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Planning for the "Big One"

High rise buildings in Manila. Expert warn of a possible massive earthquake
(Carmela Fonbuena/IRIN)

The Philippines government is preparing for a massive earthquake in the metro Manila area, but local authorities’ efforts need to be stepped up, experts say.

Home to more than 11.5 million people, metro Manila comprises 16 cities and one municipality.

It is estimated some 25 million people will live in the National Capital Region (NCR) - including the increasingly urbanized areas of Laguna, Cavite and Rizal provinces - by 2015.

“After the Chile earthquake, we called Metro Manila mayors to assess their readiness,” Glenn Rabonza, executive officer of the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC), told IRIN in Manila.

On 12 January, more than 220,000 people were killed and thousands more were injured when a 7.0 magnitude quake struck Haiti. On 27 February, an 8.8 magnitude quake - the seventh-largest ever recorded - killed hundreds more in Chile.

“We’re not ready,” Ishmael Narag, officer-in-charge of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS), said.

After what happened in Typhoon Ketsana, which inundated 80 percent of Manila on the island of Luzon on 26 September 2009, “we saw how slow local governments responded to the disaster”, Narag said.

Although a master plan for earthquake disaster management had been in place since 2004 – with more than 100 recommendations – local authorities had yet to give it the full priority it needed, he maintained.

Dangerous fault lines

From 2002 to 2004, experts sent by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) assisted the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) and PHIVOLCS in undertaking an impact reduction study.

Patrons outside a shopping centre line up for a taxi in Makati City, Manila

Carmela Fonbuena/IRIN
Patrons outside a shopping centre line up for a taxi in Makati City, Manila
Friday, March 19, 2010
Planning for the "Big One"...
Patrons outside a shopping centre line up for a taxi in Makati City, Manila

Photo: Carmela Fonbuena/IRIN
Patrons outside a shopping centre line up for a taxi in Makati City, part of Metro Manila

Metro Manila sits atop or close to at least four faults, including the Valley Fault System (VFS), the Philippine Fault, the Lubang Fault, and the Casiguranan. The VFS, previously known as the Marikina Fault, is considered one of the country’s most active.


According to the study, a rupture along the VFS could result in a 7.2 magnitude earthquake, which could kill up to 33,000 people and injure more than 100,000 if adequate preparations are not made.

Although the NDCC has long instructed local governments to strengthen building codes, prepare residents, and train people in earthquake response, Rabonza concedes it is still not happening as it should.

“It’s a question of how passionate or how committed they are… There have been relentless efforts after the study, but it’s still a work in progress,” he said.

A new building code was enacted to prepare Metro Manila, but Narag says implementation remains problematic.

“We have problems with residential houses. Most of them were not supervised by engineers. We’re not sure if they are following the minimum standards of the code,” he explained.

Worst is Marikina City in the northeastern part of Metro Manila. With a population of nearly 500,000, it would likely bear the brunt of a rupture along the VFS, according to Peter Galvez of the Department of National Defense.

“The VFS transects the city. The whole of Marikina’s flood plane is soft. It’s soft and it’s very near the fault,” noted Narag.  

Originally left as marshland, the area has witnessed rapid urbanization in recent decades.

Citing the history of the earthquake source’s recent activity, PHIVOLCS director Renato Solidum Jr. said the VFS was the most likely to become active soon.

The VFS tends to rupture every 500 years, he warned.


The last major earthquake to strike the Philippines was in July 1990 in Luzon. It had a magnitude of 7.8, killing 1,621 people, mostly in Central Luzon and the Cordillera Region.



This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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