Am I the only one who doesn’t believe there’s a direct correlation between religion and geology? Because that seems to be the case.
After a devastating, magnitude 7.2 earthquake rocked the Central Visayas region this week the Filipino people, as always, turned to the most irrelevant angle of the story to scrutinize. Despite the fact that the earthquake is the strongest the country experienced in recent years, or that the death toll was likely to exceed 100 casualties, the focus was on the damage done to churches.
Apparently, these Filipinos find it intriguing why the earthquake destroyed what they perceived to be houses of God – saying that as if earthquakes could choose where and when they want to occur. Speculations were plenty from all religious groups: Christians were saying it was because of the declining religiosity of their adherents, Muslims were saying it was a testament that Christianity isn’t “the way” after all and atheists chimed in their usual rhetoric: ‘where’s your God now?’
It’s amusing, and slightly frustrating, how our society ties everything up with belief so quickly. Despite a sound knowledge of science, particularly about plate tectonics and geology earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons and the like are still somewhat linked to a person’s piety. Even people who negate the existence of any deity, the atheists, funnily jump the ‘god bandwagon’ as soon as pictures of pulverized churches emerged online almost like a religious person.
It is, on the other hand, annoying how people would even blame God for the destruction of the earthquake. There are two reasons why this is not the work of God: first, the Philippines is in the Pacific Ring of Fire and is therefore prone to earthquakes and second, the country has among the poorest safety measures for earthquakes in place. In other words, God or any supernatural entity did not have a hand in these disasters, they did not need to, it was bound to happen anyway.
Earthquakes are caused by tectonic plate movements underneath the Earth’s surface. Our planet consists of several of these plates which shift towards different directions. The ends of these plates, called plate boundaries converge with each other in an area called a fault line, literally grinding against each other. This area is where earthquakes usually come from. These plate boundaries however have rough edges and therefore there is a tendency for them to get stuck while movement. However, even if they do the plates continue their movement therefore the stuck-up in the fault line gradually stores energy. When the plates have moved far enough to overcome the jammed area, the stored energy is released as seismic waves which is similar to ripples in a pond when you throw a pebble in it. These waves, rattle the surface of the earth in what we call an earthquake.
These earthquakes can occur at any time, there is currently no available device which can warn us of an incoming earthquake. There is no technology whatsoever which can break jams in the fault line before it brews into a quake. The only measure we can employ against the risk of earthquakes is by preparing the surface for the damage it can do. This means using quality materials in any future buildings being built and even evaluating current structures for vulnerability – those with high risks of damage should be retrofitted or demolished.
This is exactly what happened with the collapsed churches in Bohol and Cebu. These were centuries-old structures made of primitive materials such as limestone, coral stones, bamboo and even egg whites. It will be absolutely surprising if those churches would survive an earthquake of that magnitude, regardless what percentage of the Philippine population flocked to church each week.
Let’s look back to our history, in 1990 a similar disaster hit Baguio City in the north albeit much worse. The 1990 Luzon Earthquake came unexpectedly, and at such a bad time as well with the country still recovering from a coup and two-decades of dictatorship. More than a thousand people died, along with 28 buildings and took down access to electricity, water and communication from the city. Being a mountain city, Baguio became isolated after all roads leading to it were blocked by debris from falling boulders of rocks.
Yet, no one blamed it on the supernatural. According to experts the fault (as in blame, not fault line) is on the poor urban planning and build of the city’s infrastructures. Several buildings had reports of cracks or collapsing ceilings even years before the killer quake, it was also revealed that substandard materials were used in constructing several of the collapsed structures and that most of them did not have a building permit from the city government. In addition, disaster response was poor which undoubtedly contributed to the death toll.
This should be where our focus lies, the proper strategy to mitigate the destruction of such earthquakes or natural disasters in general. I refuse to agree that the recent Bohol earthquake attested to any decline in religious participation, but rather it exposed flaws in our urban planning and disaster preparedness. Rather than being scared into attending service, Filipinos should rather be worried that the country ranks third in the world among those with the greatest risk to disasters. The two nations in front of us are underdeveloped Pacific states Tonga and Vanuatu, while we are ahead of Bangladesh and Brunei.
In 2004, the Japan International Cooperation Agency released a report to the Philippine government that should an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.6 hit the Metropolitan Manila consequences will be catastrophic. The findings forecast that 170,000 residential houses will collapse and a further 340,000 residential houses will be damaged. The death toll expected is at 34,000 with a further 114,000 people injured. Their research employed careful use of statistics, science and engineering to come up with the results.
The agency then urged the government to set regulations for building capacities, residential zoning and to mandate the integration of earthquake-resistant technology in construction. They also encouraged the government to plan resettlement zones in case of any damage and set aside emergency funds. This was in 2004, nine years have passed and the government have balked on their pledge to act on the report’s findings.
We turn to God when a disaster such as the recent Bohol earthquake strikes, yet we fail to see how little we are doing to help ourselves. It might be wrong to say that nothing supernatural is behind this tragedy, but if God was to play a hand in these events it would be to remind the Philippines of an even bigger devastation that will inevitably occur if nothing is being done to prepare for it. As the saying goes, ‘do your best and God will do the rest’ but if nothing is being done what right have we to invoke God? Maybe once we have implemented all the recommendations instructed by JICA and still be devastated by a calamity, then we can start pointing the finger at the Almighty. But for now, we cannot.