BAGUIO

Dacawi: Water: An issue for autonomy

Benchwarmer

TIME and again, we proclaim, or are reminded, that our Cordillera region is the watershed cradle of Northern Luzon. Beyond flaunting this distinction, however, we are falling short of harnessing this resource, or using it as a rallying point for our leaders to convince us that it is a solid reason why we must clamor - if we really have that desire - for autonomy.

The need to anchor the campaign for autonomy on our region’s capability and right to exploit our water resources for the Cordillera’s own benefit and development is most relevant. It is most important in the aftermath of the destruction wrought by the construction, in the 1950s, of the Binga and Ambuklao Dams on the communities of Benguet. Barangays then were submerged, their inhabitants displaced for the two dams to be built to spur the development of Metro-Manila, but leaving their host communities literally in the dark or the last to be energized.

To make up for this glaring but ignored shortfall, the national government could have – but did not – given the two used-up dams to Benguet Province as reparation. Instead, the dams were awarded to the giant Aboitiz Group of Companies which, with foreign capital support, restored the water utilities back to productivity.

Now, Aboitiz and other outside companies are getting water rights and permits to construct other hydroelectric dams in the Cordillera. Before we know it, all the areas viable for hydro projects are no more, assigned to giant energy firms by government offices in Metro-Manila which do not understand the impact of these to the region’s future plans for self-rule.

What is saddening is the fact that Aboitiz filed twice a case against the people of Kapangan, Benguet for the latter’s seeking the advice of Beneco on how to react to Aboitiz’s harnessing their water resources into hydros.

This reality gives urgent reason for the region to take stock of its remaining water resources and plead for the national government to slow down on the issuance of water rights, premature free-and-prior-informed consent (FPIC) and permits to build hydros while the Cordillera is pushing towards autonomy.

Autonomy would mean that the Cordillera would have better chances of harnessing its water resources for its own use and development. This was pointed out by the Benguet Electric Cooperative in a resolution addressed to the Regional Development Council. The resolution requested the RDC to press the national government to issue a moratorium on the issuance of water rights and hydro dam construction permits while the region is moving towards autonomy.

Beneco wanted to point out that by the time Cordillera self-rule is in place, there would be no more portions of Cordillera rivers to develop into hydros for the autonomous region’s development.

The Beneco resolution asked RDC to request the Local Water Utilities Administration and the Department of Energy to stop issuing water rights and franchises for private companies to harness Cordillera’s hydro potentials. Above all, - and this is the main point of the Beneco resolution - it urged the RDC to actively and aggressively help Cordillera provinces and towns access fund grants from other countries for the construction and development of hydroelectric plants to be eventually owned and operated by these towns and provinces.

This has been done, the Beneco pointed out, citing two hydroelectric dams which were built through foreign grants, after which these were turned over to the municipality or to the province to speed up the development of Ifugao.

These are: 1) The Ambangal Mini-Hydro in Kiangan town which was built by Japan through the G-7 Countries and turned over to the town for management, provided part of the income generated shall be used for the restoration and protection of the rice terraces in Kiangan, Mayoyao, Banaue and Hungduan towns where the most extensive rice terraces are, 2) Another hydro plant in Ifugao being constructed through a grant by the Japan International Cooperation Agency which will be turned over to the provincial government when completed.

In response to the Beneco resolution, the RDC confirmed two grants, saying: “There are two Japan assisted and constructed mini-hydroelectric plants in Ifugao which are managed by PLGU Ifugao. These are (a) Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) – assisted Ambangal MHEP in Kiangan (0.20) MW, commissioned in 2010) and b) Jica-assisted Likud MHEP in Asipulo (0.82)MVV, commissioned in July 2015.)”

With these grants, the Beneco resolution noted the RDC can take the cue and assist other Cordillera towns and provinces in applying for foreign grants to enable them to have similar hydro plants they will eventually own. Right now, the private companies are lording it over, with sanction from national government offices they have influence in.

A good argument in calling for fund grants is that these hydros would help empower towns and provinces to be self-sufficient through the development of their resources like hydros, thereby giving flesh and blood to autonomy that Cordillerans can feel and appreciate.

In response, Baguio Mayor Mauricio Domogan, as RDC chair, said “the Cordillera Energy Producer Master Plan proposes that the potential host LGU communities establish their own local power corporation to harness their energy resources. It also proposes that the LGUs/communities having their pnatural resources as equity partner with hydropower investors. These corporate partnerships are expected to generate more socially acceptable projects as these emanate from the host indigenous communities.”

Precisely. That’s why the plan should be set in place ASAP, if only to make Cordillerans feel that the autonomy being proposed is on their side as they have access to their resources with foreign support.

Meanwhile, the RDC and towns and provinces about to host hydro-plants should insist and make part of the negotiations that these plants should be turned over and owned by the host towns and provinces after, say, 20 years, when the builders have recouped their investments and realized profits. They should not own these plants forever, at the expense of the host communities who, for generations took care of the watersheds from where this resource emanates. E-mail: mondaxbench@yahooom for comments.


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