The Filipino curse of ‘puede na’
For about two weeks since the start of incessant rains over Luzon last month, Filipinos’ social media timelines have been replete with lament about the aggravation of getting to and from Metro Manila via the North Luzon Expressway (NLEx), a portion of which was overcome by flooding.
A two-hour drive to Subic Bay in Zambales turned into a five-hour journey for one, no thanks to vehicular traffic that had slowed to a crawl while negotiating floodwaters, while another experienced a 10-hour trek back to the capital from Tarlac. Yet another experienced a 10-hour road odyssey from Baguio City to Manila, a trip that takes only four hours under ideal conditions.
Yet, this was not a massive flood that shut down the entire 84-kilometer toll road, but waters no higher than 18 inches at its peak that covered just a little over 50 meters of the highway in San Simon, Pampanga. What should have been a small hiccup ended up nearly paralyzing travel and commerce between the metropolis and vital economic centers to the north for weeks.
The predicament could have been alleviated or prevented entirely by the presence of alternative routes but the decades-old MacArthur Highway, a narrower road that runs parallel to NLEx, was experiencing even deeper flooding and heavier traffic in several sections.
A cursory glance at the news of recent times reveals disturbingly that the problem—or perhaps more accurately, the mindset behind it—is all too common in the local setting. At its core, there is an alarming lack of redundancy measures in the Philippines to protect Filipinos from the troubles caused by the failure of systems we rely on, causing us anything from minor inconveniences all the way to paralysis of our daily lives.
Nowhere is this lack of resiliency more evident than in our physical infrastructure which inevitably break down every so often due to human neglect, incompetence, or natural calamities (the last being increasingly common of late).Given that many of our vital systems have no backups, policymakers should be alarmed that Metro Manila and its environs have only one key source of potable water: Angat Dam, which is over half a century old. A stopgap alternative called the Kaliwa Dam is being built (after decades of delays) but is not slated for completion until late 2026. If any disaster like an earthquake damages Angat, the taps of 14 million citizens will go dry in an instant, with no immediate relief available. But since there is no urgency for it apart from periodic water interruptions (that are becoming increasingly common) … “puede na” (That will do).
Then, take the case of our main aviation gateway, the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia). One can make a case for Clark International Airport as an alternative but, at 90 kilometers away from Metro Manila, most travelers still prefer Naia. And when mishaps occur at Naia, as they did several times recently, air travel into and out of the capital simply comes to a standstill: No alternative runways where large airliners can take off and land, backup power systems that fail to automatically kick in during power outages, no backup radars to aid air traffic control over Philippine airspace, no automation that eliminates the need for personnel to walk dangerously on the open tarmac during lightning storms. We simply make do with what we have and collectively shrug our shoulders. Puede na.
And, as every Filipino knows, especially during the summer months when electricity consumption surges, our country’s power reserves are razor-thin. When one power plant shuts down unexpectedly, the entire power grid trips and sends everyone into darkness. But we forget about the need for ample buffers once the lights come back on a few hours later because … puede na.
The list goes on and on, both at the national and local levels.
What the Marcos administration and the private sector need to do to ensure the lasting benefits of the so-called “Build Better More” infrastructure program is to do away with the “bare minimum” mindset and replace it with one that prioritizes quality, robustness, and resiliency, especially in this age of growing natural calamities.
Highways, airports, seaports, bridges, and school buildings all have to be built to specifications of high quality, strength, and redundancy to account for contingencies. At its core, infrastructure resiliency is a national security concern.
And, as pointed out by anti-corruption crusaders like former senator Panfilo Lacson and Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong, we need infrastructure that is not subject to the corrupt racket that lines the pockets of politicians and their private sector cohorts and which results in substandard projects that need frequent repairs.
The Filipino people deserve the best for their taxes; not projects that are simply puede na.