FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

The only upside to the calamity that was Typhoon Egay was that our drying dams were refilled with rainwater. The renewed supply is not going to last us very long, however.

Of the Luzon dams, San Roque Dam in Pangasinan gained the most, rising about 10 meters. The substantial gain is explained by the fact that San Roque captured the water overflowing from the smaller Ambuklao and Binga dams in Benguet. Water levels in the two smaller dams exceeded their capacities.

Angat Dam in Bulacan, which supplies 97 percent of all of Metro Manila’s potable water, rose by three meters. Before the typhoon struck, water in this dam had fallen below the minimum operating level of 180 meters above sea level (MASL). No water for irrigation was available and the water concessionaires for the metropolitan area warned of rationing.

We should have taken advantage of the low water levels at Angat and the other dams to dredge their heavily silted reservoirs. But we did not.

Nearly all the river systems in central and northern Luzon burst their banks, causing massive flooding. Large farming areas were flooded, leading to loss of crops. Several landslides happened and several roads were cut. All these is par for a super typhoon passing through.

Egay threaded the needle, passing through the channel between the tip of northern Luzon and the Babuyan islands. That cut the devastation a typhoon of this ferocity would have caused if it hit smack into the heart of Luzon. But this will not be the last typhoon we will deal with. Already, a storm is brewing east of the Visayas and will affect our weather next week.

The bulk of the casualties we sustained from the last typhoon was due to yet another overloaded boat sinking at the Laguna de Bay, off Binangonan town. For some reason, this boat was allowed to leave port despite the strong winds. Presumably, since this boat was lying in lake waters, it was beyond the scope of our normally strict Coast Guard.

On the whole, our disaster response was adequate, if not exemplary. The time and resources we all invested in disaster risk mitigation were not wasted. We must continue this work, since climate change will likely bring even more extreme weather in the future.

A string of storms over the next few weeks could rescue us from water rationing and enable us to survive this El Niño episode. We do not know that yet. What we do know, reflecting on how Egay somehow replenished our dams, is that we are absolutely dependent on rainwater to meet the needs of 117 million Filipinos.

In the new conditions brought about by climate change, a steady supply of rainwater is not guaranteed. When extreme weather causes strong typhoons, we are inundated. When a long episode of drought happens, we will not have a reliable supply of fresh water to meet our needs.

Without doubt, we need more dams to store our water and help us generate electricity. The Kaliwa and, eventually, the Kanan dams are indispensable to for the densely populated metropolitan region. They will capture water that otherwise uselessly flows out to the ocean.

Water for household use is one thing. We also use water for our agriculture and our industry.

Rice, our staple crop, uses tremendous amounts of water. Current farming methods require our rice paddies to be submerged. Our paddies yield a lot of water to evaporation, especially during the hot and dry months.

Our present rice price regime, high as it is by global comparison, does not even include the cost of fresh water to irrigate our paddies. Much of our rice irrigation is free, effectively a subsidy to our farmers. If we price in water consumed in cultivation, rice prices will be sharply higher.

It will even be more expensive to pump out water from our aquifers, considering high power prices. Besides, our aquifers have already been overexploited. It will take thousands of years to refill them.

Deeper into the future, science may figure out a way to cultivate rice using less water and less land. But that is deeper into the future. Science cannot solve all our problems.

In the interim, we need to build as many impoundment infra as we can to capture rainwater when it happens. From hereon, we need to look at every possibility for impounding rainwater.

A few years ago, there was a proposal to build a circular dike around the Candaba swamp to impound millions of liters of water that floods low-lying areas in Central Luzon. That proposal was dismissed as outlandish. Today, it might be worth revisiting this proposal.

It might also be worth revisiting the proposal to dam the Chico River and generate renewable energy from it. I saw recent video of water rampaging down the Chico River and inundating downstream communities.

In my youth, I participated in protests against the proposed Chico River dam. I even lived for a while in Macli-ing Dulag’s village, documenting the Kalinga people’s opposition to the dam. That dam would have submerged some of their villages and several ancient burial sites.

In the vicinity of this village, an NPA platoon operated. It was commanded by a charismatic Kalinga ex-priest named Conrado Balweg. In this remote wilderness, the guerrillas enjoyed much freedom of movement and often joined us for communalmeals at the village.

As a result of the protests, the dam project was shelved. It remains shelved to this day.

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