the bank’s annual conclave in Manila this week, says that for every dollar invested in disaster risk reduction, the economic impact of disaster would be reduced by US$7.

“With the annual economic cost of disasters averaging $53.8 billion in Asia and the Pacific, the focus must shift from post-disaster reconstruction and recovery to pre-disaster investment in risk reduction, adaptation and innovative disaster financing,” the audience heard.

Despite the number of projects that have since been implemented, the cancellations have led to a widespread perception on the part of the international business community that their contracts are in danger with the arrival of any new Filipino president. Arroyo famously abrogated a contract which had been negotiated by her predecessor, Joseph Estrada, to build, operate and transfer Terminal 3 at the city’s international airport, with the result that the US$640 million structure, originally scheduled to open in 2002, sat empty for six years while the parties warred over the contract and frustrated passengers endured the two other overcrowded terminals. Lawsuits continue to this day.

Perhaps the most controversial of the Aquino cancellations was a rehabilitation project for Laguna Lake, the country’s largest freshwater lake and the source of most of Manila’s fresh water. The US$430 million project involved silt dredging to improve the water flow and holding capacity, which was approved by Arroyo and bid to the Belgian company Baggerwerken Decloedt en Zoon. Aquino halted the project because he said 12 million cubic meters of silt would be removed from one portion of the lake only to be dumped in another. And, although he has made no specific allegations about corruption in the tender process, he has made vague remarks that dredging projects are particularly vulnerable to corrupt practices.

The water quality of the lake has continued to deteriorate because of decades of neglect and the unregulated growth to the industrial and residential communities that surround it. A 2011 study by the University of the Philippines found that the lake contains high levels of the female hormone estrogen because of the untreated sewage and urine dumped into it. As a result of pollution and silting, the depth of the lake has fallen from about 10 meters to about 3, with the silt and debris clogging the natural flow of water into Manila Bay. That was blamed for the sudden increase in water levels when Ondoy swept across the city. The level of the lake rose to a 90-year high level of 14 meters, flooding the surrounding area.

After the cancellation of the dredging project, Aquino announced a 20-year master plan outlining 54 projects including road dikes, the cleaning of water channels, reclamation of 5,000 hectares of land for industrial and commercial use and other features. Unfortunately, however, despite the administration’s announcement last year, not only have none of the projects got under way, the lake rehabilitation plan was not prioritized in the government’s vaunted Public-Private Partnership offerings. When it will get underway is problematical.

The government has yet to come up with plans to deal with the plethora of government institutions surrounding the lake – 28 of them with differing demands and solutions. The tens of thousands of squatters who have built makeshift structures surrounding the lake are certain to object loudly and emotionally to being moved.

There are some bright spots. The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, in a report b y Raul Landigan that was published in April, found that “by most indications – and despite apparent resistance from some local officials – the much-maligned Public Works Department seems to be finally paving its own daang matuwid (straight path), the battle cry of the Aquino administration.”

Most of the 19 contracts cancelled by Singson in July 2010 were successfully tendered in 2011, with several being built, the PCIJ found. At least three were completed as of February, with new contract prices indicating the agency brought down tender costs by an average of 34 percent compared to the original cost.

“The gains from the (public works agency’s) moves to toughen procurement policies are not confined to suspended projects that were subsequently put up for bidding,” the journalism center found. “There are indications the department is making broader progress in the battle to curb widespread collusion that has artificially inflated the cost of public works projects in the past.”

However, the journalism center said, “Economists say the delays in the availability of these crucial facilities have costs, too, and must be taken into account in determining if the DPWH’s savings are indeed significant in the bigger scheme of things.”

The cancellations or delays have actually been blamed to slowing the growth of the economy as infrastructure and other capital outlays fell below budget by 34 percent or P82.7 billion, more than half the total amount of under-spending by government in 2011.

New bridges are not being constructed, the government is falling behind on its road rehabilitation projects, more than half of 833 school-building projects worth P754 million hadn’t got underway by November 2011, the investigative journalism center found.

“Though business leaders welcomed the new administration’s anti-corruption drive, many are worried that it is coming at the expense of economic growth.”