February 6, 2023
MANILA – In the summer of 2019, Metro Manila residents experienced critically low supplies of potable water, and daily interruptions became the norm. Affected residents had to queue and wait for the arrival of fire trucks to have their daily supply. Besides the dwindling water level at the decades-old Angat Dam and Ipo Dam as well as the dangerously low reserve held by La Mesa Dam, the crisis was blamed on the delay in water infrastructure projects, particularly the Kaliwa Dam in Tanay, Rizal.
Last week, the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) announced that the P12.2-billion, Chinese-funded Kaliwa Dam can now be completed by 2026 and start operation the following year, adding the controversial project will “no longer be derailed” after spending eight years just to secure permits for its construction. The MWSS and the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) said they had obtained the free, prior, and informed consent of the 46 tribal communities to be affected by the project.
The project, however, is a little late in coming. Last month, the MWSS already warned of a possible supply shortage by 2024 due to population growth while new water sources will not be readily available by then, highlighting not the lack of planning, but the sense of urgency in seeing the projects push through. The so-called New Centennial Water Source Project (NCWSP), an integrated system involving the construction of the Laiban Dam at the Kaliwa River in Rizal province, and the smaller Kaliwa Dam in Quezon province, is an example of the sad state of the process involved in vital infrastructure undertakings. Conceived as early as the Marcos era in the 1970s, a detailed study and preliminary work on Laiban were conducted until President Corazon Aquino deferred the project in 1989 due to ballooning costs. Studies continued through the Ramos and Estrada regimes, and the succeeding Arroyo administration identified Laiban as an infrastructure project to be funded by a loan from China — a proposal that fell through after Chinese state loans were put on hold in the wake of the ZTE-National Broadband Network scandal in 2007.
In 2009, San Miguel Corp. submitted an unsolicited proposal to the government to construct the P52-billion Laiban Dam, but the project drew flak from various groups, prompting the MWSS to terminate it in March 2010. The project was revived in 2017 as one of the Duterte administration’s flagship water security projects, but only the Kaliwa Dam project was approved by the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda). In December 2021, the MWSS reported that the Kaliwa Dam project will push through after it signed a memorandum of agreement with the indigenous people of Rizal and Quezon. However, opposing groups alleged that the MWSS and the NCIP railroaded negotiations with communities whose land would be affected by the project, delaying the project anew. Even the MWSS announcement last week does not mean that opposition to the dam has completely gone away.
The MWSS still has to secure other permits needed for the project, including clearance from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources as parts of the dam project would pass through protected areas in the Sierra Madre.
This raises the question of why it takes too long for critical projects such as the Kaliwa Dam to get off the ground running, given the crucial need to secure water supply in Metro Manila and nearby provinces. The project is expected to provide 600 million liters a day to some 17 million residents in the metropolis and nearby provinces once completed. But just because Metro Manila is in dire need of water does not justify bringing irreversible damage to our remaining protected areas.
The lack of transparency has often been cited as a major factor for these tedious delays, causing many projects to attract opposition from stakeholders who feel the government was keeping them in the dark. This was obvious in the refusal of the Duterte administration to disclose the terms of the funding for the dam project, including the reported use of patrimonial assets as collateral for the Chinese loan.
The decades-long delay in implementation simply puts to the fore the need for the government to improve its procedures in obtaining permits for crucial projects, identify and eliminate redundancies and address valid concerns if it is to fast-track their implementation. Greater transparency must be a key component of the entire process.
For the Kaliwa Dam, it is also imperative for the government to ensure that it fulfills its promises to the indigenous residents to be adversely affected by the project. These include proper relocation, the payment of a P160-million one-time indemnity fee to communities in Rizal and Quezon provinces, and that they continue to receive their annual share from the first 25 years of the dam’s operations. Then perhaps trust in the government’s processes will improve and help speed up projects in the future.