Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Written for Manila Today

We are told to prepare for the next big one, the great disaster that will destroy the metropolis. After Fukushima and Nepal, we paid greater attention to the unusual inactivity of the West Valley Fault. Rather than wait helplessly, we are rightly reviewing our capacities and vulnerabilities to increase our chances of survival when the catastrophic earthquake finally arrives. In the past month, we have been bombarded with news reports, government notices and detailed maps showing the danger zones in Metro Manila, especially those located near the fault line. The maps confirm what everybody already knows: Metro Manila is disaster-prone. Bawal tumira, nakamamatay.

The widespread distribution of the maps probably aims to inform the public about the real and serious dangers posed by the fault. Only the most irresponsible city planners and local community leaders would ignore the value of these maps to improve the disaster preparation programs of their localities.

Meanwhile, a troubling consequence of the decision to disclose the geographically hazardous locations in the nation’s capital is the rise of panic among residents. Whether intended or not, this weakens the ability of the public to question or challenge the extralegal activities of the state. When everybody is desperate to survive, the violence of the state is often overlooked.

Beware, the maps that are supposed to empower us can be used to violate our fundamental rights. Soon, demolition of urban poor communities will be done and justified by invoking disaster preparation. There are already reports about the possible removal of some schools in Bulacan because of their location near the West Valley fault. Interestingly but not surprisingly, there are no proposals to demolish the high-risk subdivisions of Blue Ridge, White Plains, Green Meadows, and Valle Verde despite their proximity to the fault line. High-rise SMDC condominium Blue in Katipunan Avenue was allowed to be constructed and was recently completed.

Unlike some bureaucrats who are quick to order the displacement of the poor from their dwellings, we are not inclined to advocate the same thing for the rich and powerful living in disaster-prone areas. It is not really due to empathy but more of a scientific analysis that casualties during natural calamities are mainly related to political economy. It is not enough to know where the rocks will collide but more crucial is the mapping of the state of development of our communities. We cannot change the terrain but we can alter how we distribute resources and organize our society.

We should not restrict the threat of the West Valley Fault into those areas situated along the earthquake zone. At the same time, we should broaden our concept of what it means to live in a habitable and sustainable community. This is the right time to pinpoint the various threats facing Metro Manila and its 12 million inhabitants. The West Valley Fault may be the biggest threat but there are other “faults”, not seismic but systemic, that make life in Metro Manila extremely difficult and dangerous.

The West Valley Fault should not intimidate us; rather, it should motivate us to explore the other threats that undermine our disaster readiness. The next big one represented by the West Valley Fault is still a threat but there are numerous ‘big ones’ that are already killing people and making the poor suffer. If we are serious in our commitment to protect the lives of many, we should then explore these non-geographical evils to end unnecessary deaths and miseries.

For example, after the Kentex fire tragedy, we demand to know the safety of workplaces. We should map out the factories that pose a danger to workers. Where are the companies that hire contractuals? What cities are most notorious for violating the minimum wage law? Where are the sweatshops? Are there child laborers in the export enclaves?

What is the cost of living in Metro Manila? Are wages keeping up with the rising prices of goods?

Where are the poorest villages in Metro Manila? Are they located too along the West Valley Fault? Where are the maps that show us chronic hunger rates, child malnutrition trends, school drop-out statistics, and waterless communities? How many are dying from preventable diseases?

How was the unconstitutional Disbursement Acceleration Program distributed in Metro Manila?

Where are the homeless staying? Compare the housing situation with the number of condominium constructions. Identify the relocation sites in the past three decades. It seems many of these resettlements are located along the West Valley Fault.

How many are the ongoing large-scale infrastructure projects in the region? When politicians discuss the Public-Private-Partnership program, they salivate over profits but neglect to mention the displacement of the poor. How many are the victims of these development aggression projects and where are they living now?

Where is drug abuse prevalent? Which city registered the highest number of criminal cases? Which has the most number of gated communities? Are public markets being demolished to make way for the construction of super malls and air-conditioned grocery stores? Where is the fan base of KathNiel?

If Metro Manila’s situation is precarious, then why the rush to reclaim some parts of Manila Bay and Laguna Lake? Where are the polluted waterways? Which city produces the largest volume of trash?

The maps of the West Valley Fault, which we enthusiastically shared on the Internet, will be more meaningful and useful if we place them side by side with the maps that expose the extent of corruption, poverty, and environmental degradation in Metro Manila.

Mapping and re-mapping procedures are not enough to survive an earthquake. Knowledge of geography should be enhanced by a rudimentary awareness of progressive political economy. Why do we feel powerless every time earthquakes are mentioned in news reports? It is because we were taught to believe that nature’s wrath is something we should surrender to fate or chance instead of recognizing that it is foremost a political issue which we can decisively confront as a collective body.

If we fear the West Valley fault, it must be because we are familiar with the epic incompetence of the government when Pablo, Sendong, and Yolanda wrought havoc in Mindanao and the Visayas. Panic is a natural reaction but it should not distract us from our permanent duty of building a society where real development exists in a democratic setting. What should the residents living near the West Valley Fault ask themselves today? It should not be limited to this, “What is my escape route?” or “How far I am from the fault”; this should be asked too, “Are we organized as a community to survive this catastrophe?” The West Valley Fault issue is not a reason to abandon politics in order to focus solely on disaster preparation. On the contrary, it is a compelling reason to think and act politically so that disaster preparation will be more effective. Only politicians and big business opportunists (together with their overpaid publicists) want depoliticized disaster preparation activities so that they can boost their influence and profits without encountering critical opposition from the public.

It is because of haphazard development across the country, bad governance, and chaotic urban planning that forced our people to establish their homes in an unstable lump of Earth which we came to know as the West Valley Fault. The people running this system are the same people telling us to be afraid today and instructing us to obey their instructions if we want to live. But why should we give them more power to remake our society? Do we want more of the same?

The West Valley Fault issue invites us to rethink the present and to build a new political order where communities are resilient and the grassroots are truly empowered despite the turbulent existence of unfriendly elements below the surface of the Earth. To accomplish this, what we need is a radical reframing of how we view our situation today. We will only have greater tragedies if we continue to adhere to the old and discredited way of doing things. Wouldn’t this be the real disaster? The coming catastrophe is a crisis in search of a political alternative.

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