Save Angat, save Metro Manila

To Take A Stand
Mario Antonio G. Lopez

Posted on November 10, 2015

We need to act fast to save the Angat Watershed which is facing a number of serious threats. There are a number of related actions that we need to take to do this.

Why is saving the Angat Watershed so crucially important that we must work on doing that at the soonest possible time?

The Angat watershed reservation is at the southernmost tip of the Sierra Madre mountain range. Its primary river is the Angat river that runs mostly in the province of Bulacan, along the municipalities of Angat, San Rafael, Doña Remedios Trinidad, Norzagaray, and San Jose Del Monte. It also stretches into the boundaries of Nueva Ecija, Nueva Vizcaya, Rizal, and Quezon Provinces, covering about 62,309 hectares and a drainage area of around 56,800 hectares. These contain some of the better agricultural lands in the country. Bulacan supplies a good portion of agricultural produce needed by Metro Manila.

The watershed has two catchment areas: the Angat Watershed and Forest Range, and the Angat Watershed Forest Reserve (Metro Water District). The Angat Watershed and Forest Range, or the Angat-Ipo River watershed, covers around 6,600 hectares and supports the Ipo dam.

Ipo dam, located along Angat river, has a capacity of 7.5 million cubic meters and a spilling level of 101 meters. The dam’s water levels are constantly monitored by the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration. The dam redirects the water coming from the Angat and Ipo rivers to tunnels leading to the La Mesa reservoir and Balara filtration areas.

The Angat Watershed Forest Reserve, also known as the Angat-Maasim River Watershed, covers around 55,709 hectares and contains the Angat hydroelectric dam. Constructed in 1968, the hydroelectric dam has a reservoir capacity of 850 million cubic meters and a normal water level of around 212 meters. It supplies water and electric power for domestic, agricultural (i.e. irrigation) and industry purposes. It has recreational areas -- nature walks, camping, boating, and fishing.

The National Power Corp. once operated Angat Dam but it’s now run by the Angat Hydropower Corp., which is co-owned by San Miguel Corp. and the Korea Water Resources Corp.

The watershed supplies a very large portion of the water (97% +/-) and power has required by Metro Manila and surrounding areas. It also irrigates farmlands within Pampanga and Bulacan. The hydroelectric dam generates about 246 megawatts for the Luzon grid. It is also home to the indigenous Dumagat tribe families and to diverse fauna and flora, many of which are now classified as vulnerable and endangered species. Much of the area has not been extensively and intensively researched. The possible uses of the currently know flora and fauna in the area remains not well known if known at all There is also the possibility of yet undiscovered species that may yield benefits to improve human life.

A popular bird watching destination, the reservoir is home to the Luzon Tarictic, scale-feathered Malcoha, red-crested Malcoha, Philippine Eagle Owl, and the gray-backed tailorbird, among many others. The reservoir is also home to near-threatened species such as the Crab-Eating Macaque and the Philippine Warty Pig, and more than 60 species of amphibians and reptiles. Alongside vegetations, the watershed reservation also contains closed-canopy forests, lowland dipterocarps, and several bamboos species.

In a study by Mcleod et. al. of the various amphibians and reptiles living within the vicinity of the watershed, they find that the “functionally diverse and healthy ecosystem has been preserved.”

Similarly, an Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System study conducted for Asian Development Bank finds that the air quality within the vicinity is within the standards set by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. It is, however, threatened by climate change, and natural and man-made disasters. Certain vicinities surrounding the reservation is being urbanized with numerous housing projects.

One major project is to examine how much of the area may already have been damaged by illegal logging and informal settlers. The illegally logged areas have to be reforested The informal settlers need to be educated about ecological sustainability, trained in doing what it takes to preserve the ecology, and given livelihoods that will allow them a decent and improving quality of life that includes protecting the ecology.

The encroachment of large human settlements at the periphery, at least initially, highlights the need for prompt land use planning and zoning. Many of our municipalities still have to do this exercise. Many of the ones that have are not implementing their land use plans Instead money quietly determines which of the agriculture and reserve areas suddenly become open to development regardless of the original plan. Consider the housing development inside the La Mesa Watershed, approved by government water authorities in spite of restrictions provided by law. These violations must not go unpunished.

We have seen what dry spells can do to water supplies. Such drastic drops in water supply will only get worse. The 2007 dry spell that occurred during what was supposed to be the rainy season resulted in low water levels in several dams including Angat. The dry spell resorted in struggles the needs of agriculture and of homes and industries in built up areas. The balancing act also included dealing with power shortages due to disruptions in hydroelectric power plants’ operations.

With the current El Niño, water levels in the dams operating within the watershed will again prove insufficient despite the typhoon season.

Maintaining and improving the watershed will mean helping our natural systems sustain their natural cycles. Much of the Philippines’ forest cover has been damaged. This has, I think, contributed to the speeding up of climate change that has brought about disasters we now suffer under. Rehabilitating and sustaining our watersheds can go a long way in slowing the rate of climate change.

Saving the watershed requires the collaboration of many stakeholders from various sectors -- government, communities, business, nongovernment organizations, etc. -- and various level of governance -- barrio, municipality, provincial, regional and national. Such an endeavor brings us to places we have never been before, to quote the most intrepid of explorers, the Vikings.

We will need to go beyond the processes of government and governance we have heretofore tried and which no longer work in this new situation. Working on the Angat watershed and river basin gives us the chance to test new modes of intervention and governance that we can apply to other watersheds and river basins. We can learn from the example of Canada (the Fraser river basin) and Australia. We can draw analogies from other successful common pool resource management projects.

It is all now in our hands.

(This article benefitted greatly from work done by Camille Maala, a researcher at the Asian Institute of Management Policy Center who acts as research assistant.)

Mario Antonio G. Lopez is part of the DLSU Jessie Robredo Center for Good Governance project on the Angat River Basin & Watershed research team headed by Dr. Francisco Magno of DLSU in collaboration with the team from the University of British Columbia.