Deforestation, Dying Rivers Leading To Water Wars – OpEd


An eerie calm exists over the villages of Fedelisan, Sagada and Dalican of Bontoc of Mountain Province, Philippines. It is because, there is no telling how many killings will again turn the pristine waters red. Not too long ago, ten people died and scores injured in prolonged tribal war over water.

Water has become a major bone of contention not only in villages but also nationwide. Water-related conflicts have been increasing lately. The Philippine National Police (PNP) in four regions covering 56 provinces, identified 34 areas last year where shooting and killing erupted due to conflicts on water rights, boundaries, use and sharing.

In urban areas, it may not be long before the problem of diminishing water resource goes uncontrolled towards social unrest. Per capita demands are increasing and per capita water availability is declining due to population growth and trends in economic development.

The country’s capital Manila is the most vulnerable to water scarcity, so are the major cities Baguio, Cebu, Bacolod, Iloilo, Olongapo, Angeles. Cagayan de Oro, Pagadian and Davao city; the Philippine Center for Water and Sanitation (PCWS) said. These cities are currently experiencing severe water shortages.

Enough Water But Unavailable For All

It may be unthinkable because according to Dr. Peter H. Glieck of the Pacific Institute for Environment (PIE), the country happens to have 323 km^3 per year of total renewable fresh water supply, third most bountiful in Southeast Asia after Indonesia and Malaysia. But think again. Of that amount, the country can only withdraw a total of 29.5 per cent yearly of water.

Dr. Glieck reported in the 2012 edition of the “World Water” says, the Philippines will need some 393 per cent of total withdrawal starting year 2000 until the next ten years. Of the total withdrawable amount, 18 per cent is consumed for domestic use, 21 per cent for industrial purposes and 61 per cent for agricultural irrigation.

Luzon itself is a paradoxical case. Even with the Gran Cordillera, Caraballo and Sierra Madre ranges which cradle three giant river basins; Agno, Angat and Cagayan, water scarcity has not only become a problem in the country’s biggest island. It is also causing sanitation constraints and increasing incidences of water-related diseases and amount of land irrigated is falling as competition for agricultural water is being strained to the limit.

Deforestation and Water Mismanagement Are Culprits

Not surprisingly, massive deforestation is behind the problem. Deforestation is rampant nationwide. If the country’s deforestation rate pegged at 1,500 hectares a day as of 1995 by the World Resources Institute (WRI) is not scary enough, deforestation rates in several provinces are more alarming with many provinces falling below the ideal 60:40 forest-settlement ratio to maintain ecological balance. The Cordillera Ecological Center, an environmental NGO at least six provinces in the Cordillera region have only between 20 – 30 forest cover, based from LANDSAT estimates, with the province Benguet having the least forest cover.

The country itself has only a little more than 4 million hectares of forests left, 700,000 hectares of which are virgin forests as bared by former Senate committee on environment Sen. Loren Legarda. But it may not be long before these are wiped out, what with the deforestation rate far outstripping reforestation efforts.

According to former director of PCWS Director Rory Villaluna, deforestation is not the only cause for worsening water inadequacy. Rather, water resources like river basins, rivers, creeks, brooks and underground water are inadequately protected, conserved and rehabilitated. She said water levels have not only gone down. These are being polluted at an alarming rate such that it is not fit for domestic or agricultural use.

Such statements only prove Sen. Legarda’s lamentable revelation that only one forester guards and protects every 3,000 hectares of forests in the country.

“We often equate water with forests but actually ill water management and use has only aggravated the sad state of our watersheds—our main sources of water. Much water, if not only polluted and poisoned can be used back for the burgeoning population”, Villaluna says. “We ask what forests can give us, but we don’t do enough to give back to conserve our forests and water”, she added with finality, albeit hinting that water should really be managed..

Dying Rivers

The Agno River of the Philippines is a very good example. While it feeds three dams—San Roque, Ambuklao and Binga which generate 1,200 megawatts of electricity, it is dying.

From its headwaters in Mount Data and Loo, Buguias, Benguet, now the country’s center of highland vegetable production, toxic pesticides find their way to the river. All along its stretch, vegetable gardens using dangerous broad spectrum pesticides exist. The deadly chemicals eventually find their way to the river through soil and water surface as well as underground run-off.

As the river reaches Itogon municipality, cyanide and mercury from the various mines and hundreds of pocket miners seep to the river. A Japan Integrated Cooperative Agency (JICA) study in 1990 showed that at Lingayen Gulf, Pangasinan, the delta of Agno, shellfishes have trace deposits of cyanide and mercury.

Mercurial and cyanide poisoning cause weakening of the human body, and these are characterized by symptoms coughing, vomiting, reddening of eyes, nausea and difficulty of breathing, the late Dr. Charles Cheng, a noted medical researcher and director of the Baguio-based Chinese-Filipino General Hospital said.

Because both have cumulative effects, they may not kill instantly in small deposits in the human body. But when accumulation defeats the tolerable level of the human body, instant death occurs, Dr. Cheng said.

Aside from the two deadly chemicals, an independent assessment team commissioned by the Friends of the Earth (FOE) and the International Rivers Network (IRN) found several more harmful chemicals in Agno’s river. Dr. Sergio Feld of the team identified these as lead, selenium, molybdenum, iron, manganese, zinc, arsenic, copper, nickel and even radioactive compounds like uranium.

The Manila-based Upland NGO Committee (UNAC) say 27 rivers which used to provide household water, irrigation, fishing haven, and washing and swimming grounds are “crying in silence” as they go to die in dams or either run dry. UNAC Committee member and secretary general of the NGO Bantay Mina Nestor Caoli says six of the 27 rivers – Balili, Agno, Baroro, Balincaquin, Bued and Dagupan—are biologically dead due to mining.

Six more rivers are heavily polluted and silted by mining activities. These are Naguillan, Upper Magat, Caraballo, Santa Fe, Amburayan and Pasil. Expanding agricultural operations are pouring pesticide elements into the river, Caoli said. The dead and dying rivers are adversely affecting economic and social activities of people living within and along the rivers’ headwaters and tributaries, UNAC said.

CEC added one river that feeds the country’s vegetable bowl, Balili River is being killed mainly by solid waste pollution including human excrement from Baguio City, a known highland tourism city. An estimated 3,000 tons monthly of human excreta is treated by the Baguio Sewage Plant but still find their way to Balili river.

The Cordillera, it appears, is fast turning out to be the region of not only the “dammed, damned, but also of dying rivers”,CEC said.

The government’s Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) of the DENR came out with a different view but still complements the above-said findings of the NGOs. It says Amburayan and Baroro rivers of La Union are dead, so are Agno and Dagupan of Pangasinan.

Even rivers in Bulacan and Batangas are dying; Balagtas, Bocaue, Guiguinto, Marilao and Meycauayan in Bulacan and Dumaca-a in the province of Batangas.

In Luzon’s heart, Metro Manila, nine river sub-basins are may soon have only poisoned water. These are Obando-Malabon-Navotas estuary in Balut and Malabon, Marikina in Payatas, Tullahan in Valenzuela, the three Taguig-Napindan river basins in Taguig and Taguig-Napindan in Fort Bonifacio. These are in the most critical situations among the country’s 18 river basins whose areas total to more than 110,000 square kilometers.

No Water Means Death Of Communities

The dead and silent rivers are now the subject of fierce rhetoric from environmentalists hell-bent on protecting what is left of the country’s water sources. NGOs in Luzon look squarely at logging companies, mines, dams and insensitive farmers as culprits. Forester George Facsoy of the Cordillera Ecological Center, for instance, sees the death of rivers as the decapitation of communities from the ecosystem that once supported them.

In the Cordillera, “water is looked upon as life itself”, as the Igorot hero Macli-ing Dulag once said. Death of a river means people will suffer deep economic recession. There will be no farms and fishing areas, and people will be marginalized, making them dependent on outside culture difficult for them to adapt to, he said.

The precious water from rivers replenishes the paddies and deposits fertile silt onto thousands of hectares of farms which foster populations along rivers. If and when the rivers run dry, the imprint of many centuries of human civilizations’ cumulative toiling, ethnic culture and identity will be forever lost, he said.

Groundwater Will Be Affected

The extinction of rivers will directly affect underground water resources, the National Water Resources Center (NWRC) warned. Of all the nation’s provinces, only 12 have groundwater resources that are expected to provide water in the near future. Not one of these has a groundwater area of more than 30,000 hectares—meaning—population density will definitely bear hard on water that these sources can provide.

Groundwater, often looked upon as an unreliable resource, is possible of being lost . It is very vulnerable and with the water and sanitation sectors’ poor management of it, like surface water, it may soon be lost to oblivion

If so, biodiversity will be lost too, and economic and social activities will altogether be disrupted, especially in the lower regions.

Waters wars Will be Fought This Millenium

The specter of water crisis will cause communities to fight tooth and nail for possession and use. The politics of water is as difficult as preventing a war. It makes rivers no longer “deep and wide” as the song goes, but the rift between communities.

Sandra Postel of the influential Worldwatch Institute says “in efforts to seek and prevent water as flashpoints of conflict, there is a must for mediators to allocate strategies where communities or nations can agree to equal sharing.” Easier said than done, especially so when no law exists where pressure is put on lower communities to either pay for the water that flows or die without. Moreso, putting water scarcity to the already crowded policy agenda of the government has not yet been done with genuine interest by Philippine law-makers. Even though the challenge to recognize water scarcity as an increasingly powerful cause of political and social instability is so great. In fact, politicians have yet to pass a Code of Conduct for the water and sanitation sector.

“Communities and even counties will go to war”, warned Facsoy and the government may find it too late to act.” The villages in Mountain Province are not the only volatile places. This year’s drought, the impending long, hot summer and El Nino next year, need not spell these out.

*About the Author: Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan wrote for the British Panos News and Features and GEMINI News Service, the Brunei Times, and US Environment News Service. In the Philippines, he wrote for DEPTHNews of the Press Foundation of Asia, Today, the Philippine Post, and Vera Files. A practicing environmentalist, he holds postgraduate degrees in environment resource management and development studies as a European Union (EU) Fellow at University College, Dublin, Ireland. He is currently a Fellow of Echoing Green Foundation of New York City. He now writes for Business Mirror and Eurasia Review.

Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan

Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan wrote for the British Panos News and Features and GEMINI News Service, the Brunei Times, and US Environment News Service. In the Philippines, he wrote for DEPTHNews of the Press Foundation of Asia, Today, the Philippine Post, and Vera Files. A practicing environmentalist, he holds postgraduate degrees in environment resource management and development studies as a European Union (EU) Fellow at University College, Dublin, Ireland. He is currently a Fellow of Echoing Green Foundation of New York City. He now writes for Business Mirror and Eurasia Review.

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