Frozen policies. Let them go.


Early this month, an op-ed piece in the New York Times called for the tearing down of the major dams across the US. The main arguments? They are unsound environmentally and economically. The giant dams cost too much but offer little in real benefits. States that have come to their senses and have torn down some of the useless dams have reaped amazing rewards.

The Manila Times advocated the same course of action—but much, much earlier. After Ondoy, the Times suggested the archiving of the dams. And the start of a real, science-based search for sounder, less costly alternatives. What was true then, is truer now. The monster dams are useless during the dry months. They will be extremely dangerous during the rainy season.

How dangerous? There would have been less deaths from Ondoy had the dams calibrated their water releases. Instead, the reckless release of excess water from the major dams helped turn the low-lying areas of Metro Manila and Luzon into flooded infernos less than an hour after the water releases. As the Ondoy chronicles duly reported, the dams were a major abettor of widespread destruction or public and private property and senseless deaths.

In Central and Northern Luzon right now, parched farms and suffering farmers are a daily sight. With their critical water level, the major dams can’t release the usual volume required by the dam-serviced rice planted areas. Irrigating the food baskets has ceased to be a priority mandate. The priorities are potable water and is power supply and even in these areas, the dams are inadequate. The dams were constructed on the great promise of serving three things under most circumstances: potable water, irrigation and power. On all three fronts, they have been failures.

Many of the dams are still paying off their long-term loans, and these are loans with state guarantees. If the loans are not paid by the dam builders that contracted the work under the BOT scheme and the like, the taxpayers will pay. Imagine this scenario: taxpayers shouldering the cost of useless, costly dams that even help massacre people.

The case against dams is best demonstrated by this visual: The spire of the old Pantabangan church, whose location was submerged when the dam at Pantabangan was constructed, has jutted out of the waters of the drying dam. This is not the first time that this eerie optic has appeared. Every time a dry spell hits Central Luzon, the water level at Pantabangan drops to a critically low level and the ghosts of the buried old township reappear. The watershed areas that are, theoretically, ringing the dam to provide water during dry spells have almost always failed to deliver needed water. Rendering this multi-billion peso dam useless.

Factoring in the huge cost of constructing a dam, and the long years of repaying construction costs, there is absolutely not a single valid reason for pursuing a dam construction policy. Sadly, the absence of a single valid reason to pursue a dam policy has not stopped the Aquino government from pursuing this policy of great folly. They have two dams up for construction and the government has been boasting that each will cost billions of pesos. Why? The answer is clear.

The Aquino administration is addicted to policy orthodoxy and the supreme faith in dam construction is a manifestation of that addition. While sweeping changes and bold ideas are rocking and upending governments and societies across the broader world, the Aquino government has not moved on into the 21st century. Its economic policies are just a wholesale adaptation of the discredited Washington Consensus: free market, privatization and another discredited hybrid—pursuing infra projects via public private partnership.

Nice GDP charts and the approbation of the credit rating agencies are the twin altars upon which President Aquino’s economic team worships – never mind that these two have very little relevance in this century of great economic inequality.

At a WEF talk, President Aquino spoke with pride about the country’s growth trajectory—even while the IMF and the rest of the concerned multilateral institutions have been more focused about a world returning back to Gilded Age-level of inequality.

Recent empirical studies, with years of painstaking research, have proven that economic growth makes the rich richer, but with the .01 per cent vacuuming much of the income gains. Income from wealth and assets outstrip income from wages. President Aquino has not even acknowledged that this problem of great inequality is making a mockery of his growth charts and ratings upgrade. He has refused to take the bold political actions are done to reverse the divide.

Building more dams is not the only area in which fossilized policy approaches are on full display.

On the recurring transport mess in Metro Manila, the solution proposed by the Aquino government is the construction of integrated transport terminals near the metropolis, where provincial buses can load and unload passengers. The general thesis is that provincial buses are a major source of the traffic gridlocks and therefore, they should be banned from metropolitan roads.

In OECD countries, the thrust is to promote walking, biking and mass transport and discourage private vehicles. In Singapore, the buses have priority on road use—the car of the prime minister defers to the buses. Integrated transport terminals that restrict buses from entering cities are no longer being constructed.

Here, the government views discredited orthodoxies as fresh and breathtaking solutions to our major woes.

We keep promoting the discarded, the antiques and obsolescent as fresh policy formulations.

Our policies are frozen. Let them go.


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  1. Mr. Ronquillo,
    I’m sorry but I have to disagree with your notion of outright disregard of dams as an important engineering solution to some of water-related issues such as water scarcity, irrigation, flooding, power generation etc. However, a paradigm of having dam as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to the issues aforementioned is also a big no-no. Dam, is only one of the many solutions to water-related issues. The key in formulating solutions to water-related issues is to understand the synergistic relationship between hydrologic processes and man-made activities.

    Take the flood problem, as an example. Flood phenomenon can be described by the following hydrologic process:

    1.) Precipitation (rainfall intensity) exceeds the rate of absorption of natural ground and the vegetation cover (infriltration) and the environments’ capacity to evaporate (evapo-transpiration) its ambient water/moisture thus producing excess rainwater in the surface (surface run-off)

    2.) Due to natural terrain (topography), surface run-off and infiltrating water (groundwater) will flow to the lowest portion either to the sea/ocean or basins (lakes/ponds/). The transportation mechanism will be the following:
    2a.) For surface run-off, by drainage (gravity flow) through natural conduits and waterways (i.e. rivers and its tributaries)
    2b.) For groundwater, by percolation to the aquifer/aquitard/aquifuge.

    3.) Flood occurs when either or in any combination of the following conditions are satisfied:
    3a.) The intensity of rainfall exceeds the capacity of natural or catchment basins (eg.lakes, flood plain, dams / reservoirs) to contain the volume thus the overflow of surface run-off.
    3b.) The intensity of rainfall exceeds the rate of infiltration/percolation to the ground, and it also exceeds the capacity of the aquifer/aquitard/aquifuge to store water, thus surface run-off.
    3c.) The rate of flow of surface run-off to natural conduits exceeds the capacity of the waterways to discharge/drain to the basins/lakes or open sea/oceans.
    3d.) Extreme change in weather patterns such as strong storm surges, and increasing mean sea level.

    The parameters therefore for flood to occur are:

    A.) Capacity to contain surface run-off
    -Insufficient reservoirs
    -Lack of retention ponds/lakes

    B.) Capacity to store surface run-off
    -Insufficient water sheds and vegetative cover (deforestation, indiscriminate land conversion, etc.)
    -Surface run-off not percolating to the ground aquifer/aquitard/aquifuge
    -Ingress of saline water to the groundwater aquifer/aquitard/aquifuge due to grounwater drawdown or pumping from development areas (eg. residential subdivision using groundwater pumps)

    C.) Capacity to discharge surface run-off
    -Inefficient sewer/stormwater network and system
    -Diminishing natural waterways due to economic development (eg. riverside development, informal settlers)
    -Clogged waterways either by garbage or siltation

    D.) Climate Change
    – Change in weather patterns (extended and/or wetter rainy season,extended and/or drier/hotter summers)
    – Rising sea levels
    – etc.

    Having defined the parameters for flood to occur, the structural solution therefore should address each or in any combination of the following the parameters.

    A.) Capacity to contain Surface Run-off
    – Typical solutions are as follows:
    a.1) Provision for dams and reservoirs
    a.2) Provision for retention ponds & lakes

    B.) Capacity to store
    -Typical solutions are as follows:
    b.1) Watersheds and vegetative cover
    b.2) Artificial Recharging wells
    b.3) Swales

    C.) Capacity to discharge
    -Typical solutions are as follows:
    c.1) separate network for each of the stormwater, residential sewer and industrial sewer lines.
    c.2) increasing waterways capacity either, or in any combination of the following: dredging the river bed, widening the waterways, raising the embankment by providing dikes or levees.
    c.3) reduce the potential of siltation and scouring either or in any combination of the following: bioswales along embankment, baffle chutes to reduce velocity,riprap/gabions/rock armours along embankment,etc.
    c.4) diversion for other purposes such as irrigation, power generation, water supply, transportation, etc.

    D.) Climate Change
    – Typical solutions include:
    d.1) Scenario Planning
    d.2) Improved forecasting techniques
    d.3) Infrastructure adaptation

    As discussed above, dam is only part of the solution of flood problem, or any water-related issues (albeit a significant one). What we need is a comprehensive water management framework (similar to Water Act in the UK) that addresses water-related issues (such as water supply, flood, drainage, sewerage, wastewater, water shed management, etc.) in a regional or national scale and should be incorporated in the land use zonation planning,natural hazard & disaster risk mitigation plan, infrastructure development plan, and economic development plan of the region concerned.

  2. bernie castillo on

    It is not the dams itself but the people who run the system. Dams have to be properly maintained and manned. That means the right people should be running it. Also it should be integrated in the Disaster Warning & Mitigation group (if there is one). It is people that is basically the problem and not the dams.