The terror lurking beneath our feet

Orly Mercado

Posted on November 1, 2007

It is safe to presume that not a few government officials may have breathed a sigh of relief, after it had been determined that the blast last month in a shopping mall in Makati, the Philippines’ premier business district, was not caused by a bomb. Reports say that Australian forensic experts have concluded that sewer gas fumes, and not an improvised explosive device, killed eleven and wounded more than a hundred people.

Some may wonder why the Australians are involved in the investigation. Aside from sharing technical expertise, they give credibility to the report that would otherwise be met with controversy. This is the burden of weak and highly politicized institutions like the police and the military.

But the report is small comfort to the families of the victims. While they may well seek compensation for negligence that could have led to this accident, given how long that could take, they could be in for more suffering.

In a way, the conclusion of the forensic report discounting a terrorist attack also raises new fears. Most Filipinos have come to terms with the threat of terrorism. We are no strangers to bombings. Being frisked in shopping mall entrances is no big deal for us.

But gas fumes in sewerage tanks beneath our feet are as scary as you can get. Terrorism is a threat we have come to know. The unknown beneath our feet, in malls that have long replaced our parks as our refuge from the stresses of our humdrum existence, is a real horror story. This explosion is not a risk we have considered. Only now will this hazard cause an outrage. Sadly, it may not last long.

We have seen the outrage during natural and man-made disasters. We know that the shelf life of the issue of disaster risk reduction is short. There will be a lot of talk, about who is to blame, now that the report has been made public. After that, as media attention focuses on the next controversy, aided by a lack of culture of preventive maintenance, beneath some ill maintained basement a new bomb starts ticking. We have not managed the risks that are above ground. How can we expect to reduce the risks lurking beneath our feet?

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