Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Broken English, broken buildings

IT was a perfect killer quake. Just when people thought the danger lies up ahead at grumbling Mount Merapi, the quake suddenly came like a thief in the night, claiming the lives of 5,400 people, and still counting. It happened in Indonesia; it could happen in the Philippines. The question now is—is the Philippines ready?

The Philippines practically suffers a quake each day, almost all of them harmless temblors. The website of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs), however, lists about a dozen destructive earthquakes since the 60s. Among the most prominent of these were the magnitude 7.3 quake in Manila that destroyed Ruby Tower and killed 200 in 1968; as well as the 7.9 Moro Gulf quake that unleashed tsunamis and killed more than 6,000 people. In 1990 another killer quake leveled the summer capital of Baguio City and toppled a school in Cabanatuan City. Is the Philippines ready for another for another big temblor like these ones?

Supposedly, local government units have their disaster coordinating councils tasked to prepare for these disasters and mitigate their impact should they arise. But the recent list of buildings that are considered highly at risk from earthquakes are no cause for comfort. The list indicates that 99 percent of those in the list are school buildings, specifically public school buildings. The list covers Metro Manila, only; we could assume that the situation could be as worse in other densely populated cities outside the National Capital Region. Should another Magnitude 7 temblor—God forbid—occur, school children, most of them sons and daughters of poor families, are the ones that are likely to be affected.

Certainly, addressing natural disasters means that the county should improve its capability for disaster preparedness, mitigation, relief and rehabilitation. The government should also review the country’s building code to determine its relevance to account for changes in urban land use and development. The local government units should play an important role in this process as they are mandated to do comprehensive land use and development planning. But given the situation in the country’s public school system, its rickety buildings and structures, it might be necessary for the government to look at the country’s budget for education from the view of disaster mitigation. This is important considering that the Senate is currently deliberating the 2006 budget.

In its present form, the proposed budget allocates only P5.86 billion for basic educational resources, such as classrooms, teachers, seats, and textbooks. Senator Mar Roxas has noted that this amount is inadequate to close the gaps of 41,197 in classrooms, 10,517 in teachers, 1.5 million in desks, and 41.32 million in textbooks—gaps which DepEd estimates would need P22.88 billion more to complete. Meaning, what is proposed in the budget is just a little over a fourth of what’s needed.

Lately, Sen. Mar Roxas has pushed for the realigning of P9.18 billion from the slashed items to increase the budget of the Department of Education (DepEd), insisting that education and human resource development should take precedence over other State priorities. He said the additional P9.18 billion should go to basic educational resources, teacher training and private school subsidy. The senators would be doing a signal public service, and prove critics wrong that they are an overpaid, useless bunch, by heeding the realignment proposal. It would serve justice if they would also provide specific amounts necessary to refurbish those rickety school buildings.

This is the least that the government could do. If the country’s school system is so challenged fiscally and manpower-wise it cannot teach children proper English—or guarantee basic proficiency needed for today’s jobs, at least the schools should ensure they are not maimed, bruised or killed should another perfect killer quake—heaven’s forbid—happen.

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