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Little things that can make a big difference

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Malcolm Gladwell in his book refers to the ‘Tipping Point’ where little things can make a big difference: "the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point" at which "ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses do."

Was the release by the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) of the Valley Fault System Atlas such a moment? Its timing, soon after the devastating earthquake in Nepal, was circumstantial. However with images of the human tragedy still fresh on people’s minds, it catalyzed a flurry of interest in the Atlas. The Phivolcs website crashed as people tried to access the Atlas on line, broadsheets were full of opinion pieces, and social media was abuzz with reactions.

With approximately 25 million people estimated to be in greater Manila and vulnerable to the impact of a rupture of the Valley fault, the level of interest is easily understood. The consequences of a 7.2 magnitude earthquake (the highest probable in the estimation of Phivolcs) can potentially be extremely dire: over 40 percent of buildings could be destroyed or damaged; key services left inoperable; considerable economic and social costs incurred; and with casualties in the tens of thousands. That is, if adequate preparedness measures are not in place.

Policy makers, legislators, and government agencies have responded positively. The Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board gave assurances that it would use the Atlas as a reference when assessing land use plans. The Department of Education has instructed its engineers to check the structurral integrity of vulnerable schools. The Metro Manila Development Authority launched a website to help residents prepare for a strong earthquake. Legislators have spoken about the importance of using the Atlas to ensure that buildings are not on active faults and to retro-fit vulnerable structures to withstand strong quakes. Disaster drills in schools and public buildings have been called for.

Some property developers and home owners have however reacted negatively, concerned that property values and condominium sales in the vicinity of the fault lines will be affected. It is perhaps an ‘open secret’ that in the past, there has been considerable pressure placed upon agencies like Phivolcs to not release this type of information. Political will and leadership is critical to counter narrow financial interest. With information readily available to the public, democratic pressure on government should increase. Ultimately the ballot box should judge those who have responded appropriately or not.

While there is an ongoing academic debate about the methodology for calculating the actual savings to the public purse on disaster response from investments in preperation, few contest that preparedness is essential. When an earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, nearly a quarter of a million people died. Port-au-Prince was reduced to rubble. Six weeks later an earthquake 500 times more powerful struck Chile, but less than one percent of the lives were lost compared to Haiti. Why? Unlike Chile, despite an awareness that Haiti was susceptible to earthquakes, the government had not prepared. It had no urban development plans based on vulnerability assessments. It had no building codes to account for earthquake damage. Construction was poor with lack of licensing of contractors and enforcement of building quality. Squatter camps proliferated. There was little to no training and equipping of first responders and no contingency planning. In effect, there was a structural environment ripe for disaster.

The stark contrast between Haiti and Chile is borne out in studies examining the correlation between earthquake probability and mortality prevention. Where this correlation is high, three critical charecteristics are evident. These countries have high national incomes and can take mitigating measures; are strong democracies and hold governments accountable; and they adopt evidence based policies and programs.

The Atlas has tipped us in a direction we should very much welcome. It has provided us the basis on which we can make informed decisions. We may well be due for a major event. We have the means now to adopt ‘no regrets’ measures. Earthquakes in themselves do not kill people. Poor planning, inadequate preparedness and the lack of application of building standards do.