of typhoons and dams 2

Archive the monster dams

By Marlen V. Ronquillo, Manila Times 30 Sept 09

What is the global mantra nowadays? It is something like this: Always turn a crisis into an opportunity. Or, do not let a crisis go to waste.

How do we turn Ondoy’s wreckage into opportunity? From the surface, this is quite hard to even think of right now, given the magnitude of the death and destruction brought about by Ondoy’s record-high rainfall. Even those mildly suffering are still stunned over our own version of Katrina: instant death, submerged towns and cities, desperate cries for help of the dying, the inadequacy of the rescue efforts.

You have a mental account of what took place in places like Bocaue and Cainta. People lazing around on a Saturday morning (some sipping coffee, some still bundled in bed.) Suddenly, the water rises. One hour later, they are trapped in a watery inferno. Some make it to the rooftop. Others fail to make it.

The stiff, ice-cold and graying bodies of infants that littered the low-lying towns of Metro Manila, Rizal and Central Luzon cannot find any form of justification. They had glimpsed life—only to be cut short in a cruel, instant death.

But like in all aftermaths, the survivors have to take up the tools and go on with their lives. Grief is always transitory. I know. I lost everything to the Pinatubo eruption. The day after the Big Bang I had nothing except the shirt on my back—and anguish. The investment of a lifetime, an integrated farm just 30 kilometers off the volcano’s crater, was doomed by hot sand. Two weeks after, however, you start shifting through the wreckage to build anew.

Life’s unfailing narrative is rebuilding from tragedies.

The first priority is a concern of public policy—the system that has favored the construction of costly, multi-purpose dams. The giant dam policy should be reviewed, then archived. It is a 19th century policy prescription and it is no longer relevant nowadays.

The giant dams, during times of excessive rainfall, have to let go of excess water to prevent the collapse of the holding structures. Every water release, though calibrated by the standards of dam managers, has a terrible impact on the low-lying communities along the rivers and tributaries that absorb the released water. Precisely, this was the case on Saturday. Quezon City’s traditionally safe areas were submerged neck-deep after the water releases from the dams.

The dams are rendered safe by the water releases. But the communities and the people that these dams are theoretically mandated to serve through potable water supply, power needs and irrigation water have been either maimed or killed by the water releases.

If the dams are dangerous during periods of excessive rainfall, they are also not performing up to par during the dry season.

If you pass by the giant Pantabangan dam during the dry season, you would see the spire of the old town church jutting out of the low-level water. Because the watershed areas that are supposed to replenish the dam’s water supply during the dry season are fast-vanishing, Pantabangan is barely-functioning during the peak of the dry season. During El Niños, it is in worse shape.

Magat dam, a giant, multi-purpose dam like Pantabangan, is likewise spooked by the same problem of denuded watershed areas. Like Pantabangan, the dry season always sees Magat suffer from FTP, or failure to perform.

All the giant dams such as Magat, Pantabangan and Ca-secnan had been funded by loans given government guarantees. They are costly, their huge cost made more terrible by the huge interest payments.

The interest payment from the loans used to fund the construction of the giant dams alone is enough to fill the classroom void, the textbook lack and the inadequacy of public school teachers.

Ok, what is the alternative to these costly dams often suffering from bouts of FTP?

Invest in research and development (R and D) to develop safe, less costly and more efficient technologies for irrigation. Then, give RE (renewable energy) a big push to lessen the dependence on the multi-purpose dams for power needs. This will remove all the reasons for building these costly and unsafe dams.

Countries across the globe are doing the same thing, reviewing their giant dam construction projects in favor of safer more efficient substitutes.

Archiving the dams is truly a 21st century imperative.



  1. The Manila Times article’s claim that Quezon City was flooded by the waters released from the dams has no merit. Just look at the maps and it will be evident that the released water flowed into the rivers, not up onto Katipunan avenue.

  2. blackshama and one of the UP-diliman scientists should be able to determine (using water-flow mathematics) how much water flow would be needed to make the Marikina river rise by an additional 10 meters.

    Napocor officials claim that their water-release did not cause any flooding. The Provident Village flooding was Ondoy.


    Magat Dam and Angat Dam released at different times, they also say.

  3. yes, they keep saying that water released from dams didn’t cause the floods in marikina. so, but, where did all that water go kung overflowing na rin ang bulacan waterways from ondoy’s rains? overland, di ba, to seek its own level. and kung overflowing na rin ang marikina river, and floodways, drains, creeks, esteros were all clogged, then dumagdag lang all that water to the flood kaya tumaas nang ganoon and kung saan saan nakarating. it’s not as if bulacan is walled in and water from the angat and magat dam just flowed down into bulacan and was contained therein.

    really, i’d love to be proven wrong about this. but it seems to me that officials are just on denial / damage-control mode.

  4. wow! terrific insight ma’am! what a beautiful post. yes, i agree. i couldn’t have said as much in my own post. http://girbaudz.wordpress.com/2009/09/27/typhoon-ondoy/.

    however, about elmot’s comment on Laiban Dam, the proponent was Sen. Jovito Salonga either as the PCGG chair or during his second wind at Senate. Sen. Salonga was asking for 100-Billion pesos for the project. Small money if converted to dollars these-a-days. I wonder what the Irrevocable Bank Payment Orders stated in those days? Who were to get the commissions? Hmmm… it might seem, if elmot is right, the names in the IBPOs have changed, no? Never has the extent of corruption really changed…