Building Philippines disaster resilience, one mall at a time

ShutterstockTimothy Medrano2009
September 2009 in the Philippines: Typhoon Ondoy left hundreds of thousand families displaced and killed hundreds of people.

Last week our islands once again were battered by another significant storm, although thanks to greater preparation and mobilization the loss of life seems to have been minimal compared to that caused by last year’s Typhoon Yolanda (internationally known as Haiyan). Stark images of death and destruction haunted millions who witnessed its aftermath.

For me the past year has been hectic, not only because of an accelerated expansion plan for our group but, more important, because much of our time and effort have been redirected to rehabilitate areas in the Visayas region ravaged by Yolanda. Based on early reports, I am certain we and other organizations once again will be needed to come to the aid of our fellow countrymen affected by Typhoon Ruby (Hagupit).

These storms are a painful reminder of how vulnerable we are to strong typhoons, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions as the Philippines sits within the Pacific ring of fire. As a nation, we are conditioned to face our fears and to cope with whatever nature brings.

The head of the United Nations Disaster Reduction Office, Margaret Wahlström, recently warned that heavy rains in the Philippines may be a further indication of the “new normal” that the world will have to deal with if we don’t speed up curbs on global warming. I agree and her call to action couldn’t be clearer.

When Wahlström, in Manila last month for the UNISDR Disaster Risk Reduction event, invited me to represent the Philippines in the UNISDR’s Private Sector Advisory Group, I believed that taking on the role would give me the moral authority to effect change and further deepen my understanding of how our world is changing. That eye-opening experience continues to define how we now plan and execute our infrastructure projects.

Huge savings

The science is compelling and the economics clear. Sustainable infrastructure makes business sense because it results in huge savings and reduces carbon emissions. More important, it helps save lives and livelihood, and builds goodwill.

When I started out as an mechanical engineer, I never thought how useful and meaningful a profession it could be. That was several decades years ago. In this day and age, my commitment to finding solutions to adapt to climate change is firmer than ever. As one of the leading forces in a large organization that has within its means the ability to make a difference and set an example, I see it as my duty to do everything in my power to ensure that those living on the frontlines of climate change and destructive weather patterns can do so securely and without fear.

I started to learn these lessons early when, in the 1980s, I was thrust into a rehabilitation project after one of our department stores was gutted by fire at a time when structures were barely equipped to cope with such disasters. I was given the daunting task to rebuild and rehabilitate our store within six months. It was one of the hardest things I had to do. It also got me thinking about implementing features such as sprinkler systems and other fire prevention improvements and initiatives.

In the 1990s flood from a strong typhoon affected one of our older malls, which had a basement for parking and some stores. That taught me to recognize that the Philippines, as a flood-prone area, was not ideally suited for basements below sea level. All of our structures now have false basements and above ground parking, a strategy that has saved us millions. Moreover, when floods do happen, our parking buildings have become refuge centers for affected families.

Support communities

I have taken a more proactive stance and determination to carve out a longer-term future in building disaster resilient structures ever since. Using a mix of modern technology and the available talent and resources in the Philippines, I brought it upon myself to pre-empt the onset of disaster and better prepare so that we can go beyond merely protecting our businesses. We also can help communities during and after disasters.

Disaster resilience has helped us toughen our buildings and infrastructure, endure strong typhoons and save lives and livelihoods. I can think of countless examples of how we have survived floods, storm surges and earthquakes simply by being prepared. Our mall in Marikina twice has withstood floods that ravaged many parts of the city, while the Mall of Asia Complex avoided damage from a huge monsoon surge — an event that left the remaining coastal areas of Manila and Cavite, including the U.S. embassy, inundated not just by floodwater, but also by tons of floating garbage.

Investing in sustainable infrastructure has paid for itself sooner than I had imagined with changing weather patterns, stronger typhoons and more unpredictable earth dynamics growing frequency. The thought of sparing us the expense of rebuilding and rehabilitating is rewarding enough, but even more satisfying is being in a position to help our own people when they need us most.

Environmental commitment

To complement disaster resilience, we also give back to the environment by greening our projects. This requires a high degree of commitment, research and experience as we need to choose the best technology and features for each structure. This is especially important as responsible businesses pivot towards global best practices at the design and construction stage.

Over the years, we have substantially reduced energy consumption by designing our projects to be more efficient through the use of the sun for lighting and energy, and regulating air-conditioning systems. Water recycling facilities allow us to redistribute millions of cubic meters of water for cooling towers, restrooms, irrigation and grounds keeping. Meanwhile, our 25,000 employees have planted a million trees all over the country, among countless other initiatives they undertake to achieve greater environmental sustainability.

Knowing what I know now from years of practicing sustainable infrastructure, I can say with confidence that its long-term benefits to business and people far outweigh the costs and provide a level of satisfaction that I could not have known possible when I embarked on this journey so many years ago.