CRAFTING THE NATIONAL RIVER BASIN DEVELOPMENT AGENDA OF THE PHILIPPINES

Every time there is a major disaster, the attention of most Filipinos always focuses on the more dramatic rescue, relief, and rehabilitation efforts. In a country with a yearly average of 20 typhoons that landfall and cross its territory, including earthquakes and the eruptions of active volcanoes, we have been very proud of our resilience to these regular disasters. Today, however, there is a concern that this resilience is just being magnified and must be replaced with an inclusive and long term economic development and disaster preparedness agenda.

Despite these natural disasters, including policy disasters like the Rice Tariffication Law and poor governance due to graft and corruption, as a country, we have never paid attention to long term undertakings for building inclusive development infrastructures consisting of engineering, business, social, and institutional solutions that are woven together. Apparently, we always claim we have strong organizational and technical capabilities for facing any disaster, which we cannot demonstrate though. It appears that the only thing we are very proud of is our passive resilience. This apparent hypocrisy clearly does not demonstrate our capability of using new technologies, our collective efforts, and more importantly, our government resources.

Professor Luis Teodoro of UP has just reminded us that “resilience is just another name for excusing the incompetence of the elected. He adds that “everyone with any brains especially the media must stop celebrating it.”

Perhaps, it is about time to look at these natural disasters and institutionalize long-term solutions collectively. This perspective is the real essence of resilience, I presume.

Put it in clear operational and historical terms, resilience is our capability to cope with the seasonal inclemency of the natural environment. The development journey started by our ancestors has long been focused on space, the very basic in human settlement. In any given space, land and water are the basic requirements to establish agriculture, commerce, and industry. Since the early mode of transport was by water, our ancestors first settled in our country’s major river basins. Population pressure resulted in building new settlements away from river towns, thus clearing lands mainly for agriculture purposes. Nonetheless, river basin towns are accessible by boat as every river flow drains in larger bodies of water where there are larger settlements that are strategically positioned for domestic and international trade. For instance, the Cagayan River has its mouth in Aparri and the Pampanga River and the Laguna Lake drain in the Manila de Bay through the Pasig River.

Over the years, however, our river systems deteriorated, and only a few are navigable today. Clearly, commercial logging and mining, not the traditional slash and burn agriculture, are the main causes of siltation and pollution affecting our river systems. Until today, the river basins, which encompass around 36 percent of our productive land area, remain the location of our major towns and cities. Flooding and even drought affect these river basins. Therefore, river basins must be understood as vital pieces of our national geography that can serve as the guidepost in long term regional planning both for disaster preparedness and the more inclusive economic development agenda.

MY RIVER BASIN EDUCATIONAL AND PROFESSIONAL JOURNEY

I was in high school at CLSU in the mid-1970s when the construction of Pantabangan Dam and the organizational and technical preparation for the Upper Pampanga Irrigation System started. To supply the Province of Nueva Ecija with irrigation water as IRRI has gained breakthroughs in the high yielding rice varieties that would make two rice croppings possible in larger rice areas, government planners identified the old town of Pantabangan at the headstart of the Pampanga River for building a mega-irrigation infrastructure project. The town had been settled 300 years at the time of the start of the project. Pantabangan is a “junction of water streams between the Sierra Madre and the Caraballo Mountains.” The dam was built for irrigation and power purposes but the mega-infrastructure submerged the town center of Pantabangan.

I witnessed the establishment of the headquarters of the Upper Pampanga River Irrigation Project when the National Irrigation Administration built an office and training complex within the campus of CLSU, which I could see from the house I grew up in just outside the perimeter fence of the university. It was the most modern facility inside the campus of the university at that time. As new Toyota Land Cruiser service vehicles roam the town, Pantabangan Dam became a household brand. The talk of our town then that the dam would also bring flooding due to water overflow for possible faulty construction and a large volume of water to be released. Even if the project would irrigate thousands of hectares of rice farms, the danger was the talk of the town. However, this possible catastrophe gradually died over the years. Instead, for over four decades of the dam’s life, the low water level of the dam that results in its inability to provide irrigation water and power during the dry months are the problems we occasionally see that are the more popular concerns. Nevertheless, I am not aware of any plan that prepares the low lying towns of my home province of Nueva Ecija for the worst scenario.

My river basin education continued as an Agricultural Economics student at UPLB. In my Macroeconomics subject, I chose to prepare a term paper on the economic impact of irrigation infrastructure with Pantabangan Dam as the case project. My instructor, who would become an Assistant Secretary at DAR, warned me though of the negative consequences, citing the lessons learned from big dams in Egypt due to the high rate of sedimentation that would possibly result in a shorter life span of Pantabangan. Nonetheless, the Pantabangan Dam was crucial in attaining national rice self-sufficiency for a brief period from 1978-1979 because of two croppings made possible by the dam on a larger scale.

Just ten years after the dam opened, the Casecnan Power and Irrigation Project would be approved by President Cory Aquino. The project would divert additional water from Casecnan River to Pantabangan through a 25-kilometer tunnel. Casecnan though was more of a power project but would irrigate rice farms in towns not served by the Pantabangan Dam, including parts of my home town of Munoz, Nueva Ecija, and the towns of Talugtug and Guimba. In one of the consultations that I attended in line with the Casecnan Project, I already saw that instead of the traditional gravity and open canal system for rice farming that heavily consumes water, developing a pipe irrigation system to diversify the cropping system in the service area of Casecnan for high-value crops would be more economical.

In my professional career, luckily, I was able to immediately follow the field of development planning, my first choice after leaving UPLB in 1983. I would be then exposed to river basin development projects while with the National Council on Integrated Area Development (NACIAD), a development planning agency under the Office of the Prime Minister during the Marcos era, of which I joined in 1985. The Bicol River Basin Development Project and the Cagayan Integrated Area Development Project were projects under NACIAD. These two projects focused on the development of two of the country’s major river basins. These IAD models were patterned after the Tennessee River Valley Authority in the US.

When I moved to the Department of Agriculture, I was asked to explore the possibility of bringing to the attention for Dutch bilateral assistance the perennial flooding in the Candaba Delta/Swamp for an integrated agricultural development project. The Dutch Embassy in Manila gave us the go signal in using funds out of the fertilizer grant by the Dutch Government being monetized by the Department of Agriculture for our project development fund. However, we were not given the opportunity to explore this mysterious fund. As a result, we were not able to propose the Candaba project initiative, which was supposed to bring in Dutch expertise in flood control and agricultural development. A year after, I received a training award to attend a Project Management Course in the Netherlands and I saw the Dutch’s inventiveness in water resources engineering.

Three years later, Mt. Pinatubo erupted and the Dutch assistance would be diverted to address the calamity but the Department of Agriculture also mismanaged the fund.

At PhilRice, which I joined in 1992 when I decided to go back to my home town, I was surprised that the development framework of the institute is not aligned with the country’s major river basins, although the first release rice varieties for lowland ecosystem under the PhilRice led national coordinated rice varietal development were named after the country’s major rivers. Since its inception in 1987, PhilRice has been following the IRRI ecosystem model, which is designed because of IRRI’S global operations. I was very pessimistic that without aligning the rice research and development agenda with the major rice-growing areas, the national rice program agenda of the Philippines would not have its soul and rice self-sufficiency would be difficult to attain. Despite many oppositions to more area focused rice research and development was advocating, I fought hard to introduce the framework in the PhilRice corporate plan. While the Strategic Rice Area approach guided the institute in paper only, PhilRice did not abandon the IRRI model.

These strategic rice-growing areas are mostly the country’s river basins. When I was the designated team leader that prepared the rice research and development agenda for the entire Mindanao, I designed the planning methodology by focusing on the major river basins of Mindanao. These growing areas are the Cotabato River Basin in Cotabato, the Polangui River Basin in Bukidnon that drain to the Cotabato River, and the Agusan River Basin in the Agusan Provinces. Unfortunately, PhilRice would still go back to what it is familiar with by following the IRRI ecosystem model without understanding the importance of the country’s basic geography. The government agency that is supposed to provide the leadership in crafting the strategic development framework for national rice self-sufficiency has long been in the wrong focus. We cannot be self-sufficient in rice unless this rice research and development approach is rectified.

In July 1998 while detailed in the Department of Agriculture from PhilRice, a copy of a note from President Estrada ordering the Department of Budget and Management to release 3.4 billion Pesos for the La Nina Action Plan was passed to me. La Nina is a climatic phenomenon that is expected to bring flooding, which would affect our major towns and cities along river basins, with agriculture to be most seriously affected. I was asked to prepare a plan being required by the DBM for the release of 3.4 billion Pesos for the La Nina Action Plan of the Department of Agriculture. Prior to the order of President Estrada, a Fil-Am scientist made a presentation to us that would use soundwave technology in flood monitoring. His technology would build an integrated monitoring system that is interconnected with an alarm system installed in every river town advising the dangers of flooding for preparedness of all rescue units and forced evacuation if necessary.

With this information and after meeting a retired Philippine Army general with expertise in disaster preparedness and rescue operations, I prepared the plan for the La Nina Action Plan. After the DBM read the proposal, the release of the initial fund of about 1.8 billion USD was smooth. Prior to the release, however, I left the La Nina team. There was no La Nina and a large part of the fund was diverted to fake studies. It further served as the training ground for at least two people I know that would be involved in the Bolante Fertilizer Scam and the Napoles Scam.

After these exposures to river basin development and disaster preparedness planning through formal education and a career in government service in the Philippines with three agencies namely NACIAD under the Office of the Prime Minister, Special Concerns Office of the Department of Agriculture, and Planning and Collaborative Programs Office of PhilRice, I thought that I could translate a part of my educational and professional journey into a river basin development agenda. I presume my own story is worthy of sharing as it contains a flow of interconnected events adequate to craft the development agenda for our major river basins. I then initiated the preparation of a conceptual framework for a national investment agenda model for the Philippines that focuses on the country’s major river basins. However, it must not be a stand-alone agenda, but rather a vital component of a national investment agenda.

This is therefore to introduce the four-part Solidaridad 2020 Agenda, which we envisioned in 2008 inside a Law Office in Manhattan with two other UP alumni, one from the College of Law, and one from the School of Economics, just right after I migrated to the US. I completed the three-part national investment agenda in the year 2011 and after another year, I added the urban agenda making it a four-part investment agenda.

SOLIDARIDAD 2020 AGENDA

Solidaridad 2020 Agenda is principally about embarking on new and grand socio-economic development goals and objectives through highly imaginable undertakings for our people and for our country. For instance, building mega infrastructures like food and bioenergy parks that provide the structure and order for national agro-industrial development and inter-island bridges that virtually connect the entire Philippine archipelago by land and rail transportation. In these endeavors, Solidaridad 2020 Agenda must be invested with popular approval and support.

A) Solidaridad 2020 Main Agenda

This main agenda follows an integrated agro-industrial approach clustering around the food and bio-energy parks to be established in strategic locations in the country that will provide structure and order for national development. The Philippine Food and Bioenergy Park Corporation is then organized as a management and holding company that establishes and operates food and bioenergy parks, food terminal markets, and other support and research and development infrastructure related to food and bioenergy. Furthermore, the agenda deals with a combination of private endeavor that is based on financial soundness and a humanitarian undertaking vital to the development, particularly in investments not attractive to `the profit-oriented private sector.

The food parks are supported by production centers established for agroforestry with biofuels, hybrid rice, coconut, dairy carabao, livestock and veterinary services, greenhouse farming, aquaculture, onion farming, coffee, coconut, and macadamia nuts intercropping, and for other agricultural industries that need to be nurtured based on the needs of the food parks infrastructure and the resource potential in the service areas.

Specialized production centers for the export of mango, abaca, carrageenan, and bamboo semi-processed products direct to the US Foreign-Trade Zones are then established. Warehouse stores of agricultural inputs and machinery support the production centers to ensure the availability of inexpensive and quality production inputs. The production centers supply the products required for processing in the food parks and trading in the food terminal. Serving as the basic building block of the national agro-industrial economy, each production center follows the private-community partnership model. Organized production and marketing, technology transfer, and credit assistance are the vital components of every center.

Support development and business infrastructure for roads, transportation systems, education, banking and finance, telecommunications, housing, and training and convention centers are part of the Solidaridad 2020 Main Agenda.

B)Solidaridad 2020 River Basin Agenda

Solidaridad 2020 River Basin Agenda builds the development framework for sustainable investment that has its foundation in the major river basins of the Philippines. The River Basin Agenda provides the geographical and physical planning dimensions to the Solidaridad 2020 Development Agenda. Therefore, the river basin of the Philippines serves as the physical and geographical foundation of a national socio-economic development agenda.

C) Solidaridad 2020 Inter-island Agenda

The agenda is centered around the modernization of the maritime infrastructure nationwide, which focuses on contributing significantly to the modernization of all ports in the country, including fish ports, coupled with the upgrading of the navigational system to international standards and the re-fleeting of passenger and cargo vessels.

D) Solidaridad 2020 Urban Agenda

The goal of the urban investment agenda is to respond to the challenge for national development by transforming the urban communities in the Philippines to be competitive for sustainable investment and development. In line with this goal, the agenda will a) craft an institutional and funding framework of urban development in the Philippines that is consistent with the Solidaridad 2020 Investment Agenda, b) adopt the ADB strategy of focusing on integrated approaches that specifically target the poor, promote economic development, treat cities as living ecosystems, involve the private sector and civil society, and adopt measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change impacts of urbanization, and c) strengthen the organizational capability in promoting and managing sustainable investment and development

This is the summary of the river basin agenda.

SOLIDARIDAD 2020 RIVER BASIN AGENDA

Solidaridad 2020 River Basin Agenda builds the development framework for sustainable investment that has its foundation anchored to the major river basins of the Philippines. The investment agenda principally focuses on exploring the use of land and water resources of the major river basins for investment opportunities while strictly complying with the regulatory use of these resources for economic and sustainable environmental utilization purposes.

The establishment of new river basin authorities or corporate consortia and the streamlining of the existing river basin organizations serve as the core program of the national river basin investment agenda. Therefore, the existing river basin organizations for Pampanga River, Bicol River, Agusan River, Agno River, Laguna Lake and Pasig River, and Mindanao are further rationalized while new river authorities for the remaining river basins are established that will eventually serve all the 19 major river basins in the entire archipelago, which covers about 36 percent of the entire land area of the Philippines. These authorities or corporate consortia are organized with the mandate of raising the necessary capital resources in building institutions with strong organizational and technical capabilities in carrying out project coordination and management, policy analysis and advocacy, action research, and investment campaign. The authorities have the full corporate powers and responsibilities in undertaking financially self-sustaining endeavors and at the same time are capable of serving as regulatory or policy-making bodies for the development and protection of the country’s major river basins.

The Solidaridad 2020 River Basin Agenda begins by building river basin authorities or corporate consortia with accountability for socio-economic development and empowerment guided by a strong commitment to community participation. These organizations that cut across political boundaries for following the flow of the rivers become autonomous institutions that may or may not obtain congressional acts to exist. New models in corporate governance for the country’s major river basin authorities or corporate consortia, therefore, emerge, thereby attracting more sustainable investment.

This investment agenda recognizes new government initiatives in the development and protection of the country’s river basins, and Executive Order 510 as amended by Executive Order 816 that created the River Basin Control Office (RCBO) under the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) on March 5, 2006, is the foremost government initiative recognized by the agenda. RCBO now serves as the coordinating body and among its vital functions is to rationalize the various existing river basin projects and act as a water body that shall coordinate all government projects within the river basins. With the legal mandate and in collaboration with the proposed agenda, a new national program for the river basins of the Philippines is therefore crafted and implemented.

These investment opportunities include hydro resources power and irrigation, disaster preparedness and rehabilitation, water and sewage system, flood and river control and bridges, waste management and waste to energy, housing and resettlement, biomass production and biofuels, and cooperative banking. In line with modern agriculture and fisheries, support infrastructure gives priority to the sustainable use of land and water resources such as dryland farming, drip and pipe irrigation system, and crop zoning and calendar focused agriculture. Profit and non-profit corporations that will explore these investment opportunities will be established and funded through a private and public partnership.

Considering that the country’s river basins are the most vulnerable to the regular occurrence of typhoons that brings flooding while a cycle of El Niño is becoming shorter, and man-made disasters brought by over logging, mining, and industrial pollution affect the major river basins, the Solidaridad 2020 River Basin agenda supports the building of a proactive investment approach to disaster preparedness and rehabilitation after a disaster. The investment strategy for disaster preparedness creates an organizational environment that translates disaster into opportunities and eventually establishes an institutional system with strong organizational and financial capabilities through the river basin authorities or consortia in addressing disaster preparedness.

Specialized corporations or investment funds for drought mitigation focused on the economical use of water resources for agriculture and fund for disaster rehabilitation through a nonprofit corporation are established. This nonprofit organization provides the leadership in streamlining disaster rehabilitation operations after disasters.

The agenda establishes an investment fund to support local water authorities. This investment strategy addresses the foreseen need of integrating water and sewage in the water utilities in the river basin areas, taking into account that only seven percent of the households in the Philippines is served by the sewage system. The investment fund does not need to establish a corporation but supports the local water utilities to open new areas for the water system and expands areas for integrated water and sewage systems.

One salient feature of the river basin investment agenda is the recognition of the important role of the Engineering Brigade of the Philippine Army in the river basin development as the principal builder and flood and river control research institution using the US Army Corp of Engineers as the model. The Engineering Brigade receives private funding and creates a corporate subsidiary that spearheads the building of infrastructures such as flood and river control, housing settlement, toll highways and bridges, and other infrastructure. The establishment of the subsidiary of the Engineering Brigade under a private sector and government sector ownership opens the role of the military towards broader civil and military engineering operations, particularly the research and development aspect of river basin flood control.

The River Basin Cooperative Bank is established. Patterned after the Dutch Rabo Bank, the bank consolidates existing cooperative banks in the river basin areas to promote cooperative banking. The bank will operate as a universal bank in the future.

Finally, the Solidaridad 2020 River Basin Agenda interfaces with the Solidaridad 2020 Development Agenda, the principal national development agenda anchored to the establishment of food and bioenergy parks. Primary interfacing will be the establishment of the food and bioenergy parks mostly in the major river basins of the country. Furthermore, the river basins are the physical production resources of the production centers for rice, freshwater fish, biofuels, and other high-value crops that can be grown through an organized system of agriculture. Support social and physical infrastructure in the Solidaridad 2020 Agenda such as transportation, education and training, rural road, and public market also interface with the river basin investment agenda.

THE NEXT COURSE OF ACTION

Who is going to start a grand undertaking for the development of our country’s major river basins? While the prudent approach demands a complex process that straddles the total spectrum and intertwined human and environmental interactions, which cover community commitment and cooperation, private sector participation, and government enabling environment and regulatory interventions, relying on the government’s full leadership is doubtful. So much time has been wasted without any action for restoring the beauty of our river systems. Consequently, there is no other option than to rely on our collective capabilities with the application of science and technology.

The lessons from the latest significant disasters like Yolanda, a natural disaster; Marawi, which is a man-made conflict disaster; and the Rice Tariffication Law, a policy disaster, could all be attributed to lack of planning and narrow vision.  The only solution to be embraced is to pursue economic development agenda in the river basins of the Philippines on a grand scale. Forget the piecemeal approach because it did not work. Can we do it as private citizens collectively? I believe it can be done and the experiment is worth trying because the hypothesis is clear, that “if we are united using our education, experience, and connection collectively, we can initiate the agenda as envisioned in the Solidaridad 2020 River Basin Agenda.”

What we envision is to first mobilize the Filipino expatriates in the US. If these groups of professionals, who have gained advanced education and professional experience in diverse fields that include agriculture and rural development, engineering, medicine and related health care science, information technology, economics and finance, international development, education, law, journalism, and other fields of physical and biological sciences are consolidated through a platform we can collectively participate, there is no doubt that we can snowball the process. This model has not been tried, except for the old “Balik Scientist” with very limited impact, and perhaps none at all.

The consolidation of the US-based expatriates is just going to start the process. Patterned after General Douglas MacArthur’s “I Shall Return” business model, the undertaking, together with the generation of the fund is the first priority. There is no doubt that  General MacArthur first asked for the funding before committing to return to the Philippines. In other words, the initiative must contain a ready funding amount and a fund generation and funding structure for bankrolling and sustaining the development in the country’s river basins.

As US citizens, and once we are organized, we can lobby with the US development assistance programs, the USAID and USDA in particular, to focus development assistance programs of the US for the Philippines on the country’s river basins. The process will thus create a framework for inciting the interest of Filipino professionals and other institutions to commit their expertise in an organized manner. The US development assistance is just the start of a grand undertaking. Other international partners become participants in the river basin development agenda.

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