The Philippines’ environmental department has approved a China-backed mega dam project that critics said would displace tribal communities north of Manila and cause environmental destruction, according to documents obtained by BenarNews.
The 291-hectare (720-acre) Kaliwa Dam, a project of President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration and financed by Beijing, is to be built at the Sierra Madre mountain range at a cost of 12.2 billion pesos (about U.S. $240 million). It is expected to be completed between 2023 and 2025.
In an Oct. 11 letter to the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS), director Metodio Turbella of the Environment Management Bureau said his agency had given the green light for an Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC). This is an indication that the project could proceed to the next stage, which is to obtain permits from other agencies, including the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, according to officials.
“With the issuance of this ECC, you are expected to implement the measures … to protect and mitigate the project’s adverse impacts on community health, welfare and the environment,” Turbella’s letter read.
To be constructed by the state-run China Energy Engineering Corp., the dam is envisioned to ease Manila’s water shortage and is one of the major infrastructure deals signed when Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited Manila in November 2018.
But environmentalists have questioned the legality of the project, citing a Philippine law to protect watershed areas. Tribal communities have also protested, claiming that the dam’s construction would mean that many of them would be displaced.
Once completed, the dam is expected to supply 600 million liters (158 million gallons) of water per day to Metro Manila.
Officials committed ‘procedural lapses,’ NGO says
Rovik Santiago Obanil, one of the leaders of the Stop Kaliwa Dam network, an NGO that opposes the project, lashed out at officials behind the release of the ECC. He said the proponents failed to properly hold public consultations in the communities that would be affected.
“The Environmental Management Bureau committed procedural lapses when it allowed the hearings to continue despite the fact that there were many pending issues,” Obanil told BenarNews.
“They just brushed aside the substantial issues raised by the indigenous people, environmental groups and other NGOs,” Obanil said.
Obanil said that despite the promise that the project would ease water shortages in the capital and nearby provinces, at least 5,000 people would face displacement in Tanay town in Rizal province alone. Critics said about 100,000 people could face flooding risks.
The government, on the other hand, insists that only 56 families would be affected when the dam is built.
Rene Ofreneo, head of the NGO Freedom from Debt Coalition, told reporters the government must explain more clearly the conditions attached to the dam project.
He slammed the deal as one-sided in favor of China, citing several issues including a provision in the contract stipulating that rights and obligations by the parties shall be “governed by and construed in accordance with laws of China.”
Proponents of the project also failed to secure consent from the Dumagat and Romantado indigenous tribes who would be affected by the project, Ofroneo said.
“This is a clear violation of the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act,” he said. “The dam would also be constructed within the Kaliwa watershed forest reserve, in violation of another law protecting such areas.”
The dam would be built over an active earthquake fault, “dangling the lives of the people living in communities” in provinces adjacent to the proposed dam, Ofroneo said.
“This is just terrible,” he said.
Spokesmen for the government as well as the Chinese Embassy in Manila were not immediately available to comment.