Man-eating manholes

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 June, 2004, 12:00am

Here are some things to keep in mind when the rainy season starts in Manila: flooding can cause colossal traffic jams, marooning you in your office. Infectious diseases can result from filthy rain water. Oh, and you could get sucked down to a hideous, gurgling death.

In most other cities of the world, manholes are presumably fairly innocuous. In Manila, they eat people. Many have no steel covers, so when it rains and the streets flood, they become invisible, ghastly traps for unwary pedestrians.

Victims have included students, office workers, and in at least one case, a city flood inspector. It is a fate you would not wish on your enemies (barring one or two corrupt politicians, perhaps).

If you think none of this can be true, you have not heard the story of how, from 1993 to 1997, one hole claimed 18 people before it was finally covered. Gaping manholes are considered such a threat that Quezon City, one of Metro Manila's 16 cities, recently started a crash programme, Operation Manhole, to seal all gaping maws.

At this point, I can guess what mystified readers are asking. How is it possible for a hole in the ground to pose such a murderous threat for so long? Simple. Manholes lose their covers to thieves, who sell them for scrap. They remain uncovered because city and public works officials are slow to respond. I can just picture a committee of engineers formed to decide whether a manhole cover should be square or round. Then, of course, they would put out tenders for the drawings.

It is not only manhole covers that are vanishing. Telecommunications companies complain that phone cables are being cut right off the posts by thieves who then sell the copper wires. Electricity meters are stolen from houses in a matter of minutes, to be sold in the provinces to electric co-operatives.

Commuters travelling along Manila's overpasses and flyovers will notice that many have missing guard rails. Entire swaths have vanished, appropriated by miscreants who simply drive up late at night with cutting equipment and help themselves to the large, heavy tubes.

With just the bannisters sticking out forlornly, the gap-toothed overpasses are glum symbols of Manila's urban decay. Even a bridge near the president's palace has part of its railing missing, replaced by ugly wooden slats. It is not so much the actual theft that is depressing, but the feeling of indifference and helplessness.

Plagued by environmental, management and other problems, Metro Manila has long needed a renewal. But how can you talk of renewing a metropolis which cannot even stop itself being slowly picked apart by human vultures?