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Mindanao’s summer of discontent

12:02 AM April 18, 2016

THE AQUINO administration is confronted with a perfect storm that could tip the issue of hunger in Kidapawan City into a wider crisis in basic services and violence that may be used to invoke a national security emergency.

Mindanao is ground zero in this spiral of crisis, contestation and conflict. Basic services in water and electricity are overstretched, and violence is spiking dangerously as the country approaches Election Day.

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Drought has severely affected water levels in Pulangui River and Lake Lanao, depleting the energy resources of the entire region. The Agus-Pulangui Hydroelectric Complex now provides less than half of its total energy contribution to the Mindanao grid. The reality is that the drought and its effects are now felt by all residents of mainland Mindanao, transforming the issue into a multisectoral one with broad popular appeal.

And the crisis is expected to get worse before it gets better.

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The big question on everyone’s mind is whether the fossil-fuel-based energy plants (oil and coal) can step up and fill the energy losses dealt by a hydroelectric plant that used to supply half of Mindanao’s energy demand.

Davao City has received the brunt of this punishment compared to other cities in Mindanao. It has daily rotating brownouts lasting more than five hours while its recently inaugurated coal-fired plant undergoes repair. Water services are also interrupted without warning, an occurrence that could become the norm if aquifers and other water sources continue to dry up.  Davao residents are angry, frustrated and suffering, and business and many other groups are demanding explanations for the successive service interruptions.

The possible violence that may be triggered by a sudden power loss on Election Day cannot be discounted. This is underscored by the unusually high incidence of violence already registered in International Alert’s Bangsamoro Conflict Monitoring System and the South and Eastern Mindanao Conflict Database starting in 2014.

The spike in violence in the Bangsamoro region has overtaken the scale of violent incidents in the previous three years (2011-2013).

Violence saw a steep rise as political competition among warring clans and elites began a year ahead of the elections. Election-related violence was combined with violence from illegal weapons and drugs, extremist violence, identity-based violence, and common crimes.

The same is happening in the other side of Mindanao. The scale of violence registered in the southern and eastern areas is now more than triple the violence recorded in the Bangsamoro. Violence in the southern part of Mindanao is a mix of conflicts related to the communist insurgency, illegal drugs and weapons, and common crimes.

Sufficient and reliable energy access is central to preventing violence and eliminating fraud during the anticipated longer hours required to permit voting with receipts. What happens if the fragile power-generating facilities are unable to bear the capacity and costs needed to deliver the total electricity required on Election Day?

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The impact on the 2016 elections will be ominous. In 2004 the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and other parts of central Mindanao provided the vote banks that were decisive in determining national outcomes in the tight electoral contest between Fernando Poe Jr. and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, much like what various surveys are showing today.

Communication and conflict mediation will be critical in the next few weeks. The government cannot explain this crisis by hiding behind the effects of climate change on welfare and security. Drought happens cyclically, but the effects on local communities can be avoided.

The imperative is targeted, concerted and timely responses by the government. Long bureaucratic processes must be lifted in times of emergency to get the assistance where and when it is needed.

The role of the private sector is critical. It can mobilize resources quickly and craft innovative solutions, including the refocusing and redeployment of its CSR (corporate social responsibility) projects to buffer communities from economic and environmental shocks.

The energy crisis in Mindanao warrants quick solutions. Most important is ensuring that the required electricity is available on Election Day before the energy crisis truly becomes a crisis of power and authority.

The long-term solution lies outside the grid. Our unquestioning dependence on large-scale grid systems and solutions focused solely on increasing the share of renewable energy in the energy mix must be turned on its head. We must disentangle distribution systems for residential purposes from commercial and industrial users. In this model, the commercial and industrial users are fed by the grid and will absorb the effects of a power crisis before it affects residences. At the same time, communities are encouraged to manage small-scale, generally renewable, energy sources.

We do not need to all be dependent on massive grid systems and be hostage to their vulnerabilities when some can go offline and local. The next administration has the opportunity to think about what mix of energy sources and governance models works to foster inclusive economic development and build peace. Electricity is certainly a question of power, and the challenge facing the government and the energy sector is to look at power as a political, rather than simply an electrical, resource.

Nikki de la Rosa, from Davao City, is International Alert Philippines’ deputy country manager and head of Mindanao operations. She holds degrees from the University of the Philippines and the London School of Economics.

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TAGS: Commentary, drought, dry spell, El Niño, Kidapawan, Mindanao, opinion
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