Should we relocate the National Government and its agencies outside of Metro Manila to decongest the metropolis? Should we take note of the claim of the state-run Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA) that its New Clark City in Tarlac — about 100 kilometers outside of Metro Manila — is ready to become the new government center by 2030?
Last week Senator Sherwin T. Gatchalian filed Senate Bill No. 876 on moving the “permanent seat of government” to New Clark City in Tarlac in about 10 years’ time, “to relieve Metro Manila of its traffic and population congestion problems.” Such relocation has been done, he claims, in the United States, South Korea, Brazil, Kazakhstan, and Malaysia.
“[New Clark City] will be the country’s first smart, disaster-resilient and sustainable city that will have a mixed use of residential, commercial, agro-industrial, educational institutions, and information technology developments,” the senator says. Over 1,500 hectares of the 10,000-hectare development are being considered for a National Government Administrative Center (NGAC) that will co-locate government offices and attached agencies.
BCDA president and CEO Vince Dizon has said the proposed relocation “should be done in phases, but it needs to be started now.” It has been reported that among the first agencies to move to the area would the departments of Science and Technology, Justice, Environment and Natural Resources; the Office of Civil Defense; and, the Climate Change Commission.
To date, I believe the Department of Transportation is moving or has moved there. This is unsurprising considering that Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade used to head Clark Development Corp. in the previous administration. Meanwhile, the Department of Public Works and Highways is expected to follow there by next year, 2020.
Senator Gatchalian proposes that New Clark City, by 2030, host the Office of the President, Office of the Vice-President, and all central offices of national government agencies and government-owned and -controlled corporations. Why not the Senate and the House and the Supreme Court as well? Wouldn’t it make more sense that everybody’s there? Incidentally, wouldn’t such “centralization” also make it easier for terrorist attacks to paralyze the government?
To back his proposal, Senator Gatchalian cites a Japanese study done in 2014 that notes the economic losses from Metro Manila’s traffic and congestion. My issue is that I personally have not seen nor encountered a comprehensive study or plan that details the economic, social, and environmental impact of the proposed relocation of the government center to Capas, Tarlac. Neither have I heard nor encountered any risks and benefits assessment regarding the proposed move. In this line, I wonder what Senator Gatchalian used as direct scientific and empirical basis for making such a proposal?
If the good senator or his staff or his consultants have updated and reliable data that resulted from comprehensive research and study of the proposed relocation, then these should be shared and made public. We all need to see and understand why such a move will be beneficial to the entire country in the long-term.
My fear is that relocation will not necessarily result in decongestion because satellite offices will still have to be maintained in the metropolis. Moreover, people who deal with these agencies will not necessarily relocate to New Clark City, especially if their places of work or business are in Metro Manila. Even if the bureaucracy transfers, government workers will not necessarily uproot members of their families — especially children — and move them way from their present residences, schools, and places of work.
And the need for more transportation for those dealing with government agencies may just see more cars and buses going to and from Metro Manila and New Clark City. Many government workers will also be commuting to and from, particularly during weekends and holidays so they could be with their families in the metropolis.
My other issue is that New Clark City is just about 25 kilometers from the crater of the infamous Mount Pinatubo, an active volcano. Pinatubo’s volcanic eruption in 1991 — about 28 years ago — spewed ash as far as Metro Manila, over 90 kilometers away. It also devastated parts of Pampanga, Tarlac, Zambales, Nueva Ecija, as well as Angeles City.
The 1991 event is deemed the second-largest terrestrial eruption of the 20th century after the 1912 eruption of Novarupta in Alaska. Extensive destruction to Central Luzon resulted from pyroclastic surges, ash falls, and flooding lahars. Pinatubo was said to have ejected roughly 10 billion tons or 10 cubic kilometers of magma. It reportedly injected more particulate into the stratosphere than any eruption since Krakatoa in 1883.
Now, who is to say that Pinatubo will not erupt again 10, 20, or 30 years from now? Assuming the country’s government center, the seat of power, is moved to New Clark City, what will be the implication of a major Pinatubo eruption, then? Are we not putting too much at risk by knowingly moving our government center nearer (about 25 kilometers) — rather than away — from an active volcano known for its violent and destructive eruption?
Mount Asama in Japan, an active volcano with a history of eruption, is over 100 kilometers away from Tokyo. Mount Fuji is about 100 kilometers away, but it is considered a dormant or inactive volcano. Mount Kelud is about 90 kilometers away from Surabaya, the second-biggest city in Indonesia. As things are, destructive Pinatubo is far enough from the seat of power, Manila. Obviously, the mountain will not move nearer the metropolis. Why, then, move the metropolis nearer to the mountain?
And what about the so-called “Big One”? How damage-prone is Central Luzon to a major earthquake compared to Metro Manila? Just recently, on April 22, a 6.1 magnitude earthquake struck Luzon, leaving at least 18 dead, three missing, and injuring at least 256 others. Despite the fact that the epicenter was in Zambales, where Pinatubo is, most of the damage to infrastructure occurred in the neighboring province of Pampanga, which suffered damage to 29 buildings and structures.
Central Luzon, where New Clark City is, is one of the most seismically active areas in the country due to the presence of the Philippine fault, the Iba fault, East Zambales fault, and the Manila Trench. The destructive 1990 earthquake in Luzon had its epicenter somewhere in Nueva Ecija, in Central Luzon, and damage reached all the way to Pangasinan in the west, and Baguio City in the north.
Am I being alarmist? Maybe. But like I said, I need to see recent scientific studies that can prove there are more benefits to relocating the government to New Clark City than just decongesting Metro Manila. One can always claim that Pinatubo will not erupt again, or that a major earthquake in the area is unlikely. One can also claim that New Clark City will be better built than any other development in the country and can thus better cope with such disasters. But, should we bet our entire government such assumptions?
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council.