Paying for PNoy legacy

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - November 25, 2020 - 12:00am

Catastrophic flooding, landslides and other calamities brought by the recent typhoons have once again directed government attention to illegal logging, mining and other activities that violated environmental regulations blamed for major damages and loss of lives.

That’s how the House of Representatives public hearing yesterday turned out on the complaints of officials from the flood-devastated local government units (LGUs) like Marikina City Mayor Marcelino Teodoro, Governors Manuel Mamba of Cagayan and Rodito Albano III of Isabela.

In the case of Marikina City, Mayor Teodoro pointed to illegal quarrying activities and an on-going reclamation project along Marikina River were among the reasons that contributed to the flooding anew of the city. Mayor Teodoro further complained the release of water from the Angat Dam contributed to it. But the National Power Corp. running Angat dam denied this, citing the water flow does not go into Marikina River.

Malabon and Navotas, two of the most flood-prone areas in Metro Manila, reported no major flooding incidents despite the recent onslaught of the typhoons one after the other. This was primarily because of the newly installed pumping stations and the continuous cleanup of the Tullahan-Tinajeros River system under the joint government-private sector Tullahan-Tinajeros River Dredging project.

The P1-billion corporate social responsibility initiative San Miguel Corporation (SMC) funded the dredging of the entire 27-kilometer stretch of the river system. This project benefitted also the similarly flood-prone cities of Caloocan and Valenzuela, called together as the CAMANAVA areas.

In the case of Cagayan and Isabela, the state-run National Irrigation Administration (NIA) as the operator of Magat Dam is being made to account why it opened up all seven gates to release the water at the heels of “Ulysses” onslaught. NIA chief Ricardo Visaya repeated his previous interviews in media at the House hearing that all the concerned LGUs were notified days ahead of the release of waters from Magat Dam to protect the massive structure from overflow.

In our virtual Kapihan sa Manila Bay breakfast news forum last week Senator Richard Gordon, chairman and chief executive officer of the Philippine Red Cross, however, was dismayed that dam protocols were inexcusably ignored. Gordon cited estimates made by the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) that as much as two Olympic-sized swimming pools volume of water per second flowed down when Magat Dam gates were opened.

Nonetheless, Gordon conceded these decades-old dams really need de-silting and dredging from years of long neglect and poor maintenance. In the particular case of Metro Manila and the nearby Cavite-Laguna-Batangas-Rizal-Quezon (CaLaBaRzon), Gordon suggested to the dredging at the soonest possible time of the Laguna de Bay. He urged the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte to take a second look at the rehabilitation of the Laguna de Bay, remove the many illegal fish pens, and develop it into a tourism attraction and an alternate mode of transportation.

Laguna de Bay, which has a total surface area of 900 square kilometers, is the biggest lake and one of the most important inland bodies of water in the country.

Gordon recalled that Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto earlier offered a $30-million assistance from his government to the Philippines for the rehabilitation and water treatment of Laguna de Bay. The formal offer was made during the bilateral meeting with Department of Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. When I followed up the status of this offer, Locsin replied: “So far nothing. The career civil service is sitting in it. Sitting is the career competitive advantage.”

Gordon noted Hungary is known to have the expertise and capability in terms of water management and treatment. It has been credited for successfully improving water condition in Lake Balaton, a fresh water lake in the country’s western region and the largest in Central Europe.

Which brings back to mind the P18.7 billion flood control project of the Laguna Lake Development Authority (LLDA), the contract of which was awarded to the Belgian dredging firm Baagerwerken Decloedt En Zoon (BDZ) towards the end of the administration of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2009.

A few months after he took office at Malacanang, former president Benigno Simeon “PNoy” Aquino III personally cancelled the BDZ contract that included the massive dredging of the Laguna de Bay. Claiming the BDZ was the same contractor that dredged the Pasig River that remained heavily silted, PNoy personally reviewed the contract documents over suspicions of graft-tainted transactions by Arroyo officials. PNoy maintained the BDZ contract merely provided for transfer of the silt from one part of the lake to another.

Twice declared by then-Justice Secretary Leila M. de Lima as “legal and binding,” PNoy junked the deal in November, 2011. The BDZ sued the Philippine government before the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID).

The ICSID ruled on January 23,2017 that the unilateral cancellation of the BDZ contract was illegal and unfair. It ordered the Philippine government to pay P800 million to BDZ for this amount it had already put into the country – plus interest costs from 2011 up to when PNoy scuttled the project.

Fast forward. Department of Finance (DOF) Secretary Carlos Dominguez faced the burden to carry out the final ruling of the ICSID that the present administration assumed. “Yes, arbitral award was paid in July, 2020,” Dominguez told me via text message.

Through court negotiations, the DOF wrangled a compromise settlement of P576 million from the original P696 million demand by BDZ, including interest of P134-million. Or this means, the DOF was able to reduce the settlement by P120 million. And much reduced from ICSID award of P800 million.

But still, these were Filipino taxpayers’ money that paid for PNoy’s legacy of vindictiveness.

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