Kaliwa Dam construction eyed to start in June

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 18) — The controversial Kaliwa Dam project, once called by President Rodrigo Duterte as a "last resort" for Metro Manila's water woes, may break ground this year just before he steps down from office.

The construction of the Kaliwa Dam was previously set for January 2020 until December 2025. It will traverse the provinces of Quezon and Rizal and is seen to deliver 600 million liters of water per day to the capital region and nearby provinces, reducing dependence on Angat Dam in Bulacan.

In an interview with CNN Philippines on Friday, Engineer Ryan James Ayson, project manager from the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS), disclosed the new timetable with an 18-month delay. The regulator now hopes to start the construction in June with a target completion date of August 2026.

Ayson said restrictions brought by the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the years-long negotiations with the Dumagats for a Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) - a requirement under the Indigenous Peoples' Rights Act of 1997 - which recognizes the IPs' rights to their ancestral lands. It's also a prerequisite for the issuance of a Special Use Agreement in Protected Areas from the environment department.

"Once we get those two permits, we would be applying for construction permits na po doon sa ating mga (with the) affected LGUs," Ayson said. "So hopefully by June of this year we can start our works at the dam site and we will finish by August of 2026."

The 60-meter-high Kaliwa Dam will cover a surface area of 291 hectares within Barangay Pagsangahan, General Nakar and Barangay Magsaysay, Infanta, both in Quezon province. It also includes a 27.7-kilometer raw water conveyance tunnel traversing from the dam's location to Teresa, Rizal. Portions of the project area lies within the ancestral domain of the Dumagat-Remontado IPs.

In January, community leaders complained that negotiations for a memorandum of agreement were being railroaded, leaving most of the IPs in the dark, particularly those opposed to the project.

"Ang aming agenda sana ay ibaba sa mga komunidad ang draft ng MOA, pag-aralan ng lahat ng kasapi ng bawat komunidad at gagawan ng resolusyon kung ito ay pinapayagan o hindi," Conchita Calzado, a Dumagat leader, earlier told CNN Philippines.

[Translation: What we wanted was for the draft MOA to be distributed to communities so everyone can study it, and come up with a resolution if this will be approved or not.]

MWSS maintained that only 116 "legitimate" IP leaders were listed with the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples.

"I'm not sure where this (allegation of) railroading comes from," Ayson said, noting that MWSS has been trying to secure an FPIC since 2015 in Quezon, and 2018 in Rizal.

"We have actually conducted three negotiations. Hindi naman ito isang beses lang (It's not a one-time thing). It took us more than 5 years for Quezon to actually convince these IPs," he added.

Aside from talks with IP leaders for the FPIC, the government is also directly negotiating with affected residents, who have expressed preference for a "disturbance compensation" over relocation, Ayson said.

According to the Environment department's Environmental and Management Bureau (EMB), a total of 1,465 households in Quezon and Rizal will be affected by the construction of the Kaliwa Dam. It will also "indirectly impact" 56 IP households and place around 284 more "at risk of flooding and other effects of possible dam failure or dam break," the EMB's 2019 report read.

MWSS is validating the figures. Ayson said latest data show 56 houses will be affected by the construction of the dam - 11 of them are IP families, while some 100 farmers stand to lose their livelihood.

In 2019, the Makabayan bloc, along with IP and environmental groups, filed a petition urging the Supreme Court to nullify the loan agreement for the ₱12-billion Kaliwa Dam project, bulk of which will be funded by China. Last year, the group Stop Kaliwa Dam Network reportedly asked the Infanta Regional Trial Court to stop the construction of the access road leading to the dam site.

Ayson said there's a hearing scheduled for March, but it would be business as usual pending any court decision.

"We've started pre-construction works, some tree-cutting, excavation of slopes, and leveling of the ground," he said.

With the "substantial delays" in the Kaliwa Dam project, the government is banking on the Cardona Treatment Plant, deep wells, and mobile water treatment plants to prevent a repeat of the 2019 water crisis, Ayson said. He added that MWSS is slated to get a normal allocation from the National Water Resources Board until June despite the low water level at Angat Dam.