Infrastructure maintenance matters too

Edwin Santiago, Executive Director of the Stratbase ADR Institute

There is so much attention and discussion on the “Build, Build, Build” program of the Duterte administration. On one side, you have his drumbeaters extolling this administration’s infrastructure spending, presenting numbers that show that the country never had it this good. On the other hand, critics are zeroing in on how this program has given China an inroad into our socio-economic affairs through the loans to fund these projects, not to mention the extended welcome to the labor market our government has given to their citizens.

Over the past so many years, there seems to be a global fascination with lists and rankings. Whether or not these are scientifically done is another exchange altogether. But at the very least they should alert us about something. If the country finds itself in a positive position, then such an auspicious spot deserves attention, not only for us to maintain that prestige or improve on it, but perhaps to draw inspiration from it. An example of this would be the Philippines being ranked eighth in 2018 among 149 countries in achieving gender equality in the Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum, earning the distinction of being the most gender-equal country in Asia.

Sadly, though, the lists where the Philippines is seen positively are significantly outnumbered by lists with disparaging implications on the country. And that, to my mind, requires more attention and careful evaluation. A few days ago, the Global Finance magazine released its study placing the Philippines as the most unsafe country in the Philippines, in terms of war, crime rates, and the risk posed by natural disasters. Whereas war and crime rates are controllable, natural disaster risks are a function of geography. Nonetheless, the report is important as it provides our policy makers a different and unbiased perspective. Potential foreign investors looking at this report would most likely entertain other country options. Team Philippines should know how to counteract that tendency.

A more prominent list is the Global Competitiveness Index of the World Economic Forum, where the Philippines lags behind its ASEAN neighbors in terms of infrastructure quality. The Philippines has the distinction of being the lowest among ASEAN countries in the report in terms of the quality of overall infrastructure, ranking 113 out of 137 for 2017-2018. Even worse is the fall in the rankings from being ranked 98 out of 133 in 2009-2010.

Compared to our ASEAN neighbors, we are ranked last in terms of quality of roads and quality of air transport infrastructure. We are ranked second to the last in terms of (1) quality of road infrastructure, beating Cambodia, (2) quality of port infrastructure, beating Lao PDR, (3) quality of electricity supply, beating Cambodia, (4) mobile-cellular telephone subscriptions, beating Lao PDR, and (5) fixed telephone lines, beating Cambodia. The only category where the Philippines is not ranked last or second to the last is in available airline seat kilometers (millions/week). In this category, we beat Vietnam, Cambodia, Brunei and Lao PDR.

Interestingly, while official data reveal that transportation has accounted for more than half of the infrastructure spending at 52% for the years 2006 to 2010 and at 58% for the period 2011 to 2016, the country still lags in this category compared to the other ASEAN countries.

It is not only the quantity of infrastructure that is the problem. It is also the quality. But when we talk of quality of infrastructure, we should pay equal attention to the quality of new and existing infrastructure.

Obviously, for new infrastructure, the order of the day should not be infrastructure for infrastructure’s sake. Projects need to be chosen and prioritized based on real and urgent needs. Risk-benefit analysis, vetted by independent experts, should ideally be integrated into the selection and decision processes. The government has ostensibly taken a serious look at our infrastructure program, even identifying the main challenges. These include (1) the lack of planning that would impact on the absorptive capacity of the implementing agencies, (2) right-of-way and just compensation issues, (3) physical impediments such as lines for electricity, telecommunications, natural gas and water distribution; (4) existence of formal settlers; (5) social acceptance of some infrastructure initiatives; and (6) the slow progress in obtaining permits from government agencies.

But what about the state of existing infrastructure? Has routine maintenance been identified as a priority? This is the other dimension in the infrastructure story.

Some of our infrastructure are aging and maybe even crumbling. The government may be so focused on construction, that they may have relegated — or forgotten, in some instances — maintenance and rehabilitation of existing infrastructure to a very low priority.

For instance, a lot of our dams have been in operation for at least 50 years, some even longer. In 2017, the National Irrigation Authority proposed an inspection on the structural integrity of all dams, only after the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology sounded the alarm on the “Big One.” This proposal sounds reassuring at that point, but it clearly implies — and confirms what the public has suspected all along — that the government is not heavily invested in regular infrastructure maintenance. Just look at the condition of public facilities, such as the LRT and MRT, that have reached a sorry state, after years of neglect and corruption.

And while there are talks about maintenance, they are usually a little more than a fleeting squeak from safety organizations, and whenever accidents have already happened. And the primary reason for this is the fact that talking about routine maintenance is not sexy. In the absence of grand ribbon-cutting ceremonies, just fixing things carries no political appeal.

This lack of a culture of maintenance deepens our infrastructure gap. Building new infrastructure is generally good to enable us to respond to the requirements of the economy. But without any routine maintenance and even rehabilitation at some point, these facilities will deteriorate with the passage of time, rendering them eventually unusable or, worse, lethal as when bad infrastructure leads to accidents. We have to remember that it is when a huge infrastructure gap exists that we need to devote more attention to preserving whatever little we have. Otherwise, we may just as well be playing a zero-sum game — one step forward, one step back.



This article was originally published in BusinessWorld.

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