(This statement was submitted to be read at the Sept. 27 Senate hearings on land reclamation.)
WHAT can be done with these atrocities inflicted upon our coastal ecosystems? Can the Philippine Reclamation Authority (PRA) be trusted to do the right thing?
The General Manager of its Governing Board says PRA “… acts as the primary regulatory agency of the government to assess the technical, environmental, financial and socioeconomic merits of such projects.”
Scientists always evaluate the worth of any pronouncements according to the pertinent training and experience of the ones who make them. How have the members of this Board been prepared to make such assessments, to meet these heavy responsibilities? Never mind their names, which are easily available to the curious; what are their backgrounds?
PRA’s General Manager himself rose from Sports Editor and newscaster for Bombo Radyo in Iloilo in 1992 to Bombo Manager for Mindanao from 2005-2007. He got a law degree and practiced law in Davao from 2006 until named PRA General Manager in 2016.
PRA’s Board Chairperson is a former Acting Secretary of Justice who specializes in Public-Private Partnership law. His greatest claim to fame is placing first in an obstacle race in Taiwan for his 60s age-group. Other board members are a specialist in Maritime law, and a retired Lieutenant General.
The only board member with any scientific or technical expertise is a dermatologist. He is best known for founding SWORD (Sincere Warriors of Rodrigo Duterte) in 2016.
Clearly, the PRA is scientifically and technologically unprepared and can only rely on whatever the reclaimers tell them. But the reclaimers themselves don’t know what they are doing.
A video taken last August, “Sand Suction Operation Manila Bay Reclamation Project 08-06-2023” (youtube.com/watch?v=64lcUeqA1O8) shows that they are using sand dredged from the nearshore seabed. This would guarantee that liquefaction during the first major earthquake affecting reclaimed land would destroy structures built on it.
In 2004 the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) and the Metro Manila Development Authority reported that Metro Manila was overdue for a magnitude 7.2 earthquake at the West Marikina Valley Fault. For comparison, the Sept. 8 earthquake in Morocco that destroyed Marrakech and killed thousands was a 6.8. (On the magnitude scale, each next-higher number shakes the ground 10 times more strongly, and releases 32 times as much energy.)
The Big One hasn’t happened yet, so nine more years of earthquake energy have been stored in the fault, awaiting release.
Liquefaction? Quoting from my internet-accessible 2014 scientific report “On the geological hazards that threaten existing and proposed reclamations of Manila Bay”: “… All materials, natural or man-made, are made up of pieces of rock ranging in size from tiny particles of clay to large boulders, the spaces between them occupied by water. Under normal conditions, the solid particles are in contact, so that the lower ones bear the weight of other grains above them, as well as the weights of any buildings on top of them. During the minute or so that an earthquake lasts, however, the shaking breaks the contact between grains, the solids and water behave as a liquid without strength… Buildings sink into it or topple.”
Sand is especially susceptible to liquefaction. All the spaces between its tiny, hard grains cannot be compacted away, and so are filled with water.
YouTube videos illustrate liquefaction with models: youtube.com/watch?v=cSaatSdS4Sk; youtube.com/watch?v=UJuHGDmMt0U. Others show how areas have been affected: youtube.com/watch?v=j-hyOwsl_NY.
Even distant quakes can cause liquefaction. In 1968, a magnitude 7.3 earthquake in Casiguran, Quezon damaged buildings standing on sandy Pasig River deposits 225 kilometers away. The six-story Ruby Tower in Binondo collapsed, killing 260 people.
The great 1990 Magnitude-8 Luzon earthquake happened under Rizal, Nueva Ecija; 100 kilometers away, coastal Dagupan, Pangasinan suffered widespread liquefaction. Many structures built on sandy river deposits toppled, sank into the ground, or were too tilted to reoccupy.
Phivolcs has reported yet another Manila Bay earthquake hazard: tsunamis 32 feet or 10 meters high.
And climate change poses its own worsening threats. Increasingly frequent supertyphoons bring stronger and longer-lasting rains and flooding, winds, and exceptionally large storm waves riding atop higher and longer-lasting storm surges.
Anyone who plans to invest in reclaimed land needs to know that major US insurance companies now exclude natural disaster protections in coastal areas (Washington Post, Sept. 3, “Home insurers cut natural disasters from policies as climate risks grow”). Reclamations are by far the most vulnerable. Do you dare build something uninsurable?
Now that reclamations have been suspended, what can be done with these bare, ugly, sandy surfaces? Despite all the ecological damage and hazards, vested private and governmental interests may yet prevail to complete the projects, and there will be hell to pay. But right now, sand blown off them by strong winds are health hazards. The best solution is to cover them with grass, making them into parks and green spaces where city people can enjoy nature and our spectacular sunsets. Such amenities along Chicago’s lakeshore have greatly enhanced the attractiveness of the city, and are major, lucrative tourist attractions. Philippine population growth has greatly limited the availability of such spaces.
Whether we like it or not, a major research project has been thrust upon the Filipino marine-science community: monitoring how the aborted landfills, so mindlessly built, have upset all the natural balances of the entire Bay ecosystem, and how those disturbances might be mitigated. The knowledge gained, used worldwide, might be the only good to come out of this sorry affair.
The world-class Marine Science Institute at UP Diliman should be funded to supervise this effort for at least a decade. All too often, expertise unfamiliar with the Philippine setting is recruited and funded from abroad.
The US Embassy shares my anger that China Communications Construction Co. (CCCC) is a major participant in the Pasay Reclamation Development Project. CCCC is culpable in the vandalism that has transformed Spratley islets from ecological jewels into Chinese military outposts.
The US could help to fund the post-landfilling science. It could also support American scientists who MSI might wish to involve in this effort.
Kelvin S. Rodolfo is a professor emeritus of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois Chicago, and a senior research fellow at the Manila Observatory.