• Flood control in the Philippines: Not policy, but apologies

    1
    Ben D. Kritz

    Ben D. Kritz

    In a posting that was timely for a couple very different reasons, Undersecretary of the Presidential Communications Development Strategic Planning Office (PCDSPO) Manuel “Manolo” Quezon 3rd, who seems to relish his role as this Aquino administration’s Ernst Krieck, recently provided an interesting apology for the government’s uninspiring flood-control policy on his own blog (www.quezon.ph), entitled “Understanding flooding and flood mitigation.”

    In it, Quezon explains in his typically thorough way why over-development of the Metro Manila area has created a serious chronic flooding problem, briefly describes some of the key points of the government’s flood-control master “plan,” and provides a list of actions taken by the Aquino administration over the past three years to improve flood control.

    Regardless of Quezon’s talented explanation, the perspective and intentions of the Aquino administration toward flood control are nothing if not utterly infuriating. While it is usually bad form to shoot the messenger, Quezon, in his official capacity, deserves some of the blame for trying to sanitize the administration’s directionless lunacy. In his article, for example, he cites numerous points from the Technical Reports that accompanied President Benigno Aquino 3rd’s State of the Nation Addresses (SONA) in 2011 through 2013. He gives detailed explanations (actually, quotes the specific paragraphs in the reports verbatim) about the following “actions” taken by the government:

    *Pursued geohazard assessment and mapping;

    *Completed the geohazard assessment and mapping;

    *Geohazard maps were posted on the website of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau;

    *Completed 18 of 66 multi-hazard maps for hazard-prone provinces;

    *Initiated the mapping (at 1:10,000 scale) of 30 cities and municipalities prone to flooding and landslides;

    *Made some upgrades (not specified) to weather forecasting tools such as Automated Weather Stations, rain and flood gauges, Doppler radars, and weather buoys, and implemented a one-hour forecast and update schedule for significant weather events;

    *Acquired workstations for weather forecasters;

    *Received correct information about the radiation risk to the Philippines from the nuclear accident at Fukushima in Japan following the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami;

    *Completed the mapping of 28 of the 30 hazard-prone cities, with Metro Manila’s map to be completed by 2014;

    *Implemented project NOAH, the online weather-information service;

    *Completed the delineation of Forest Boundaries in 75 provinces; and

    *Developing master plans and feasibility studies for 56 river basins around the country.

    That’s an awful lot of “assessment” and “mapping” and “studying,” but how much actual work has been done? For that, Quezon’s article—or rather the Technical Reports from which he copies quotes—are not quite so forthcoming, mentioning 12 completed “sub-projects” (which are in no way described) as of end-June 2013 in various locations in Metro Manila, and noting that the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) is “implementing” 416 projects in Metro Manila, only one of which, the Blumentritt Interceptor—which we noted a couple weeks ago will protect the city from an Ondoy-like flood for a little under 15 seconds—is described as being “targeted for completion” in July 2014. The plan to rehabilitate and upgrade 12 pumping stations in Metro Manila—which is actually just maintenance of already insufficient existing systems—is also mentioned.

    And finally, in a clever exercise in sandbagging, Quezon includes this impressive-sounding factoid: “The DPWH is implementing 3,998 flood control and drainage projects nationwide worth P32.08 billion. Of these projects, 76 percent or 3,029 projects, have been completed.” With no other details to suggest what these projects are, it takes a bit of investigation to discover that the figure must include all the aforementioned “assessment” and “mapping,” the couple hundred projects vaguely noted in the previous paragraphs, and a large number (in fact, all but a handful of the 3,029 “completed” projects) of small-scale local works provided by the dubious priority development and assistance funds (PDAF), or “pork barrel,” such as maintenance work on barangay- or municipal-level drainage systems, and road and bridge repairs.

    Of course, Quezon doing his job (and doing it pretty well, to be fair) and spinning a tale of government attentiveness to flood-control issues in the immediate aftermath of yet another widespread flooding calamity is to be expected. But an interesting little inclusion in his lengthy post may reveal an administration ulterior motive as well. From the 2011 SONA Technical Report:

    “2.3.2. Cancellation of the Laguna Lake Rehabilitation Project. On 17 June 2011, the President cancelled the P18.5-billion Laguna Lake Rehabilitation Project [LLRP] due to inconsistencies between the project components and its intended objectives; and the lack of transparency in the review and approval of the project. A DENR study found out that due to heavy deforestation and erosion, the areas to be dredged would end up being silted again in three years without massive rehabilitation of the watersheds . . . In addition, the Project’s Economic Internal Rate of Return [EIRR] of 7.04 percent, which considers only the project’s quantified economic benefits, does not meet the 15 percent minimum hurdle rate or the minimum acceptable rate of return . . .”

    The government of the Philippines either just has or is about to file its response to the P6-billion arbitration case brought against it by the Belgian firm Baggerwerken Decloedt & Zn (BDC) at the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) in Washington, D.C., for President Aquino’s unilateral cancellation of the LLRP contract. Thus it might appear that Quezon is first of all trying to forestall the inevitable questions why his boss in Malacañang cancelled the one tangible large-scale flood-control project (as opposed to those that are “to be implemented” or are part of “the master plan” or “mapping” and “assessments”) on the table at the point it was to get underway, instead allowing destructive flooding to continue, and even spread to areas not previously seriously affected by it. Second, the inclusion of the half-hearted defense of LLRP’s cancellation might appear as an attempt to influence decision-makers on the other side of the world and prevent, or at least reduce, the significant financial damages the country may have to pay; and if not actually an attempt to lobby the arbitration court, it is at least an attempt to deflect blame from President Aquino if and when the judgment goes against his government.

    What is really galling, however, is that the supposed conclusion of the DENR (which contradicts at least two other decisions of the department in favor of letting the LLRP proceed) that the project does not meet an acceptable minimum rate of return reveals the Aquino administration’s disregard for the enormous economic impact of repeated flood disasters, a perspective that Quezon, in his capacity as the Palace intellectual and keeper of the Official Gazette, has just officially confirmed. Nothing in any of the government’s “master plans” addresses the economic damage of floods—physical damage to agriculture, infrastructure, and residential and business properties, but also economic losses from businesses not being to operate during floods, workers not able to make it to their jobs, commodity price fluctuations due to interruptions in supply chains, and bank and market closures.

    If the “plans” are carried out and if those systems actually work as envisioned—an extremely optimistic assumption on both counts—then yes, much of those economic impacts will be reduced. But all of that are years in the future, if ever; the whole plan as designed now will not be completed before 2035 at the earliest. In the meantime, the economic problems will have to be addressed, and they might catch the administration by surprise; most business process outsourcing prospects as well as existing operations, for example, are now writing “agents unavailable for work due to natural disasters” into their own risk analyses.

    Floods are only water. It’s what that water touches—people and their livelihoods—that is rather more important. Instead of using his formidable mind to make the administration’s lack of direction look like productive activity, perhaps Manolo Quezon could use it more often to point out these kinds of obvious gaps in his employer’s strategy.

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    1 Comment

    1. Nieves Godinez on

      I think the Aquino administration should be made to answer for the unilateral cancellation of government negotiated contract with the Belgian dredging firm. The legal fees for this case in the arbitration court in New York have so far been pegged at 490 million pesos! Where is he going to get the money to pay for the legal costs? From his pork barrel allocation? This is yet another example of the abuse of the pork barrel funds. Why is this sitting president allowed to color his official decisions with his vindictive politics, at the expense of the public good? Not only that we will have to pay for damages should we lose the case, on top of the legal fees, we also lost the 20 million dollar-grant that was to accompany the implementation of the project from the Belgian government.

      I am furious that a president is allowed to be irresponsible and reckless in handling public funds this way!