The Sierra Madre Water Corporation plans to create a “multi-river hydropower cum bulk water” that would divert water and alter the five natural rivers flowing from the Sierra Madre mountain range all the way to Lamon Bay.
By DENNIS ESPADA
Sierra Madre is the country’s longest mountain range, which starts in Cagayan Valley province in the north and ends in Laguna-Quezon in the south. With around 1.5 million hectares of forest, it is listed as one of the more important biodiversity sites in the world. Ecological groups believe its vast terrain shields the entire Luzon island from devastating typhoons originating from the Pacific Ocean. In addition, its rich water and mineral resources are important contributions to the national economy.
Significantly, the need for rehabilitation, reforestation, protection and conservation of the mountains is given due recognition when “Save Sierra Madre Day” was declared on September 26, 2011, exactly two years after typhoon Ondoy struck Metro Manila and nearby provinces.
With another “development” project called “Sierra Madre Dam” or “Sierra Madre Water Corp 35 MW Multi-River Hydropower Cum Bulk Water,” the mountains seem to face a new threat to its existence. The proponents of the project are seeking approval to proceed.
Water, energy for sale
Hydropower is a form of renewable energy that uses moving or flowing water. Through Republic Act No. 9513 or Renewable Energy Act of 2008, the government promotes the development, utilization, and commercialization of renewable energy resources.
Proposed by the Sierra Madre Water Corporation (SMWC), the project is designed to generate 35 million watts of electricity and supply water to Metro Manila consumers. Like other public-private oriented “development” projects under the build-operate-transfer scheme, this would make water sources owned and controlled by private businesses.
According to a primer on facts released by VIA Energy-Environment Consultancy, a copy of which was obtained by Bulatlat.com, SMWC plans to create a “multi-river hydropower cum bulk water” that would divert water and alter the five natural rivers flowing from the Sierra Madre mountain range all the way to Lamon Bay. To achieve this, the company intends to build and operate a power plant, a holding pond, weirs and dams, as well as tunnels and pipelines.
The project would target the Laguna-Quezon portion of the mountain range, which covers thousands of hectares of forested, agricultural and ancestral land in adjoining rural towns of Pangil (82 kilometers east of Manila), Pakil and Paete in Laguna, including Real in Quezon.
“The weirs will be constructed at the rivers Tatacpo and Salasalaban (Real) and Tandong and Dakil (Paete). An embankment dam will be put up in Pangil River (Pangil), and another in Tibag River (Real),” the VIA stated in the primer.
Project proponents argued that hydropower is “clean energy” because it does not burn fossil fuels nor produce solid wastes, adding that the water used for energy could also be used for irrigation, potable water and other needs that would help ease the country’s water crisis.
The VIA, however, said the project “may have some negative impacts on the environment”. They said diverting water and altering river flow could gravely affect the people—farmers, settlers and Dumagat tribal folks—including the vegetation, wildlife and aquatic life dependent on the water resource; and that construction alone could lead to displacement and damage to their way of life.
The pristine quality of water coming down from the mountain continues to attract tourists and trekkers to visit Laguna, particularly Buruwisan Falls in Siniloan, Ambon-Ambon Falls in Pangil, natural springs in Pakil, and Matabungka Falls in Paete. Meanwhile, Balabag Falls in Real, Quezon is also a known destination.
A concerned citizens’ group called Save Sierra Madre, Save the People…No to Dams Movement said the local tourism industry could die if the dam project starts to spoil these natural beauties. Bearing in mind lessons from heavy monsoon rains and floods, they launched a petition early this year urging municipal government executives and legislative bodies to pass resolutions opposing the project.
The group cited a study by Project HANDA (Hazard Notification, Dissemination and Awareness) of the Department of Science and Technology Region 4-A identifying cities and towns surrounding Laguna Lake, namely: San Pedro, Biñan, Santa Rosa, Cabuyao, Calamba, Los Baños, Bay, Victoria, Pila, Santa Cruz, Lumban, Paete, Pakil, Pangil and Mabitac in Laguna; and Angono, Binangonan, Cardona, Morong, Baras, Tanay, Pilila and Jala-Jala in Rizal, as “shore flooding high risk areas.” The Kaliraya Dam and Botocan Dam, both active hydropower plants in Lumban and Majayjay-Luisiana towns, are already releasing water into the lake and an additional dam, the group said, could cause its water to rise further at alarming levels.
The group warned that communities living in dam-affected areas could be prone to disasters bigger and deadlier than the supertyphoon Yolanda in 2013. Dam construction involves submerging lands and homes to make way for reservoirs. They said that logging, digging, blasting and drilling activities may trigger ground shaking and landslides in areas near or within the Infanta faultline and Valley Fault System mapped by the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS).
In a statement, Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan or New Patriotic Alliance)-Laguna chapter said the proposed dam is “a threat to nature as well as the people’s rights and safety” and encouraged local citizens to protest against it. As in the past, the benefits of the dam, they said, are deliberately exaggerated to cover up real experiences such as economic and cultural degradation of evicted farmers, settlers and indigenous people; no or negligible compensation for their loss; and quelling popular resistance.
“Let us assert the livelihood and rights of our people, and protect Sierra Madre’s remaining forests and other natural resources from greedy hands,” Bayan-Laguna said. “Clean water is a basic need for life, not a business by a few who salivates to gain huge profits.”