MANILA, AUGUST 11, 2012 (TRIBUNE) Written by Fernan J. Angeles and Angie M. Rosales - President Aquino, when caught in a corner, just can’t help but engage in bashing his predecessor, this time saying a project he inherited from former President Gloria Arroyo to dredge Laguna de Bay that would have eased the flow of water from Metro Manila was “a joke” and explains his decision to cancel the contract.

In an ambush interview with Palace reporters, Aquino, increasingly under fire for not doing enough to address the yearly flood problem in most parts of the country, explained why he had to junk the contract for the P18.7 billion Laguna de Bay dredging project signed during the term of Arroyo because he said it wasn’t just costly but claimed it would not have made any difference in easing the perennial flooding of the capital.

According to Aquino, the dredging project, which was awarded to a Belgium-based engineering consultancy firm, is a big expensive joke.

Certain quarters including senators have assailed Aquino for not doing enough to address the massive flooding experienced in most parts of the country during heavy rains.

Long-term solutions that could prevent devastating impacts such as that experienced last Tuesday, should have been considered and included by the Aquino government in mapping out the national budget for next year, having been in the same situation some three years ago, a senator said yesterday.

“When we deliberate on the national budget for next year, we will scrutinize the government’s disaster management plan. We expect it —and will require it—to be anchored on risk reduction, mitigation and adaption,” said Sen. Edgardo Angara.

“If natural calamities such as this rampaging monsoon are indeed the ‘new normal’, then the government ought to be implementing strategies it has not done so before,” he emphasized.

What Aquino called a serious proposal, however, was a plan tp construct a dike along the Meycauayan River to prevent floods in Malabon, Valenzuela, Navotas, and Bulacan province which will cost the government P2.2 billion that would include a pumping station which was seen to hasten efforts to dry up low-lying areas.

“It will surround Meycauayan River and will have a pumping station. This way, low-lying areas which are below sea level will no longer be inundated. Again, there are no instant solutions. This is not like instant noodles. But what I can promise you is that before I step down, you will feel the difference with all the infrastructure and flood control projects we are undertaking,” he said.

Aquino said the dam would be designed to regulate the volume of water rolling down the hills in the area.

There is also another government project on the construction of Laiban Dam in Tanay, Rizal. Laiban is expected to relieve La Mesa and Angat dams which the President claimed already requires some infrastructure upgrades citing their long period of service.

“So, with all due respect, that’s what they wanted to do for flood mitigation and obviously it’s a joke”, Aquino said referring to the Arroyo project which he also claimed doesn’t require an expert to realize how much of a joke it is and how useless it is.

Aquino said the government would be made to pay P 18.7 billion just for moving Laguna de Bay’s silt from one portion of the lake to another area of the freshwater basin.

He said the project was supposed to increase the lake’s water-holding capacity to ease flooding and provide potable water to the sprawling metropolis, but that the plan was to simply move 424 million cubic feet (12 million cubic meters) of silt from one portion of the lake and dump it on another portion over three years.

“You know, one of the plans that I inherited was for a body of water south of Metro Manila called Laguna Lake. And the plan was just to dredge it, it’s filled. It fills up with something like 4,000,000 cubic meters of silt every year. So what they wanted to do was move the mud from one section of the lake to another section of the lake and that was supposed to enhance its water holding capacity. Obviously, matter occupies volume and if it occupies the same space, the volume doesn’t decrease. That is gonna cost us P18.7 billion”, he explained.

Aquino in June last year cancelled the foreign-funded dredging project on Asia’s second largest freshwater basin.

In junking the Belgian-funded lake dredging project, Aquino, who admitted that the country badly needs an effective long-term flood control program, issued a directive to the Department of Public Works and Highways to study other government options on flood control.

He however said that the government may still consider the shelved project but only after defects were addressed and at a cost which he described as within reason.

“First, we had to rehash, well, redo the plans and make them real plans that will address all of these situations throughout the country”, Aquino said.

Aside from the Laguna de Bay dredging project, Aquino has been reviewing infrastructure contracts signed under Arroyo on insinuations of irregularities.

He said the dredging project in particular “is one of the most notorious practices for those who do corrupt practices ... so I have a tendency to be allergic to such projects.”

Aquino claimed his administration managed to demonstrate that ots disaster mitigation efforts are working even as he bragged on prompt rescue services which kept the number of casualties far below the figures posted as casualties of Ondoy.

“We have enhanced effects of the monsoon. I’m told that the volume of water that has dropped is even greater than that was experienced in ‘Ondoy’. But I think we have managed to demonstrate that the government’s disaster mitigation efforts are working. But, more importantly, the rescue services were on the ball and we didn’t have the same tragedy that we had during the (past storms)”, said the President who from time to time makes sure that he delivers jabs at the previous administration.
In defending his decision to freeze Arroyo’s infrastructure programs waiting for implementation, Aquino reiterated the need to review projects which would entail tax-payers’ money.

“You know, you have so many water systems. For instance, what I inherited were 30 or so government agencies that dealt with water and they were working at cross purposes. So about the middle of last year it was when we tasked the Secretary of Public Works and Highways to become the temporary water czar to get everybody in sync. But, on top of that, one of his major concerns is flood mitigation. But that is, of course, on top of all the other infrastructure things that we’re doing. So they had to go through all of the plans and determine”, Aquino added.

The record P2.7 trillion national budget Malacañang proposed for 2013 is said to have the highest allocation for social services.
Among the big items in the budget is the conditional cash transfer (CCT), the Aquino administration’s flagship poverty alleviation program and this early, the chairman of the Senate committee on finance Sen. Franklin Drilon already anticipating that such provision in the proposed general appropriations measure will likely get the attention of the legislators because of its huge allocation.

Drilon said that the proposed budget of the Department of Social Welfare and Development to implement the CCT in 2013 is P44.26 billion, an increase of 12.2 percent from its 2012 allocation of P39.45 billion.

On top of the list of the called 2013 national budget would be the Department of Education (DepEd) with P292.7 billion allocations - the highest in the entire bureaucracy - which includes the budget for school building.

The DoH will have a budget of P56.8 billion and the DSWD with P56.2 billion.

Sen. Loren Legarda echoed the position of Angara insofar as underscoring the need for a comprehensive recovery and rehabilitation plan that will reduce people’s vulnerability and increase the resilience of all sectors to floods.

“Soon the heavy rains will cease and the floods will subside. The victims will have to rebuild their lives from the tragedy and devastation. This flood is worse than Ondoy. I hope serious government and private sector efforts to build back better the affected communities would start immediately. We must learn the lessons of Ondoy which this recent widespread flooding brings to fore once again,” she said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Francis “Chiz” Escudero called on the Departments of Environment and Natural Resources and the Interior and Local Government to work more closely together in ensuring that the country’s environmental laws are strictly enforced to address environmental disasters.

“We have the necessary laws. But judging by the effects of the torrential rains that hit us, our implementors and enforcers may have been remiss in applying these laws,” Escudero said in the wake of the massive flooding that hit Metro Manila and other parts of the country. “It cannot be business as usual anymore,” he added.

Escudero, chairman of the Senate committee on environment and natural resources, said Republic Act 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000 was supposed to prevent or mitigate the ill effects of floods caused by solid wastes.

“Unfortunately, it has become apparent that solid wastes have found their way into our waterways and drainage systems. The amount of garbage washed ashore in Manila Bay is proof that the law has not been implemented properly,” the senator said.

He said there should be closer cooperation between DENR and DILG in working with local government units to ensure that the country’s environmental laws are complied with.

Initial reports said 11 people died while about one million were affected by floods that were wrought by heavy monsoon rains.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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