Friday, February 26, 2010

Well, I'll be DAM-ed!

This early in the year another crisis looms its head, the water crisis. The El Niño phenomenon came too early for summer and the Philippines is again caught dumbfounded.

The government agencies did little to assuage public fears of a consequent power crisis because of El Niño. Almost all dams that generate hydroelectric power have fallen into near critical, if not critical, levels. Thus, Alex Magno’s article in The Philippine Star last February 18 “Parched” and this is my unsolicited reaction to it.

Magno started the article by calling the people who ask for San Roque Dam’s decommissioning as idiots. What a fine way to start an article! Firstly, here in the Philippines, I do not know of any big dams that were urged to be decommissioned save for San Roque Dam, for entirely valid reasons. Civic groups and local officials from the Cordillera and Pangasinan have clearly stated why they want the San Roque Dam decommissioned. For one, it should be held accountable for the flood in Pangasinan that submerged whole towns for many days. For another, it is situated near a faultline that makes it vulnerable to structural damages leading to eventual bursting, which history has already witnessed in Idaho and Pennsylvania, both in the US.

Magno seems to hold these people fighting for just compensation, for their very lives, at fault why we have less rain today. It is not these people’s fault that a global weather phenomen that is El Nino has made itself felt this early in the year.
Magno further said that when the floods came last year, “oppurtunist voices…blamed the calamities on the dams.” Of course we blame the dams more than the heavens for we virtually have no control on the latter whereas on the former, these were entirely man-made. In the case of San Roque Dam, people from Benguet and Pangasinan have raised their voices against its construction precisely because of the worse flooding it can cause.

True, we have invested billions in dams. But they are not entirely OUR economic capital as most are built and run by private firms. In San Roque Dam, we are already flushing “massive investments…down the drain” because this supposed 354 MW dam only produces 85 MW. The dam is heavily silted not only by natural minerals from the mountains, but also the mine tailings from Benguet, which diminishes its capacity to store water and this generate electricity.

There has never been a debate that the dam needed to be drained and that “costs and benefits need to be precisely weighed. But in the case of this particular dam Magno is referring to, the San Roque Dam, the water was drained too late and too fast, and the benefits to be gained by the management far outweighed the cost of such a move to the people downstream.

How silly it is for Magno to look at a “larger view” and say that the flood that inundated Pangasinan is good after all, since we are having a drought today. To look at things with a larger view means to consiously consider how factors would affect something in the future, near or far. I doubt if the management running San Roque that time was foreseeing a drought in the first half of 2010 and consequently decided that flooding Pangasinan is a small cost to pay since we will be having a drought anyway. The more palpable reason they waited to fill the dam to bursting is the profit they would rake in.

Magno is mistaken that no one anywhere ever scuttled a dam. Since a 100 years ago, people have been opposing constructions of large dams, like San Roque Dam. The reasons are mainly environmental and social. Studies have shown that large dams adversely affect the riverine ecosystem. More importantly, people, most likely, the national minorities, are displaced from their homes.
Abroad, people from Great Britain protested over Lake Thirlmere Dam. In the US, an underperforming dam was decommissioned in 1999 when the cost clearly out weighed the benefit.Locally, the Kalinga tribe successfully opposed the construction of Chico Dam in the late 1970’s to early 1980’s.

These oppositions are not because these people are adverse to development. That these people would not like to have their farms irrigated and homes lit by electricity. These oppositions to dams, specifically large-scale dams, are borne out of “precisely weighing”, as Magno said, the cost and the benefit of such dams. It so happened that people think that the benefit is not equal to its cost, and that, in the final tallying, they are at the losing end.

I do agree with Magno on one point, that we need to explore more the option of renewable energy sources. Dams, per se, are not bad, although they do come with the usual caveat emptor clause. Dams can provide the freshwater and electrical needs of a growing population, PROVIDED that these are run efficiently and conscientiously. Meaning the welfare of the people is first and foremost on the list of priorities, listed way above the profits the dam can make.

Lastly, building dams will not be enough to mollify the effects of climate change which more concretly translates into harsher El Niño and La Niña phenomena. Climate change is the effect of in irresponsible global mode of production that puts profit above the environment and society. Climate Change can only be controlled to a conscious effort to address the root of its problem.

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