Domoguen: Sustaining the flow of the Cordillera’s free fresh water

NOTE: This is an introduction to a continuing series of articles I intend to publish on the water crises in the Cordillera under this column.

The rains have and will continue to pour in the Cordillera highlands in their seasons. In fact, this La Nina year, we have problems with strong down pours, as it brought about erosion and destruction to livelihood and infrastructures downstream.

Besides murky water in the heavens and on land, it is time Cordillerans indulge fresh thinking about freshwater if this resource must continue to freely pour and flow into their homes and farms to sustain quality living.

Every highland citizen will need to collaborate with their communities and the government in finding ways to manage sustainable water use – and avoid dry and water less days during the year.
To continue denying the existence of a looming water crises, only makes this not so visible problem in our mountains more difficult, expensive, even a lost cause in the future.

Watershed cradle

The Cordillera is still the greenest region in Luzon even if government and business actually initiated the plunder of its natural resources through mining and large scale logging since the 1960s and even earlier. It has been the bed and home of fresh water for the local residents, and the nearby communities and provinces of regions 1, 2, and 3 but we may still be left thirsty and water less. Besides the run-of-river hydro plants spread throughout the region, five big irrigation and power dams depend on the river system of the Cordillera for their supply of water.

Over the years, communities, farms and houses sprouted in the logged over areas of the forest. Devastation and conversion of the remaining forest into vegetable gardens by the locals continue to this day. What remains of the “green giant,” the moist thick cloud forest covering of the Cordillera region are but skeletons of its disappearing limbs still being cut into smaller pieces. Those in the Cordillera and Northern Luzon depend on these thinned tiny pieces of limbs to meet the rising high demand for fresh water by the region’s population breaching the one million mark during this decade and for visitors of the booming tourism industry, agriculture, power, and other livelihood industries.
In over two decades of my work as information officer for the first and second phases of the Cordillera Highland Agricultural Resources Management Project (CHARMP), I have seen more and more communities suffer water scarcity during the summer months of the year. This is actually worse during the El Nino years. For many, sadly, things would only get worse before they get better.

When mobile water is no longer tame

Water is mobile. It falls from the sky and runs whether you have it piped and tanked for domestic use, guided in cemented canals as irrigation water, or left alone to stream downhill over rocks and sand until it joins other streams in the rivers rushing to the sea. And then in vapor form, it slowly rises back to the sky.

Left unmanaged in our mountains, water can be so destructive. In heavy rains, torrents of water tear up rocks, stones, even large sections of the mountainsides; and cut deep channels and ravines in the landscape. We can see crops torn away by flashfloods during a storm. If you live near the Chico River in Mountain Province, you may have witnessed uprooted plants, pine and soil rushing to the sea on any given day during strong downpours.

But this wild scenario is a recent phenomenon. Before the 1970’s, when the Cordillera was yet the wettest region in the globe, the huge volume of water it generated was tame, easily accessible and tapped to build and sustain community life.

Today, sourcing and constructing irrigation and potable systems would cost millions of pesos and can be easily a source of jealousies and conflicts among communities. The thick low lying clouds that kept the air moist and drip as gentle rains all year above the tree lines has also thinned or disappeared.

The thinned forest canopy or their total disappearance resulted to the thinning of the soil over the years. Without the forest generating litter converted into soil; the continuous soil erosion; the disappearance of lichen and moss; grasses, and trees, shrubs and all kinds of plants in their multi-layers in the forest has brought about immediate run-off and flashfloods of rain whenever it falls on steep mountain slopes. Without the deep mountain soil sponge, rain is no longer stored for later and wider use.

The National Economic Development Authority (Neda) and Regional Development Council (RDC) of the Cordillera popularized and bannered the role of this mountainous region as watershed cradle of Northern Luzon. What does this mean for Filipinos, in this part of the globe, in a future of increased population and urbanization with a looming water crises, failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation; and even weather and food crises? All these are interrelated of course.

If we must seek change for the better, we must find doable and good solutions, the good news that would bring us hope, and which we need to explore and have ahead.

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