TURNING POINT: Lake Lanao and the Mindanao Brownouts

NAAWAN, Misamis Oriental (MindaNews/ 11 May) — On February 27, 2014, at around 3 a.m., the whole island of Mindanao was swept by a massive unannounced brownout that lasted for hours.

The circuit breaker of Agus I hydroelectric power plant in Baloi, Lanao del Norte, accordingly, tripped, causing power outage that cascaded to Agus 2 and to the other four power plants along the Agus River. The other power generators in the National Power Corporation (NPC) Network, to include that of the Pulangi River hydropower plant in Maramag, Bukidnon, and the German coal-fired Steag State Power plant in Villanueva, Misamis Oriental, subsequently tripped, too, and went offline. The tripping phenomenon damaged a number of power generators and depleted to very low level the supply of energy.

From then on, the power situation of the entire island has not returned to normal. To date, many of the power generators within the NPC power complex are still undergoing repairs and thus are unable to operate fully. This accounts for the deficit of some 300 MW of electric supply in the entire island. Thus, a punishing rotational brownout that lasts from 7 – 10 hours a day is now experienced everywhere. Needless to say, the power outage has inconvenienced everyone. It is hurting business most, causing a loss estimated at P30M/hour.

But as to what really caused the mother of all brownouts on February 27, 2014, no one until now has a categorical explanation.

Some old theories in previous years’ brownouts were again circulating to explain things. One explanation that has angered many is that the current power situation is artificially designed to spike the power privatization plan of government. Related to this is the nagging suspicion that the long power outage is a machination to advance the interest and profits of private power players.

There was also this claim that the Mindanao-wide brownout resulted from the toppling of a tower of a major power distribution line in Abaga, Baloi, Lanao del Norte. The military shrugged this off. The NPC asserted, on the other hand, that there was no sabotage of any kind; what happened was just, accordingly, a technical glitch and that everything will return to normal in due time.

But even a technical problem could be triggered by something. And what is normal for years in the Mindanao power situation is the endless recurring brownout.

Indeed, the yearly recurring brownouts have already become a part of our life in Mindanao. These brownouts are predictably occurring in the summer season, a fact which apparently escapes the attention, or is taken for granted by critics. It is obvious that the hot blistering weather has something to do with it, particularly to the physical condition of Lake Lanao, the main source of water that runs the power generators of the Agus Hydropower Plant Complex, the primary power producer in Mindanao.

The Agus Hydropower Plant Complex has six cascading power plants that snake from the mouth of Lake Lanao in Marawi City down to Maria Cristina Falls in Iligan City. The cascading design for this power complex was intended to make an efficient use of the water resource from the Lake. In this set-up, water used by the upstream power plants is reused by those downstream.

The six hydroelectric power plants along Agus River have a total power-generating capacity of 700 MW supplying 40.31 percent of the current power needs in Mindanao. However, most of the power plants are already antiquated. The oldest plant, Agus VI, with an aggregate installed capacity of 200 MW, was built in 1953 during the time of President Quirino. It is now 61 years old, a way past its 30 productive years. The newest plant in the complex began operation in 1992.

Given its generally antiquated infrastructure, the Agus power plant complex is susceptible to technical glitches and is presumed to generate power far below its generating potential. It was reported that the NPC will rehabilitate the two aged generators of Agus VI. It would accordingly take 30 months to do it at a cost of P2.6B. The repair may yet worsen the power supply in Mindanao if no compensatory move is made to cover the curtailed supply.

It does not help that the Pulangi Hydropower Plant in the NPC power network in Maramag, Bukidnon, could only deliver electricity at 60 MW out of its installed 255 MW generating capacity after the 27 February 2014 power fiasco. Moreover, the Pulangi River is also drying up, thanks to the unabated illegal logging in its watershed.

Meanwhile, the sorry technical condition of the Agus power plants is aggravated by the diminished supply of water from Lake Lanao. This gets worse in the summer months, and the prospect of El Niῆo just frightens everyone. Some power plants are forced to shut down every time the water in the lake drops to critical low level to avoid damage to their hydroelectric turbines. The advent of climate change and global warming may yet worsen the lake situation not just in summer but year round.

Indeed, many observers have noted the declining water level and discharge capacity of the lake over the years. This disturbing phenomenon is attributed to uncontrolled timber poaching and the encroachment of farming activities in the lake watershed. The illegal activities cause soil erosion and corresponding siltation of the lake, affecting not just the operation of the hydroelectric plants but agriculture and other livelihoods along the lake as well, and the way of life of the Meranao community.

Lake Lanao was declared by then President Corazon Aquino as a watershed reservation on 26 February 1992 through Presidential Proclamation 871 to ensure protection of forest cover and water yield for the hydropower plants, irrigation and domestic use.

The proclamation was followed by Memorandum Order 412 dated 25 March 1992 creating the Lake Lanao Watershed Protection and Development Council to implement the proclamation, headed no less than the Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and with such members as the President of the National Power Corporation, Mindanao State University President, Governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and the Chair of the NGO, Save Lake Lanao Movement (SALAM), among others. The only accomplishment, however, of the Council was in coming up with the Lake Lanao Development Integrated Plan in 2003. It failed its mandate and has not arrested the degradation of the Lake and its environs.

Lake Lanao faces a dry future. If nothing is aggressively done to save and seriously protect the lake, Mindanao will continue to grope in the dark in years to come. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. William R. Adan, Ph.D., was a research and extension worker, professor and the first chancellor of the Mindanao State University at Naawan, Misamis Oriental. He was a British Council fellow and trained in 1994 at Sheffield University, United Kingdom, on Participatory Planning and Environmentally Responsible Development. Upon retirement, he served as national consultant to the ADB-DENR project on integrated coastal resource management. He is the immediate past president of the MSU Alumni Association)