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Power in Mindanao and political will on AIDS

Readers may recall that right before last year’s elections, Mindanao was hit by 12-hour daily brownouts, although in light of the coming political exercise, the national media paid scant heed to the plight of Mindanaoans.

The brownouts could not have come at a worse time. While Mindanao remained bedeviled by poverty, economic growth had been making inroads in the last few years, mainly in regional centers like Davao, Cagayan de Oro, General Santos and Zamboanga where business process outsourcing (BPO) firms had been set up. The resulting higher consumer spending gave birth to new malls and factories, and all these economic activities meant higher electricity demand.

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If we care to trace the cause of the daily brownouts, we may recall the drought brought by the El Niño phenomenon in late 2009 and early 2010, and the lack of a serious response by the government’s energy planners.

Close to half of Mindanao power needs, sources tell me, are supplied by hydroelectric power sources mainly from the Napocor-run Agus-Pulangi power complexes in Lanao de Norte and Bukidnon. Government data show that these power plants are already running at full capacity, and experts predict that Mindanao will be facing a serious energy crisis by 2014, two years before the end of President Aquino’s term.

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Why then, economists and industry experts ask, is the Aquino government exhibiting a seeming lack of urgency about this looming crisis?

Some forward-thinking local government units in Mindanao and a few key players in the private sector like the Aboitiz Group have taken the initiative to set up new power generating facilities for the island, but puzzlingly, some well-meaning but misguided groups have been hard at work trying to block or delay these projects.

Right now, the prospects of recovery, if not speedy development, for Mindanao look good. The chances of peace talks between the MILF and the Philippine government finally resulting in a peace agreement look good. And with armed violence and tensions easing, the people’s energies and the island’s resources could be turned into more productive economic and social activities. How sad if the energy shortfall in Mindanao should end up slowing down the island’s march to progress.

Concerned groups say Energy Secretary Rene Almendras must take the lead in resolving the issue of power shortages in Mindanao soon. He shouldn’t lose any time in gathering all the players in the energy industry to find an acceptable medium- to long-term solution to the problem. It can no longer be ignored.

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Speaking of ignoring a problem, 26 groups involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS in the country have issued a statement asking P-Noy “where is the political will to fight HIV and AIDS?”

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Noting that in the recent United Nations High-level Meeting on HIV/AIDS, more than 40 heads of state and ministers took time to take stock and find the will and the commitment to fight the disease, the groups said the Philippine government decided to “scale down” its participation in the meeting, despite the precarious situation of the country.

The Philippines, the groups said, is one of only seven countries worldwide that is experiencing an “alarming rise in HIV infection.” The country, they added, is “heavily reliant on foreign aid” in its response to HIV/AIDS, and thus the outcome of the UN High Level Meeting would have huge implications on our own HIV/AIDS programs and services.

Not even Health Secretary Enrique Ona was present at the meeting, and it was only at the last minute that some civil society representation in the national delegation was approved.

“The Aquino administration is clearly ignoring the gravity of the situation: the country is sitting on an HIV time bomb, and yet the government refuses to do anything,” the statement declared.

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The DoH itself has warned that a 500-percent increase in HIV infection is likely to happen in the remaining five years of the Aquino administration. Too long have health authorities relied on the relatively small number of people living with HIV in the Philippines, despite indications that the number of people living with the disease is growing rapidly here.

“Based on the targets that were set five years ago, the country has failed to stop HIV infection among Filipino men who have sex with men and transgenders from reaching epidemic level,” the statement said. “Data show that OFWs are no longer the drivers of the epidemic, but HIV infection is still rising among Filipino migrant workers. In the last two years, the Philippines has also seen a marked increase in infections among people who inject drugs. NCR and other urban centers, especially Cebu, Davao, Batangas and Baguio, are likewise breaching past epidemic targets that the country has actually committed to prevent.”

The groups have a pretty clear-cut menu of steps the government should take: increase support for programs and services, especially for evidence-based preventive interventions such as safer sex education, condom use and harm reduction; protect and promote the human rights of people living with HIV and of populations and communities that are vulnerable to the virus; address the climate of stigma that is still attached to the HIV epidemic that makes delivery of services more difficult; and most important of all, scale up its political commitment to stop HIV/AIDS.

Arriving from a meeting in China where HIV/AIDS was discussed, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo gleefully reported that she had made the remark that HIV/AIDS was not a problem here because of Filipinos’ “high morality.” Galling in its arrogance and ignorance, I hope I never hear such a line from any Aquino official.

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TAGS: AIDS, brownouts, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, ignorance, Mindanao
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