Blame Aquino especially for the Laguna and SLEX flooding

I’m serious and I’m not exaggerating. Read on, and you will be convinced that President Aquino is culpable not only for the flooding in Laguna and the South Luzon Expressway but even at least partly, for the worsening flooding in the metropolis.

The worsening of the flooding in Laguna in the past few days, as its governor Emilio Ramon Ejercito himself pointed out the other day, was basically due to the fact that the Laguna de Bay was so much silted that it could not contain the heavy monsoon rainwater. He pointed out that from an average depth of 12 meters “during the time of Jose Rizal”, the lake is now just 2. 5 meters deep.

That the flooding in recent days worsened, reaching even the South Luzon Expressway, even if rainwater actually wasn’t bigger than the comparable volume in 2012 wasn’t really a surprise. The silting of the lake and of the channels gets worse year after year if no efforts are made to dredge these of silt and other sediments.

The role of Laguna Lake in the metropolis’ flooding is something government agencies—especially the MMDA, the DPWH, and the Laguna Lake Development Authority—have known for decades.

Silted lake’s role in metropolis’ and Laguna’s flooding. (Lower inset: SLEX flooded)

Silted lake’s role in metropolis’ and Laguna’s flooding. (Lower inset: SLEX flooded)

Prodded by the devastation of two typhoons hitting the country in the space of a few days in October 2009, President Arroyo rushed a project to address that particular cause of flooding, called the Laguna Lake Rehabilitation Project. It would involve dredging Laguna Lake so that it could contain more rainwater and the deepening of the 7-kilometer Napindan Chanel in Taytay so that it could better and more quickly draw floodwaters away from the metropolis to the lake.

There was a solution that time to the usual obstacle to all of our infrastructure projects — financing. Like many in the industrialized world, a European country’s policy for stabilizing its economy during that period of global financial crisis was to assist its biggest businesses.

Thus the Belgian government offered to finance the Laguna Lake Rehabilitation Project’s P19 billion cost, if it were to be undertaken by the Belgian-owned engineering firm Baagerwerken Decloedt En Zoon), a 150-year old firm that specializes in dredging projects in Europe and all over the world. The Belgian government even agreed that one-fourth of the cost would be grant, and the rest an official development assistance loan at concessional rates.

After months of negotiations, everything was set for the project to commence August 2010, to be completed by July 2012. Once hitch though: Aquino won in the June elections.

Mr. Aquino unilaterally cancelled the project. He didn’t even have the courtesy of doing it officially; he merely ordered in August Secretary Cesar Purisima not to sign the official form for the loan to be drawn.

He publicly announced its cancellation only in November, condemning it as “another corrupt” project of his predecessor. He even ridiculed it as a total rip-off “which would have dredged one part of the Laguna lake and then transfer the silt to another part.”

That’s a ridiculous assessment, understandable only because Aquino at that time was delirious that every project proposed by his predecessor was corrupt.

The project very clearly specified that the dredged material would be deposited in designated sites off Taytay-Angono and San Pedro. These sites in fact would become reclaimed land where wastewater treatment facilities would be built.

Seven government departments, agencies and inter-departmental bodies evaluated the project for three years, and endorsed it for immediate implementation in 2010. Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas governor Amando Tetangco Jr. said in his approval of the project’s foreign funding: “Its purpose is to improve the Lake’s capacity as a catch basin to reduce flooding in nearby towns and cities.”

Mr. Aquino’s Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, in her August 2010 legal opinion, found nothing wrong with it: “The project cannot be construed as a midnight deal since it is covered by official development assistance from the Belgian government.” The Laguna Lake Development Authority general manager whom Mr. Aquino appointed supported the project.

The Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme himself appealed to Mr. Aquino not to gullibly believe unfounded claims fed to him. Leterme officially vouched for the project’s integrity, and even submitted to Mr. Aquino an independent evaluation of the project, by the British dredging expert Anthony D Bates Partnership.

“As I understand from the report of this expert, which is enclosed, the project can be an undeniable improvement for the Metro Manila area and alleviate flooding, improve local transport infrastructure and increase water capacity,” Leterme wrote in a letter to Mr. Aquino in March 2011.

Leterme even asked Aquino to meet with his official emissary, who would fly to Manila to explain to him and “to any other party” that the project is not only appropriate but is an ideal and an urgent one for the country. He and the Belgian company even offered to revise any part of the project that is shown to be defective or inappropriate.

Aquino snubbed the Belgian prime minister and the firm’s representatives and didn’t bother replying to them.

The House of Representatives’ Committee on Ecology investigated the allegations against the project, especially those hurled by the leftist organization Pamalakaya, which included a preposterous one that fishermen in the lake would be evicted. The Committee evaluated even the legal and financial aspects of the project and saw nothing wrong in it.

It recommended that Aquino order a green light for the project. If he still has concerns, the committee even recommended a committee to be composed of nine Cabinet members to review the project and propose revisions. (Download Copy of committee’s report.)

Aquino ignored the House Committee’s report and recommendations. A Senate version of the House Committee didn’t pursue its own investigation, on the servile excuse given by its chair Teofisto Guingona III, that the president’s cancellation made it moot and academic.

Did Aquino undertake any project to replace the Belgian one he even referred to as a “joke”?

Nothing. It’s all been blah-blahs, with governor Ejercito the other day vaguely referring to a proposal to build a “mega-dike” around the lake. He said the best solution would be a “Pacific Spillway” that would channel excess lake waters across Quezon province to the Pacific Ocean. He is hallucinating: such a channel have to cut through mountains and would be about 25 kilometers long, three times the length of the Corinth Canal in Greece, which took billions of dollars, at today’s valuation, to build.

Aquino’s cancellation of the Laguna dredging project would haunt us long after his term ends not only because of the floods in Manila and the flooding of Laguna and the SLEX that would worsen every year.

Some P7 billion in taxpayers’ money will be going down the drain if the International Center for Investment Disputes rules that Aquino unfairly cancelled the Belgian firm’s contract. Filed in 2011, the case is likely to be decided this year since all arguments and documents by both parties have been submitted. The Belgian firm is demanding a P6 billion damages, and our government’s legal costs would be in the P1 billion range.

If government loses its case, there must be a way for Aquino alone (or maybe include there his adviser Senator Franklin Drilon, the only other official who claimed the project was graft-ridden) to shoulder this cost, as it was he and he alone who unilaterally cancelled it.

For Filipinos to suffer the floods and pay for the consequences of the boo-boo that prevented the solution to these would be the height of injustice.
Download Copy of committee’s report