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What do we do with our faults?

(Article published in the Mar 8, 2006 issue of Manila Standard Today)

The fault, concedo with Casius, is not in our stars.  But that it is in ourselves, nego.  Science tells us it is right under our feet.  In fact, the Philippine Institute of Vulcanology and Seismology warns that earthquake faults are all over the Philippine Archipelago. 

A fault is a fracture between two blocks of rock. Like in a bone fracture, the ideal situation is no movement.  Thus, my first aid instructor says that if your patient has a fractured leg, the thing to do is not to move the patient until you have put the injured leg in a splint.  The splint will prevent the broken bone from splitting while you put the patient on a stretcher for transport to a hospital.

Unfortunately, geological rocks with fractures cannot be put in splints.  The blocks move and scientists classify faults into four categories depending on the direction as well as angle of their movement vis-à-vis the surface.  The fault is called “normal”, even if it is not common, when the two involved blocks are by gravitational pull move away from each other causing one of the fault blocks to slip upward and the other downward with respect to the fault plane. The exposed upward block forms a cliff-like feature known as a fault scarp. A scarp may range from a few to hundreds of meters in height and its length may continue for 300 or more kilometers.

 It is a “reverse” fault when the blocks move towards each other instead of away from each other as in a normal fault.  In a “transcurrent” fault, the most famous of which is the nearly 600 mile-long San Andreas fault in California, the blocks move horizontally hitting each other and slipping, hence it also called “the strike and slip” fault. A “thrust” fault, like the deep thrust fault located about 18 kilometers under Los Angeles that caused an earthquake in 1994 which registered a magnitude of 6.7 in the scale, is where one block moves upwards, in an angle not as steep as that found in a normal fault, trying as it were to superimpose itself on the other. 

 The movement, when slow, continuous, hardly noticeable and causing only tiny shocks, is called a “creep”.  In this sense, Proclamation No. 1017 was not a “creep” to martial law since it was quick, short-lived, and promptly noticed.  But, when the movement is sudden, the result is an earthquake.

 The Philippines is so inside the collision zone of the Eurasian Plate and the Philippine Sea Plate subducting respectively in the west and in the east that what we have are not just a fault or two; we have a Philippine Fault System.  Those who want to see how near they live to the active faults in our country may visit the website of  the  Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology at, click on Projects, and then select Active Faults Mapping.  Do not be surprised if what you see resembles your grade schooler’s chart of the human circulatory system.

 With the faults come the probability, or more precisely, the likelihood of earthquakes happening, sooner or later. Metro Manila, undoubtedly the most populous area in the country, has cause for worry.   It has been damaged heavily at least 6 times in the last 400 years because in and around Metro Manila, numerous earthquake sources exist.  There is the Valley Fault System (formerly known as the Marikina Fault System), the Philippine Fault, Lubang Fault, Manila Trench and Casiguran Fault. Of these, the Valley Fault System, could cause the largest impact to Metro Manila. This fault ruptured twice to four times in the last 1400 years with a return period being approximately less than 500 years. Japanese experts say that since no event of a major earthquake has been known along West Valley Fault since the 16th Century, active phases of the Valley Faults may be approaching. Results of many researches indicate that the estimated magnitude will be around 7 or higher.

 The most rational approach in the face of this geological fact is, in my view, task identification and risk-sharing among the homeowners and private business, the government, and the insurance industry.  Consciousness of the risks ought to spur not only efforts at telling people what to do in case of earthquakes, but more important, what to do now in order to mitigate the impact of future earthquakes on one’s personal situation, on government’s capacity to respond, and on the private insurance industry’s readiness to provide the funding for a new beginning for the many who will be damaged.

 This means configuring the flow of social and business activities to areas and in spheres that are least vulnerable to earthquakes.  For instance, home buyers ought to be more discriminating in choosing where to locate their residences.  Not only in terms of the faults but in terms of the locale’s ability to react to common natural disasters.  Ideally,  residential subdivision developers should voluntarily (or if not, be compelled by local ordinances) to demonstrate to their prospective customers that they inputed in their site planning sufficient provisions for the hurried movement of people in times of disaster.  Appropriate earthquake risk driven specifications should also be written into the title restrictions.  Office buildings, on the other hand, ought to be made earthquake proof.

 A very significant part of nation-wide preparedness,to my mind, is the establishment of a national earthquake (or better still, natural calamity) insurance pool among the private insurance companies.  This needs government backing because the costs of establishing one are tremendous.

 The occurrence of 9/11 has made this need more urgent than before. Global reinsurers, in reaction to the financial costs of Osama Bin Ladin’s demonstration of American vulnerability, adopted much stricter underwriting standards.  This shrunk the available reinsurance capacity for disaster-prone areas in the Asian Region, particularly the Philippines.  The lucky ones who still could comply with the new requirements nevertheless have had to pay more for protection even as they grapple with reduced limits of coverage.  Help, in other words, from the global re-insurance market has become scarce and there is a need for the local insurers to look to themselves to cover the breach left by the retreat of the global reinsurers.

 But the establishment of a local pool requires a technical study of qualified international experts whose services the local insurer could hardly afford.  The Asian Development Bank (ADB), I understand, is willing to fund such a study, as it had funded the study and its implementation in Turkey.  An essential condition to ADB’s stepping up, however, is the endorsement of the proposal from Government of the Philippines.

 As early as 11 March 2003, a letter has been sent to the Department of Finance by insurance icon Reynaldo A. De Dios asking on behalf of the local insurers for a chance to make a presentation of their proposal.  The International Finance Group did not even respond.

Please, Secretary Gary Teves, give some time to the matter.  I know, as you had recently told me in a social, you are so busy (trying, I suppose, to generate funds to secure the tenure of your boss) that you do not even have time to meet with the rest of your official family beyond the revenue collectors.

 But, the tide and time wait for no man and earthquakes and other catastrophes do not follow any government official’s schedule.  All the local insurance companies are asking for at this time is for an appointment with you and your staff to present the concept and secure your nod.  The sound of weeping and gnashing of teeth of victims and their families may deafen your ears if you do not act, or, act too late.