Mindanao River Basin Task Force denies alleged fund misuse

COTABATO CITY (MindaNews/1 Oct) – Officials at the abolished Presidential Task Force on the Mindanao River Basin Rehabilitation and Development (PTFMRBRD) have vehemently denied the alleged funds misuse in the agency.

Earlier this week, Aniceto Rasalan, secretary to the city mayor’s office, told MindaNews that dredging works in the heavily silted Rio Grande de Mindanao River “were suspended pending results of the investigation on the alleged misuse of funds of the task force.”

Rasalan then urged Malacañang to lift the suspension of dredging works in the river system to avoid aggravating the flooding in the city.

“The Presidential task force is not being investigated for anything, especially for any alleged misuse of funds,” Cotabato Archbishop Orlando Quevedo, task force chair, stressed.

But Rasalan declined to issue any more comments when sought for Quevedo’s reaction.

Quevedo said the task force does not handle any funds for dredging rivers, for constructing bridges and cut-off channels and for building access roads, among others.

“All funds from the Department of Budget and Management for the implementation of projects go directly to DPWH [Department of Public Works and Highways] and the contractors. All that the task force can do about such funds is to monitor their use as well as the implementation of the projects, and to report to the Office of the President on the situation of the projects,” the archbishop said.

The PTFMRBRD was abolished by President Benigno Aquino III through Executive Order 50 issued last July 28 because its functions “overlap with other national government agencies that can in turn perform the said tasks in line with the government’s policy of rationalizing and streamlining the bureaucracy.”

Under EO 50, the Mindanao Development Authority (MinDA), vice the PTFMRBRD, is tasked to “coordinate the formulation, implementation, and finalization of the Mindanao River Basin (MRB) relief, rehabilitation, and long term development plan, also known as the Mindanao River Basin Management and Development Master Plan.”

Quevedo said the task force is in the process of turning its functions and all its assets to MinDA and the other agencies identified by EO 50.

A transition team composed of the task force personnel, MinDA, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Office of Civil Defense have agreed that the transfer be completed before the end of this month, Quevedo said.

The Task Force’s term is supposed to end on December 31, 2012.

Quevedo said the task force “is responsible only for two funds” – P60 million for the development of the Mindanao River Basin Master Plan and “a yearly maximum” P10 million budget from the Office of the President to cover the task force’s operational expenses.

Of the P10 million supposed yearly allocation, only a partial amount (about half) was received and spent by the task force, said Quevedo, adding that yearly reports on expenditures have been sent to the OP and that the expenditures have been validated by the Commission on Audit.

Nathaniel Campo, task force deputy executive director, said that from 2008 they only received a total of P14.08 million, roughly about P5 million per year, which is utilized to pay for salaries, meeting expenses, office supplies, monitoring and other operating costs of the office.

In a statement, Campo said that “there are no funds to misuse.”

With the looming transfer of the task force’s functions, Quevedo said he is hoping that the focus on the Mindanao River Basin will not dissipate.

As to the suspension of dredging in Rio Grande de Mindanao River, Engr. Habib Ali Asal, project engineer at the DPWH-12, confirmed there was indeed work stoppage but these are “because of security concerns and the water hyacinth problem and only sometimes.”

“The work suspension sometimes last for three to nine days, also upon the advice of the contractor, Vicente T. Lao [Construction Corp.],” Asal told MindaNews on Saturday.

On the revelation of Rasalan that the suspension was due to a Palace directive pending results of an investigation on alleged funds misuse of the task force, Asal said “he was not aware of this.”

There are two dredging machines operated by the contractor hired for the desiltation works at the Rio Grande de Mindanao River, the third one owned by the DPWH needs repair, Asal said.

Another project for the Rio Grande de Mindanao River is carried out by two machines called the “water master,” which clear the accumulated water hyacinths.

On Friday, the aquatic menace was seen accumulating anew in Delta and Quirino bridges, with one of the two water masters seen doing its work at the latter.

The DPWH district office here is in charge of the water masters’ operation. On the other hand, the dredging project is under the supervision of the DPWH regional office based in Koronadal City.

Manuel Viloria, DPWH district office acting chief for maintenance, said the water masters were utilized on September 24 to 26 to clear the Taviran bridge in Kabuntalan, Maguindanao of water hyacinths that caused flooding there and other neighboring areas then.

Viloria, showing pictures of the clearing in Taviran, said the operation of the water masters “were not suspended” contrary to the report of Rasalan that it was lying idle at the Simuay River.

But operators of one of the two water masters having a lunch break on Friday told MindaNews at the Delta bridge that they resumed work only on September 23 after about a month without operations.

They have no clear explanation why the water masters’ work was suspended, however.

But Viloria had a text message on September 22, sent by someone from the task force and supposedly from Public Works and Highways Secretary Rogelio Singson, forwarded to MindaNews. It reads: “Good [morning]. From Sec. Singson po to. There is a request for Rio Grande [de Mindanao] from the task force because I understand [that] water hyacinths are again building up in the same place. So do not pull out water master[s]. Let’s continue dredging and clearing [the water] hyacinths.”

Viloria said the transfer of management of the water masters to DPWH-12 is still under process and awaiting the signature of Singson. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)