Big-ticket infrastructure projects are fine, but not if they destroy the environment
Tribal people join a demonstration in Manila to show their opposition to the proposed building of a dam in their ancestral lands. (Photo by Jire Carreon)
What's wrong with a Philippine government project to build a new dam seeking to provide for the future water needs of millions of residents of the capital Manila and outlying provinces?
This is the US$226.4-million New Centennial Water Source-Kaliwa Dam Project, which has been in the pipeline for three decades now.
To be built in the province of Quezon, the dam is expected to be completed by 2023 if started soon enough. It is supposed to complement an existing dam that currently supplies 96 percent of the water needs of the capital and nearby provinces.
The Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) noted that the Kaliwa Dam will add 34 million liters of water daily to these areas. It is supposed to address the possible water shortage that Metro Manila and surrounding areas might experience in the coming years due to the anticipated increase in urban population.
The project is already "a done deal," according to the water agency, with a loan from the Chinese government to fund dam construction.
The project, however, faces vigorous opposition from Catholic Church leaders and environmental groups.
In July, 51 Catholic bishops and four priests signified their support for a pastoral letter signed by Bishop Bernardino Cortez of Infanta titled "No to Kaliwa Dam, Yes to Alternative Sources of Water."
The pastoral letter acknowledged that while the dam project could mean adequate water supply water for people in Metro Manila, it is a cause for concern for the inhabitants of the areas where the dam will be built.
Those opposing the building of the dam cited a number of reasons why the government should take a second look at the project.
One, it would inundate the ancestral domain of the Dumagat-Remontados tribal people and uproot them from the Sierra Madre mountains where they lived since time immemorial. Besides, the indigenous people have not given their free, prior and informed consent to the project as required by law.
Second, the proposed dam will be constructed over the Infanta Fault and will endanger some 100,000 people who live downstream of Kaliwa River.
While the water utility agency MWSS claimed that the dam could withstand an eight-magnitude earthquake, critics have warned that in 2004, a flash flood in the area left 1,000 people dead and millions worth of properties destroyed.
With climate change and erratic weather patterns already here, can the dam withstand the torrential rainfall unleashed by typhoons spawned in the Pacific Ocean every year?
The bishops suggested that the government scrap the proposed dam project in favor of concrete alternatives.
Among these are water management to reduce water consumption and waste, rainwater harvesting, rehabilitation of a river basin around Manila, adoption of the Singapore New Water technology on the treatment of wastewater, and most important, expansion of the dwindling forests that serve as watersheds that could refill the underground aquifers.
The bishop's pastoral letter is supported by various pro-environment and tribal groups that all slam the proposed project.
Aside from the fear that the proposed dam would inundate nearly 300 hectares of forest land out of the 9,800 hectares in the Infanta-Kaliwa watershed, environmental groups warned that the costly dam project funded by loans from China could be a "debt trap."
Loans from China usually carry an interest rate of between two and three percent as compared to less than one percent in the case of loans from Japan.
Critics warned that the Philippine government might fail to pay its debt obligations on time given its ambitious infrastructure development program costing no less than US$171 billion until 2022.
Big-ticket infrastructure projects aimed at boosting economic development are fine, but not if they destroy the environment, displace many people from their homes, and pose a big burden to taxpayers.
Ernesto M. Hilario writes on political and social justice issues for various publications in the Philippines.
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