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Philippines dam aims to solve water shortage exacerbated by climate change


In the Philippines, an impending water shortage exasperated by climate change threatens the livelihoods of millions of residents in the capital, Manila. In anticipation, a large dam is being built in the nearby Sierra Madre mountains. But the dam is not without its controversies. Ashley Westerman brings us this report as part of NPR's week dedicated to stories about the search for climate solutions.

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: Daraitan is a small, touristy village a couple of hours outside of Manila, nestled in the mountains of Rizal Province on the Agos River.


WESTERMAN: The village of about 5,000 residents is lush and green. This place is known as the home for the Indigenous Dumagat people, most of them farmers whose families have lived off the land and the river for centuries, families like Maria Clara Dullas'.

MARIA CLARA DULLAS: (Speaking Tagalog).

WESTERMAN: She says, "the community is peaceful, and we have everything we need here." Dullas is the president of Dumagat Women of Sierra Madre. They have been fighting the building of the Kaliwa Dam for years, a project Philippine officials are hoping will alleviate the capital's impending water crisis.

DULLAS: (Speaking Tagalog).

WESTERMAN: The 230-foot dam's construction began last year. And though it will be built more than six miles upriver, Dullas says, once completed, the new water flow will submerge her village.



WESTERMAN: It will also destroy their sacred lands, such as the white marble rock formations upriver.

DULLAS: (Speaking Tagalog).

WESTERMAN: They perform rituals here, she says, rituals that protect the community from sickness and bad luck. But if the dam is built, all of this will be blasted away to increase the river's water flow.

DULLAS: (Speaking Tagalog).

WESTERMAN: "It hurts us. It's devastating," she says. But if the dam isn't built, officials say the water crisis will leave more than 13 million people without an adequate water supply starting next year. At Manila's Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewage System offices, supervising engineer Delfin Sespene says the region's exploding population is partially to blame. But there's another reason, the anticipation of the next El Nino, a naturally occurring weather pattern that has to do with the ocean getting warmer along the equatorial Pacific.

How does El Nino affect the water supply?

DELFIN SESPENE: Well, it will affect because there will be less rain for those dams that impound water for Metro Manila.

WESTERMAN: Yet while El Nino is expected, man-made climate change will exacerbate the effects of it. The United Nations says the Philippines is one of the most vulnerable countries when it comes to climate change. Along with droughts, over the years, the archipelago nation has also seen sea level rise, ocean acidification and more extreme weather events, such as devastating typhoons. But building the Kaliwa Dam is not a silver bullet solution to adapt to changing weather, says Angelo Kairos Torres Dela Cruz with the Manila-based Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities.

ANGELO KAIROS TORRES DELA CRUZ: It could have a role to play because it has scale, it's bankable. It can be invested in really quick. But that shouldn't happen at the expense of other equally important issues - for example, Indigenous people's rights, forests and land degradation and so on.

WESTERMAN: While dams are often billed as a drought-protection measure and a renewable energy source, they have also been known to contribute to climate change and its effects. Dams can emit a lot of CO2 and methane because when dams form lakes, a lot of vegetation is smothered by the excess water and dies, releasing greenhouse gases. Dams can also intensify flash flooding by releasing too much water during big storms, and even drought by diverting water from rivers. Brian Eyler, the director of the Stimson Center's Southeast Asia Program, says dams are just Band-Aids.

BRIAN EYLER: Because the weather is going to become so much more extreme to the point that it's hard to predict and design a dam for that future extremity.

WESTERMAN: But at the moment, no one is talking about these problems. Filipinos seem more distracted by how much the Kaliwa Dam will cost and that it's being financed by China. Experts there say this highlights the continual disjointed conversation about development in the Philippines, because while climate change is not up for debate here, how to adapt to it and integrate it into the plans of the developing nation is.

Back in Daraitan, Maria Clara Dullas doesn't feel like her community is being included in decisions about development or climate change adaptation at all. And while they aren't against progress, she says, they don't want their homes destroyed. The national government has offered the entire village the rough equivalent of a little over $1.4 million to relocate, Dullas says.

DULLAS: (Speaking Tagalog).

WESTERMAN: "We keep saying we don't want to benefit from the dam," she says. "We just want what is ours, which is the land."

For NPR News, I'm Ashley Westerman in Manila.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.