‘Kaya natin iyan!’ (FVR 101)

Published March 18, 2019, 12:10 AM

by Charissa Luci-Atienza & Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat

BELOW THE LINE

By AMBASSADOR JOSE ABETO ZAIDE

Ambassador  José Abeto  Zaide
Ambassador José Abeto Zaide

Do miracles still happen?  Our fabled islands are blessed with abundant rainfall during the monsoon and dry in summer.  Great for swimming and holidays; but in the extreme dry season, the water level sinks deep low and our rice lands are parched dry.  Consequently, traditional farmers grow only one rice crop in a year,  requiring importation of rice for our burgeoning population.

Last Friday’s Manila Bulletin front page showed a blackout, and an inside headline story bannered “La Mesa Dam water at its lowest,” subtitled, “Cloud-seeding operations in Regions 2 and 12 begins.”

Several decades ago, President Diosdado Macapagal had a blueprint to remedy our single rice planting season with a mega dam to irrigate Nueva Ecija and large swaths of Pangansinan and Bulacan.
It would take President Ferdinand E. Marcos to suit action to the word.  He built the Pantabangan Dam by flooding an entire town afte relocating the populace to higher ground.  (Do-able during martial law.)  But the water filled only one-third of the dam’s 3 billion cubic meter capacity.  In the dry season, the submerged tower of the old church sticks out — showing that Pantabangan Dam has again ebbed, unable to quench the thirst of 102,000 hectares of Nueva Ecija and Bulacan farms.

To irrigate the entire region, the World Bank produced in 1983 a study for a 200-meter high Casecnan Dam at a putative cost of $2B.  But such project would inundate and displace the Bungkalot indigenous people.  Because of the megabucks price tag and the socio-environmental consequence, no foreign or local investor would touch it for 10 years.

*****

Until President Fidel V. Ramos’ administration. His Agriculture Secretary Roberto Sebastian found a former Blue Eagle classmate to be the David to take on the Goliath challenge.  Oscar Violago put together the consortium of Scott La Prarie as partner, Knight and Piesold, Inc., as consultant, and Warren Buffett as financier.

President Ramos invited a delegation of Bungkalots to Malacanang, spending three hours at each of the sessions to reassure that they wouldn’t be submerged by a mega dam (as what happened with the Pantabangan Dam).

Ramos enabled a quick-start for the project by deferring some essential clearances, which were to follow.

Whenever the project got knotted in bureaucratic tangles, Secretary Sebastian would memo PFVR, who would in turn pound on the responsible government agency.

Violago’s consortium redesigned the blueprint. Mission Impossible became economically feasible and socially acceptable: The dam was built without displacing the tribal communities from their ancestral land. Moreover, the project cost was knocked down from $2 billion to $680 million.

*****

The project broke ground in February, 1996. It was inaugurated by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in December. 2001.

While most of the country is parched dry during the tag-araw and Metro Manila is without potable water when La Mesa Dam dries up, Nueva Ecija farmers are smiling — thanks to the Casecnan/Pantabangan Dam all-year round irrigation.  Farmers are able to plant twice yearly (and in some cases, even thrice).

There are several more blessings:

  1. An additional 465,000 metric tons of rice are harvests annually; consequently, less rice importation.
  2. The season of plenty created 18,000 new jobs and livelihood programs.
  3. The bountiful harvest generated multi-million taxes and converted fifth-class and fourth-class municipalities to first class municipalities, like Alfonso Castañeda in Nueva Vizcaya and Pantabangan in Nueva Ecija.
  4. Hundreds of scholarships to CLSU and other schools in host communities; 70 kilometers new all-weather roads (from Pelaway, Alfonso Castañeda, up to San Jose City by 2021); and reforestation and fruit-bearing citrus trees providing work and income for indigenous people.
  5. By 2021, the National Irrigation Authority (NIA) will acquire 40% of the 150-MW Casecnan Hydro Electric Power Project (HEPP), a highly valuable cash-generator.

Casecan can be replicated.  We don’t need to read more headlines about flooding alternating with droughts.  An older and now wiser Oscar Violago knocks at the doors of NIA Administrator General Ricardo C. Visaya and MWSS Administrator General Reynaldo Velasco offering to supply potable water for Metro Manila and environs.  He River project, and conjures other dreams for other water and power infrastructure in the country.

In this day and age, miracles still happen.  We only need the faith and gumption of doers.  The Casecan Multipurpose Irrigation and Power Project is only one of a multitude of mega projects under former President Fidel V. Ramos, who was used to roll up his barong cuffs to prove that “the impossible just takes a little longer!”

Today FVR turns a vigorous 91 years old.  Turning more dreams into reality would be the best birthday present for our former president whose mantra was, “Kaya natin iyan! 

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