MinDA chair urges public to ask candidates: “what have you done for the watersheds?”

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/04 June) –  Election issue in 2013: watersheds or waiting sheds?

Saying the future of  Mindanao’s water resources “rests on all of us today,” Secretary Luwalhati Antonino, chair of the Mindanao Development Authority (MinDA)  urged the public to ask those who will run in next year’s polls what they have done to help prevent further degradation of the watersheds.

“Incidentally election is nearing. We can ask those candidates, ‘what are you doing for our watersheds not what you have done in terms of waiting sheds with your names on it ,” Antonino told some 200 representatives from various sectors at the opening of the Mindanao Economy and Environment Summit at the Grand Regal hotel Monday morning.

Antonino said the role of local officials and community leaders is “very critical” in that what needs to be done to ensure a green Mindanao “effectively largely depends on the quality of leadership and governance at the local level.”

The two-day summit is intended to discuss the challenges facing Mindanao and “critical interventions that need to be done as soon as possible and those that need to be prioritized in the next four years and beyond.” The Aquino administration bows out of office on June 30, 2016.

Antonio said the conference theme, “Building Constituency, Managing our Riverbasins – Achieving a Green Economy” is apt considering that Mindanao’s rich natural resources are now threatened by “development aggression, deteriorating capacities of our environment, climate change as well as natural risk – all of which do not only threaten sustainability of our water, food and energy source, but also threaten to ignite local conflicts due to deprivation (of) economic resources.”

She spoke about how Mindanao’s population, now at 22 million, grows at 2 per cent per year or  “about 352,000 more mouths to feed in ten years.”

It’s like adding another Agusan del Norte which has a population of 332,000 in just ten years, she said.

Catching up with the food requirements of a growing population means doubling or even tripling efforts “to produce more food, to irrigate more lands, to capture more water for agriculture,” Antonino added.

Mindanao  is no longer typhoon-free, she said. She described the “sorry state” of Mindanao’s forest cover – from 98% in the 1900s to only about 23% by 2003, the degradation of the quality of its waters, the heavily silted rivers, depleted coastal and marine resources. She noted an industry report on the depletion of tuna stocks in Mindanao’s waters, a major concern considering that Mindanao “is supposed to serve as the world’s natural spawning ground of tuna.”

Antonino cited  the impact of environmental degradation on the island’s role as the country’s food basket,  on the source of hydroelectric power, and the vulnerability of cities and provinces to floods and other natural calamities.

“The Sendong tragedy taught us too many costly lessons. From policies to enforcement, from governance to politics,  from structures to greed. We don’t need a repeat of these lessons ..before we take action,” Antonino said, referring to the December 16-17, 2011 flashfloods that killed hundreds in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan cities and some Bukidnon towns.

Antonino said Mindanao produces 40% of the total food requirements of the country but given the rate of forest degradation which affects the availability of water for farming and for hydropower plants,  she wonders if  Mindanao still  has the capacity to feed 22 million Mindanawons.

“Our trees are irresponsibly cut down. When our forests are depleted, will there still be water to run those turbines and give our every household sufficient electricity? The answer rests on all of us today,” she said.

Blessed with extensive river systems, Mindanao has been enjoying cheaper electricity rates because of the hydroelectric power plants which account for more 53% of the island’s installed power capacity of 1,971 megawatts.

Citing a Department of Energy report in 2011, Antonino said Mindanao  “can produce more as there are still over 1,000 megawatt potential capacity for mini hydro power plants around Mindanao that have not yet been tapped.”

Investors, however, have been flocking to Mindanao not to build plants that use renewable resources like hydroelectric power plants but coal-fired power plants that are presently the subject of mass protests.

In his presentation, Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan, executive director of the World Wildlife Fund,  noted how “indigenous hydropower has been allowed to slide in prominence within the island’s energy mix.”

“In its place, new coal plants are under construction,”  even as the International Energy Agency predicts a steady uptrend in the cost of coal over the next 20 years, he said.

“This will translate to year-on-year increases in Mindanao’s cost of doing business,” Tan warned.

He asked the multisectoral crowd: “Can the island’s hydropower potential be revived and re-engineered to help reduce its carbon footprint and provide a little more stability to the cost of living, the cost of doing business and the cost of remaining healthy? If not, when will the island, its population and its products hit a point of diminishing competitiveness?”

Antonino also challenged the academe and media that the advocacy to nurture Mindanao’s waters “requires generational transformation” and that their role in molding mindsets for a culture of social responsibility “cannot be undermined.”

She also said the public can benefit from civil society’s strength in community mobilization and learning. And to the future government and business leaders, those who now lead the corporate world and colleagues in public service, “let us all think about what we can do to make this Mindanawons’ collective action really work.” (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)