Last week, I essayed the analysis that the nation’s ethical infrastructure, like our physical and political infrastructure, is sagging and crumbling, and that it urgently needs rebuilding (“Our new social cancer is ethical,” September 18).
Today, I turn my focus on the nation’s physical infrastructure – from highways and bridges, to airports and seaports, to energy plants and distribution facilities, to public transport systems and telecommunications, and the nation’s public school and public health systems – and their perplexing and perpetual state of insufficiency and disarray.
Why no dependable and safe infrastructure
I will ask the question on everyone’s mind – which is why, our nation of 100 million people, and our metropolitan capital of 12 million – is perennially rendered helpless by typhoons and flooding, and why there again looms on the horizon the prospect of crippling brownouts.
Why have the nation and the Aquino Administration failed so dismally to provide dependable and safe infrastructures – from highways and bridges to airports, energy plants and supplies, and modern transport and telecommunications? And why is the country so sluggish in the mitigation of natural disasters such as typhoons, floods and earthquakes?
Talking with civil engineers, top executives of property development companies, energy executives, and media colleagues and fellow columnists, I have reached one plausible explanation for why the Aquino Administration has failed so dismally to meet the infrastructure challenge.
Their collective answer is unanimous. Our physical infrastructure is crumbling and hopelessly inadequate for one simple reason – managerial incompetence.
The people appointed by President Aquino to take charge of ensuring the dependability, adequacy, and safety of national infrastructure lack the training and knowhow to meet their huge responsibilities.
Start with the man who sits on top of the nation’s public works and highway system – Secretary Rogelio Singson of the Department of Public works and Highways (DPWH).
Take as the next specimen the head of the Department of energy (DOE), Jericho Petilla, who has been excoriated no end for his lack of qualifications for the post (he is no civil engineer like previous occupants of the post; he is a graduate of the non-technical course of management engineering). His current claim to national attention is his controversial recommendation that President Aquino be endowed by Congress with emergency powers to solve a prospective energy shortage next year.
Take as a third specimen the head of the department of transportation and Communications (DOTC), Joseph Emilio Abaya, who has presided over the near collapse of the MRT system in Metro Manila, the total failure of the Land Transportation Regulatory Board (LTFRB), and shortcomings in every task of his department.
Finally, consider the management mess at the country’s premier international airport, the Ninoy Aquino International airport (NAIA), and the breakdown of the port system in Manila (subject of a special report yesterday in the Times).
The management failure runs the entire gamut of the country’s infrastructure system, but it is the DPWH that leads the way for feckless leadership.
Clueless man at DPWH
In a position graced by the country’s most distinguished civil engineers and builders, like David Consunji (now one of the nation’ richest billionaires), secretary Singson is curiously not a civil engineer. He has no idea how to construct a highway or a bridge.
In August 2012, while appearing at a hearing of the House committee on appropriations to discuss his Public Works budget, Singson disclosed the difficulty his department was facing due to unqualified engineers within its ranks.
Real Filipino civil engineers, however, say that Singson should have started by disqualifying himself, because he is not a licensed civil engineer. He is an industrial engineer, a different profession altogether.
When members of the Philippine Institute of Civil Engineers (PICE) discuss the massive infrastructure deficit of the country, they invariably point to Singson as a key part of the deficit. They say that Singson wouldn’t know how to correct the deficit even if given billions by President Aquino to work with.
When builders, economists and journalists ask who advised Aquino to axe in November 2010 the country’s most ambitious flood-control project, the finger points to Singson as the one who urged Aquino to kill it.
The venture was the Laguna Lake Rehabilitation Project, which, as part of its plan to save the lake, would have dredged it of 4.6 million cubic meters of silt and waste so it would contain more floodwaters. The project would have also involved the deepening of the critical 7-kilometer Napindan Channel in Taytay so that it could better and more quickly draw floodwaters away from the metropolis to the lake.
Costing P18.7 billion, the project was to be undertaken by the 150-year-old Belgian dredging firm Baagerwerken Decloedt En Zoon (BDZ) and financed by a loan from the BNP Paribas Fortis bank, with Brussels providing a P7-billion grant—its biggest development aid ever granted to the Philippines.
If he had not cancelled the project, it would already be completed by now. and Metro Manila would have been spared the disastrous flooding from Mario last week.
Why did Aquino cancel this major project? Because he wanted to brand it as a “midnight” corrupt deal of the Arroyo administration. And he wanted to put the money in his Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) and channel it elsewhere.
Last week, during his European visit, President Aquino had the temerity to ask the Belgians and other Europeans to invest in infrastructure projects in the country—despite his government’s gross inability to honor contracts and investment rules.
Realities must be faced
To rapidly upgrade the nation’s infrastructure, certain realities must be faced.
First, the nation needs to come up urgently with a comprehensive infrastructure development plan that will identify needs and requirements.
President Ferdinand Marcos came up with one during his first term, and especially after proclaiming Martial Law in 1972. The result remains for all to see—in structures and services that remain up to this day.
Second, the nation needs an effective approach to raising all the money needed for public investments, because the country by itself cannot foot the bill.
It is a fact that infrastructure projects are capital-intensive propositions. In the Philippines as elsewhere, financing both the construction and the operation and maintenance of infrastructure services and facilities directly from government coffers is difficult.
Third, the quantity and quality of Philippines infrastructure have generally failed to keep pace with the growing demands of our growing population, which is now over 100 million. In 2002, the Philippines ranked 47th out of 61 countries and territories in terms of infrastructure. In 2006, its ranking fell to the 56th place.
Infrastructure, infrastructure and infrastructure
To the question of what the country needs most today in order to develop more rapidly, and raise the standard of living of its millions, the answer is, “infrastucture, infrastructure, and infrastructure.”
With more and better infrastructure, the country will attract more foreign investments.
With more investments and more economic activity, there will be easily more than a million new jobs a year, maybe even two million.
The challenge of infrastructure development can be met by the Filipino people. But it must begin with a government that has the vision and can do the job.