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Editorial

Noncompliant Kaliwa Dam

/ 05:07 AM September 26, 2021

From the beginning, the construction of the Kaliwa Dam along the Kaliwa River in Infanta, Quezon, has been opposed by various sectors due to concerns about its impact on the surrounding communities. Yet the Duterte administration greenlighted the construction of the multibillion project backed by China.

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Now, new questions have emerged about seeming shortcuts in the project’s implementation. In its 2020 report, the Commission on Audit flagged — for the third time — the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS), the government agency in charge of the P12.2-billion Kaliwa Dam project, for going ahead with the project even if it had not submitted the necessary permits and proof of compliance with environmental conditions.

The detailed engineering and design phase of the controversial project, for instance, part of the Duterte administration’s “Build, build, build” program, was already 92.67-percent complete at the end of last year, yet when the COA asked for proof that the preconditions set by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources were met, the MWSS merely provided a “checklist” and a photocopy of a compliance monitoring report. MWSS chair Reynaldo Velasco said construction was outside the designated ancestral domain in the area and this was not related to the controversial project, but admitted that they had yet to secure some of the necessary permits for Kaliwa Dam.

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The project, which is supposed to stabilize the water supply in Metro Manila and nearby provinces, acquired a “conditional” environmental compliance certificate (ECC) in October 2019, allowing the MWSS to begin operations. But construction should have begun only after the mandated government permits and requirements had been secured — among them the free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) of the affected indigenous peoples (IPs), a comprehensive information campaign about the project, a signed memorandum of agreement with local government units on social development interventions, an IP development plan, the construction of a buffer zone, and the establishment of reforestation and carbon sink programs.

The process of issuing the ECC was itself faulty, according to anthropologist Nestor Castro, who was asked by the government in 2018 to conduct a social impact assessment of the project. For example, securing the FPIC was a post-ECC condition when, under the law, the government can begin infrastructure projects on ancestral lands only after it has secured consent from the title-holders. Castro, despite being tasked to assess the project, was warned about the presence of communist rebels, was not allowed to visit the site, and was put under “intense pressure” to wrap up his work.

In June 2019, or a few months before the ECC was issued, the nature conservation group Haribon Foundation appealed to President Duterte to stop the project as it “violates legal processes and would displace thousands of indigenous peoples.” The project’s construction site, it pointed out, falls within an ancestral domain that serves as home to at least 5,000 Dumagat-Remontados.

Around 300 of the Dumagats would be directly affected once construction began, while the rest would be forced to evacuate. In addition, about 100,000 individuals, as well as sacred sites and hunting grounds for the indigenous people, were at risk with the increased chances of heavy flooding in the downstream areas. Haribon warned that the “project will cause long-term, irreversible environmental damage to the Sierra Madre and its biodiversity” as it is within the Kaliwa Watershed, a declared forest reserve and national park and wildlife sanctuary, and thus will violate the National Integrated Protected Areas System Act.

The Duterte administration got funding for the project by securing a P12.2-billion loan from China in 2019 under the official development assistance program, despite China’s loan carrying a 2-percent interest rate as against a public-private partnership proposal by Japan at only 1.25 percent. The deal, the research group IBON Foundation protested, stood to compromise the country’s patrimonial assets and property in case of default on the loan, since under the agreement the country “waives any immunity on the grounds of sovereignty or otherwise for itself or its property in connection with any arbitration proceeding.”

Still, the widespread opposition of environmentalists and IPs, as well as church groups and legal experts, fell on deaf ears, as the government went ahead and told the contractor, China Energy Engineering Corp. Ltd., to proceed.

The COA has warned that the MWSS’ noncompliance with requirements may lead to the cancellation of the ECC. But given the project’s powerful backing — Mr. Duterte once said he will use “extraordinary powers” to implement the project — it’s likely that violations of the law in this case will amount to nothing, and the China-backed dam will continue to rise.

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