Issue of August 16, 2009
Mt. Province
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Baguio: A disaster waiting to happen?

The first time he came up to Baguio on a bus from the Ilocos, Abe Belena, who edited this paper’s Ilocos edition for sometime in the middle half of the 1970s, was amazed at the sight that greeted him from Irisan upwards.

Kastoy gayam ti Baguio,” he told a friend afterwards. “Pati rangkis, pagbalayan da.” (So this is Baguio, even the steep slopes have houses in them).

Twenty-five years after, on vacation from his work in Manila, he was even more amazed to see houses mushrooming in the city’s seven hills, steep slopes including.

Sus mariosep, kasla metten kuton nen,” he reflected over beer. “Like ants they look now.”

To Ambassador Delia Albert who grew up in Happy Homes, the city has become unrecognizable from her youth. But on a trip to Lepanto, she was elated to see sights that reminded her of the Baguio in the 1960s, of a time when pine trees dotted the scenery, of a time when the air reeked of pine scent.

Is Baguio best remembered in the past?

* * * * * * * * * *

Old-timers said that of the calamities that were visiting the city of late, landslides were not on top of the list then. The one last time that is remembered most was the 1972 Aurora Hill landslide where several people were buried in the rubble.

Then there was the magnitude 7.8 earthquake of 1990 that triggered landslides along the main roads leading to the city.

But instances of landslides burying houses were rare.

That changed from the 1980s onwards as the city seemed to welcome the influx of migrants from all over with open arms. As the demand for housing space grew, the landslide-prone slopes were fair game.

Crags and rocky crevices best left to the spirits were not spared either. The trees were becoming thinner and scarcer. With a city that has one of the 10 highest daily rainfall records in the world and visited by at least 15 typhoons a year, landslides are par for the course.

In an article he wrote in 2000 for the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, the Baguio-born journalist Mike Leonen raised more points to ponder:

- Haphazard urban planning, lax rules and the sheer lack of political will here in Baguio have combined with the ever increasing migration of poor people from other areas to ensure that hazardous sites host thousands of residents. Such a situation guarantees that should any disaster strike, there would be a high casualty count.

- 14 of the city’s most thickly populated barangays are in areas most prone to earthquake damage and landslides magnifying Baguio’s risks.

- Sinkholes are quite common in Baguio City, which also has at least seven known faults and numerous areas vulnerable to landslides. Landslides could be triggered by an earthquake or continuous rainfall, which can also cause sinkholes to wreak havoc.

- The presence of the faults—cracks or gaps in geological plates, the sudden movement of which causes earthquakes—are most probably why the World Bank lists Baguio as among the top seven risk-prone cities in Asia.

- In Crystal Cave, the city government was reluctant to relocate some 50 endangered buildings threatened by 18 sinkholes, despite visible cracks in the periphery.

- European urban planners who inspected five buildings damaged during the 1990 earthquake, for instance, noted how improper site and construction practices in Baguio increase the risk of damages during natural calamities. These include the use of small, rounded river pebbles as aggregates, insertion of water pipes inside columns, situation of building near steep slopes and non-symmetrical building shapes due to site restrictions.

- With a land area of only 5,750 hectares, the city’s growth rate of 4.1 percent—twice the national average—has crammed people by 5,525 per sq km, according to the latest projection of the National Statistical Coordination Board.

- It is also Baguio’s apparent hospitality toward squatters, and the city’s history of accommodation, that have helped attract even more migrants to the city and made the occupation of even the most hazardous areas inevitable. The migrants kept on coming, and much of what has been left as reservations has been overrun by squatters.

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