Engineers who play god

At around this time last year, private contractors hired by the government were rushing the construction of the 2 billion-peso FVR megadike in Pampanga.  There was a passionate debate between scientists and government engineers on whether this was the best way of dealing with the persistent threat of lahar to people’s lives and property.  The debate on the efficacy of engineering interventions remains unresolved to this day.

Despite its enormous cost, a megadike has always been the most politically satisfying option.  For it is difficult for any politician to propose a solution that is premised on allowing Nature to simply take its course.  Alternatives like resettlement and the building of new towns away from the path of lahar seem so callous when viewed from the perspective of old settled communities.

But any dike is only as good as its weakest point.  Scientists like Kelvin Rodolfo were not surprised when the megadike was breached by the first lahar flow in August last year. The lahar did not have to challenge the entire structure.  It only needed to scour the earth on which its most vulnerable foundation stood to begin its insidious erosion.  Luckily, the rains did not persist, and the lahar flows were mild the rest of the year.

No one knows yet the principal cause of the dike’s failure.

Government engineers say the private contractors took short-cuts and built a defective dike.  The contractors say they followed the specifications, but should not be blamed for a defective design.  The first public accounts by government actually blamed the breach on Nature – as if Nature was compelled to abide by the calculations of humans.

Repairs on the megadike are being rushed to prevent a repeat of last year’s embarrassing failure.  On both ends of this transverse dike, however, fearful residents of San Fernando on the east and of Guagua on the west are watching how the repairs are being done. Last year, the lahar broke through the eastern side of the dike and flowed towards the capital town of San Fernando.   Which direction it will take this year has been left to God and the influence that patron saints can command.

It is natural in a situation like this for people to watch out militantly for signs that some engineers who play god may be planning to sacrifice their community in order to save another.  People of Bacolor  believe this is what was done to their hapless town – transform it into a catchment basin.  It is what the people of Guagua today fear is being done to theirs.

Last March 3, heavy equipment like backhoes and bulldozers began to tear down spillway #1 on the Bacolor-Guagua side of the transverse dike.  Unlike the San Fernando side, this portion of the dike withstood last year’s lahar season.  Alerted residents wondered why a visibly useful structure, built at enormous expense, was being destroyed. Were corrupt contractors doing something sneaky again?  Or was their town being secretly prepared as a pathway for the next lahar flow?  They called their mayor.

Guagua’s 3-term Mayor Manuel Santiago is a soft-spoken Ateneo law graduate, who started his law practice under the tutelage of the venerable Senator Lorenzo Tanada.  Responding to his townmates’ alarm, he went to see the engineers in charge of the demolition to ask what they were doing and if they had any documents authorizing them to destroy a public facility.  They had none, but they promised to fetch these from their office.  No document was produced.

The following day, March 4, Mayor Santiago sent a representative to follow-up the request for official documents at the Mt. Pinatubo Rehabilitation Project Management Office (MPR-PMO) and the office of the private contractor.  He, too, was given the run-around.  On March 5, the demolition work was resumed.  Irate Guagua residents, led by their Mayor, trooped to the site and ordered the private contractor’s engineer and operators to stop work.  When again they could not produce any official paper authorizing what they were doing, the mayor ordered them arrested.  In less than half an hour, the PNP Provincial Commander ordered them released to his custody.

Sensing a replication of the tension that gripped Porac last year over the same issue, Gov. Lito Lapid called a meeting on March 6 with DPWH Asst. Secretary Manuel Bonoan, Mayor Santiago, Rep. Zenaida Ducut, and the private contractor.  Again, the MPR-PMO engineers could not show any documents describing what their plans were for the western side of the transverse dike.  Instead, Asec. Bonoan explained that the spillway is being rebuilt at a lower height equivalent to the height of spillway #3 on the San Fernando side. What exactly this means for the capacity of Guagua to protect itself against this year’s lahar remains a subject of speculation for its residents.  This early, lahar fills their nightmares.

Work on spillway #1 has continued unabated.  Soldiers have been deployed to guard the private contractor who, having torn down an existing structure, is now merrily putting up another. Mayor Santiago has been warned that he and his constituents face immediate arrest if they dare interfere again in an ongoing national project.  So much for popular consultation and transparency. You can be shot for straying into this area without a pass.


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