Analysis

Mindanao power woes and media brownout

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The current Mindanao power shortage is relatively the most underreported main event in the mainstream news media in the run-up to the May elections.

It is bad news to the Aquino administration. It is bad news to the people of Mindanao, bad news to the economy and to all the people in the country. Everyone suffers from the shortage.

The government does not want to talk about the acute electricity shortfall in the country’s second-biggest island touted since the Commonwealth era in the 1930s as the “land of promise” in an emerging democracy in Asia.

The more the media, both print or broadcast, underplay the bad news, the more they play into the hands of the government on the cover-up of the news on the most devastating manmade economic and human disaster currently ravaging the land.

Media coverage of Mindanao is focused on the election campaign, especially for the Senate, relegating to the sidelines the news on the impact of the power shortage on the lives of people and on the national and local economy.

The Mindanao disaster contains most of the compelling elements of political news in an election year, i.e., competition for public office, issues on corruption in government, as well as the capers of celebrities running for public positions, and the sufferings of countless of thousands of people afflicted by the power shortages.

There is a human story behind that disaster, which is not about seasonal typhoons and flooding that devastate the heartlands of Visayas and Luzon in the wake of their annual tempestuous treks overland, leaving a swath of destruction of crops, of homes, and of public works, as well as hundreds of people killed.

Mindanao is a different case. It is seldom visited by tropical storms. It does not lie on their path.

The region’s misfortune lies in the fact that its disaster stems from manmade origins—the failure of government to provide sufficient electricity to power its industrial needs for the development of its immense natural resources, and to give light and fuel to households of its people.

Media failure

In covering the worsening power deficit in Mindanao the media are not holding the government responsible for this shortfall rigorously enough.

The May election is the moment for exacting accountability by the public on the government on this issue that it has not confronted since it took office in 2010. This is where the shortage becomes a critical issue to both the government and the Filipino people who are now being asked by the Aquino administration to give it a fresh vote of confidence in managing the economy in the last three years of its term.

This is the time for media to prod the government to raise the bar of its performance in solving the chronic electricity shortages in Mindanao for the past three years. Stopgap measures are not good enough to ensure sufficient energy supply by 2015.

My argument is that the most important issue facing the government in the May election is its ability to roll back the spike of the power deficit in Mindanao.

The lights have to return to the homes that have been dimmed by the “rolling brownouts” in this blight of darkness that has engulfed the region.

Flowing from this is another argument: The Mindanao power issue is the trump card that will, or should, decide the outcome of the Senate election. The government campaign to control the Senate could rise or fall on this issue. No other issue could be more important.

As the second-biggest island in the country, Mindanao is home to 21.5 million people, almost a quarter of the total population of the Philippines.

In electoral terms, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo won, according to official count, the 2004 presidential election with heavy majorities in vote-rich Cebu, Western Visayas and Mindanao. Unfortunately the election results were fatally flawed by her intervention in the canvass of the results through her telephone calls to then Election Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano (in the so-called “Garci tapes”). This plagued the legitimacy of her presidency up until the end of her term in 2010.

Development challenge

The Mindanao Strategic Development Framework 2010-2020 of the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) said:

“Mindanao holds high prospects for industrial development. Most of its regions are located outside the typhoon belt. It is endowed with eight major river basins … all of which could supply water for irrigation and other related needs.

“One third of its land area is devoted to agriculture. It is considered the country’s food basket, supplying over 40 percent of the country’s food requirements and contributing more than 30 percent to national food trade. It is also the country’s major producer of rubber, pineapple, banana and coffee.”

According to the framework, the fundamental challenge for Mindanao is to harness its potential to support development goals. “While its economy shows growth, its output levels remain low,” it says. “The persistently low output growth of Mindanao’s economy has resulted in low income, aggravated poverty, and hindered efforts to achieve lasting peace.”

This is where power supply sufficiency becomes tremendously relevant.

On energy security, highlighted by the current power supply shortage, the framework reports that demand for power in Mindanao has been steadily increasing at an average of 4.4 percent yearly.

The existing dependable capacity of Mindanao is 1,525 megawatts. It needs between 200 and 300 MW of additional power supply every three years to meet the growing demand to support the attainment of economic targets.

In 2009, the peak demand equaled Mindanao’s dependable capacity of power supply. The reserve capacity is expected to fall to 7.5 percent, or 84-MW short of the 212 MW for the 2011 requirement, including a 13-percent reserve level.

Mindanao is projected to have a lower rainfall in the coming years due to climate change.

This will eventually reduce water levels, which in turn will affect the hydropower sources Mindanao is largely dependent on. Without effective interventions, the risk of compromising the economic gains in the next 10 years is high given the forecast demand.

(To be concluded on Wednesday)

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