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Light for Mindanao

Publication Date : 16-04-2012

 

"It is not as if the power crisis came to Mindanao all of a sudden,” says fellow columnist Neal H. Cruz. Indeed, one is amazed at the recurrence of power shortages in Mindanao. Every other year or so, government goes through the motions of addressing the same problem.

Last Friday’s much-hyped Mindanao Power Summit in Davao City turned out to be an act no different.

It is not as if there are no doable solutions in sight. Insiders in the power industry sector understand the situation very well and know what needs to be done. What is needed is the unequivocal attention of Manila bureaucrats.

We all have heard of the so-called Manila imperialism. The current power crisis in Mindanao is the result of that.

The Epira (Electric Power Industry Reform Act), for instance, enacted in 2001 to boost private sector investments in the energy industry, was itself crafted without Mindanao in mind. Instead, it exempted Mindanao from privatisation.

Not that privatisation is the only answer. In fact, there is no need to privatise Mindanao’s hydroelectric plants. But where the Visayas and Luzon enjoyed a boost of energy investments from the incentives the Epira Law offered, Mindanao did not. Take it from there. Even a layman will easily understand the problem.

President Benigno Aquino III provided two choices: endure the brownouts or be prepared to pay more for electricity. The picture is incomplete. For example, the problem besetting Mindanao’s hydroelectric facilities in Lanao’s Agus River and Bukidnon’s Pulangui River is siltation. Dams are heavily silted, so the turbines cannot function at full capacity.

That is like saying that siltation is a new problem. But siltation has been there before we were born. It is part of the natural cycle. When these dams were built, mitigating the siltation should have been made part of the package. All it takes is for the proper agency to do its job.

As it is now, desilting is only discussed when power outages recur. Now the Pulangui plant has to be shut down for a month, and Agus for four months for the desilting, clearly not a pro-active solution.

Two years ago, the National Museum of the Philippines invited me to sit in a panel to evaluate the request of some Manobo groups of Bukidnon. The request was simple but needed expert verification.

Lands ancestral to the Manobos in southern Bukidnon, in the vicinity of Damulog town, would be inundated by the planned expansion of the Pulangui hydroelectric facility. In order for the plant to generate more electricity, a new dam and lake had to be created.

But going under water will be a piece of land in one of the river’s bends that Manobos had long considered sacred. If government was willing to sacrifice the cultural interests of Bukidnon’s ancient peoples, then something must be wrong with its concept of sustainability to begin with.

I thus looked into what I had thought was the root of the problem.

There, in bold print, it stared me in the face. It said a Pulangui 5 dam had to be built because the existing turbines then could no longer generate electricity at full capacity because of siltation. And so to achieve full capacity, another dam had to be built. I was pretty certain that in the future, when the new dam shall have become silted, another new dam will be built again to “solve” the problem of siltation; soon after that, for the purpose, one more dam will have to be built, and another, and another, and…

Even with a new Pulangui River dam, Mindanao’s 70-per cent dependence on hydroelectricity will remain at 70 per cent. What an expensive palliative—this dam business!

Good governance only needs the political will to address the problem of siltation and to keep machines running efficiently and at peak capacity.

Bring down Mindanao’s 70-per cent dependence on hydroelectricity. The argument often advanced is that hydropower is cheap and new investors will be at the losing end. In fact, many big players like Aboitiz, Alcantara and Steag are already in Mindanao.

Introduce a package of special incentives indigenous to the Mindanao power situation so that investors will come in. Ensure that those incentives will not lead to an electricity cost that will be a burden to consumers. Let it be a win-win solution. With political will, government can do that.

Desilting is good governance. Focusing on what Mindanao needs in legislation that will encourage investments in Mindanao’s power industry is good governance. Surely, Congress can do better mustering 188 signatures of congressmen at blitzkrieg speed to address Mindanao’s power woes.

In a Mindanao Power Summit, government can do better by listening.

 

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