Friday, May 4, 2012

Building dams is not a sustainable option for the Mindanao power crisis

With the power crisis looming our heads, we immediately look at our water bodies for rescue. Dams have been romanticized by our leaders to be the cure of all our woes. However, is building dams for power generation a sustainable path towards power stability in Mindanao?

My assessment: It is not.I will give three reasons for my contention. Climate uncertainties, siltation and inappropriate land use, and social costs.

Climate uncertainties. We have witnessed in Luzon how difficult it is to manage dam operations given climatic extremes. Manila suffered from water crisis due to inadequate dam water levels at Angat. On the other extreme, dam releases were also blamed in floodings like that of Ondoy. Given that power generation is highly dependent on high water level, maintaining it at such is already a challenge. How sure are we that a dam along Pulangi can ensure a water level stable enough to generate power? Drought in the 1990s slowed down power generation for the Mindanao grid. Dams therefore is not reliable in terms of power generation. Given uncertain hydrometeorology, we will still expect power shortage in the future.

Siltation and inappropriate land use. Much of our lands in the heart of Mindanao (see previous article), has been devoted to agriculture. Our current agricultural practices are highly erosive. This means sediments were carried away from our farmlands towards our rivers. The challenge of dam management has been siltation. Dam's operational life has been shortened due to siltation. This has been a concern in the Magat Dam in Isabela. Magat's upper watersheds (Ifugao and Nueva Vizcaya) are slowly being populated, tilled, and deforested. In designing dams, hydrology and siltation have been factored in. However, uncontrolled land use change and the unpredictability of precipitation makes it a problem. We were told that our current hydroelectric power plants were below the design capacity due to siltation. Dredging and dam clean-up is expensive. If our current dams experience this problem, why are we going to build more dams just to be silted. As if we build something just to fail later. If only we have good management of our watersheds. Nueva VIzcaya and Ifugao (for Magat) are still sparsely forested compared to Bukidnon (for Pulangi). Since my childhood, I have always seen Pulangi river being turbid unlike that of Magat river where you still can see clear waters. If Magat suffers from siltation, it is not difficult to conclude that the worse is expected on the envisioned Pulangi Dam project. Dams with intact watershed is an excellent source of power. But in the case of Pulangi, it is otherwise.

Social costs. The proposed dam will flood a significant portion of Pres. Roxas and sadly part of it maybe the lands of my ancestors. One question lingers my mind. Why my people have to suffer again for the benefit of the majority? Is this part of the democratic assertion of majority rules? The moro insurgency and settlers' development aggression has pushed us up to the mountains. And even that last scratch of our lands has to be flooded to quench the thirst of energy and the excesses of the majority.