President Duterte had a bold message for his fellow leaders at the recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit in Thailand.
“Asean should not sacrifice the environment and the region’s rich biodiversity, particularly in the maritime domain, in its quest for progress,” he said. Rather, he added, it needs to “ensure environmental sustainability and protect biodiversity in the region’s pursuit for development.”
Strong and timely words. If only the President would be able to remember them once he’s back home, and apply them in his own backyard. Because, just days before he offered that reminder to foreign leaders, he made it “very clear” to his own citizens, in yet another chilling order, that he will use his “extraordinary powers” to force the construction of the controversial Kaliwa Dam, and opposition to it be damned.
The problem with that scorched-earth threat is that the main “opposition” comes from those who have the birthright to the land — the indigenous peoples whose lives and identity are tied to the Sierra Madre countryside they have inhabited for ages, but which, under the Kaliwa Dam project, is set to be inundated and lost for good.
Mr. Duterte appears to be undeterred by such concerns. “You have every right to protest if it really would place your place in jeopardy,” he said. “But if the safeguards are there, then between your concerns and the crisis that we are trying to avoid, I will use the extraordinary powers of the presidency.”
“The crisis we are trying to avoid” is the increasingly inadequate water supply for the 12 million or so residents of Metro Manila, a primordial need to sustain economic life in the nation’s capital.
For the second time this year, Metro Manila inhabitants face a new round of debilitating six to 10 hours of rotational water supply, after the two water concessionaires said their demand of 2,400 million liters per day (for Maynilad) and 1,600 MLD for (Manila Water) could no longer be met, as water from rain-dependent Angat Dam in Bulacan, accounting for 96 percent of the metro’s water supply, continues to drop steadily. A full-blown water crisis, they warned, is looming next year.
“I cannot just allow people to go about without water even for drinking,” declared Mr. Duterte. “It might create some danger or damage, but that is not my concern. My concern is the welfare, the greatest good for the greatest number. That is democracy,” he said.
The solution his administration has seized upon to address the crisis is the New Centennial Water Source-Kaliwa Dam Project, an P18.7-billion megadeal awarded to China Energy Engineering Corporation Limited that will be financed through a loan from the Export-Import Bank of China. The dam will straddle Quezon and Rizal, deep in the Sierra Madre, with about 291 hectares inside the Reina Natural Park, Wildlife Sanctuary and Game Preserve to be “inundated” (according to the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System).
That area, however, is not unpopulated; it forms part of the ancestral domain of at least 10,000 families of the Agta-Dumagat-Remontado indigenous peoples of Quezon and Rizal, and they are the ones who are set to pay the price for Mr. Duterte’s iron plan to railroad the dam through to quench Metro Manilans’ thirst.
Not surprisingly, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has issued an environmental compliance certificate despite overwhelming objections from the affected communities. Questions have been raised about the validity of the Free, Prior and Informed Consent the government has supposedly obtained—just the latest red flag in a project that has been riddled with controversy from the start.
For the Dumagat, facing the prospect of losing their lands and way of life, and for the country that might see irreversible damage to the biodiversity in the Sierra Madre, the President has words of advice far different from what he had told the Asean: “You just go to court and file a case if you want. I am there and I will start to find a way to connect the water to the people.”
But the Dumagat are people, too, aren’t they? And part of democracy is addressing their concerns, in compliance with the law requiring consultations with and consent by local communities. What safeguards have been put in place for them?
And must progress mean sacrificing peoples and the environment, a zero-sum game, or is there a less harmful alternative to be found — if only the government were to exert more honest and exhaustive effort to look for one? As Dumagat leader Henry Borreo lamented: “We have a right to our ancestral domains. But instead of protecting our rights, the President and the government are the first to violate them.”
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