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Renewable energy in the Philippines

BURGOS, Ilocos Norte – Standing on an overlooking hilltop here in Burgos, Ilocos Norte, one can hear the northern wind blowing its loudest as it powers 50 wind turbines scattered all over a 600-hectare land that was once filled with snakes.

Welcome to the Burgos Wind Farm, a 150-megawatt new power plant that commenced operations in November last year and which is touted as one of the biggest wind farms in Southeast Asia.

It is owned and operated by Energy Development Corp. (EDC), a geothermal company led by the Lopez Group, a prominent Filipino family engaged in various businesses.

“This project underlines EDC’s strategy to be the country’s leading diversified renewable power company,” said EDC president Richard Tantoco, announcing the project.

The company said the project would not only provide 370 gigawatt-hours of electricity, which would power approximately two million households but could also displace an estimated 200,000 tons of carbon emissions annually.

Indeed, the air is crisp and fresh and there is no dark smoke or soot emitted anywhere in the wind farm. The difference is stark and telling, as say, if one would stand in the middle of a coal-fired power plant.

The people of Ilocos Norte could not be more proud.

“We are now the renewable energy capital of the Philippines, actually, not only in the Philippines but in Southeast Asia,” Ilocos Norte Governor Aimee Marcos told reporters in a recent briefing here.

Marcos welcomed the development of the Burgos Wind Farm in the province, saying that there is no substitute for clean energy.

The Burgos Wind Farm is not the only wind project in the province. Another wind farm is the Bangui Wind Farm, located in Bangui, another municipality in this province and constructed ahead of the Burgos Wind Farm.

Northwind Power Development Corp., a company controlled by Ayala Corp., a Filipino-owned conglomerate, operates this 33-MW wind farm in the province.

This project uses 20 wind turbines arranged on a single row and stretched along a nine-kilometer shoreline.

According to Northwind, this project is estimated to offset 57,000 tons of carbon emissions.

The wind farms in the province are just among the fast growing renewable energy (RE) projects in the Philippines, a country that is largely dependent on imported oil and whose main sources of power are coal-fired power plants.

RE in the Philippines

Indeed, over the last four years, the renewable energy sector in the Philippines has recorded tremendous growth and the excitement in the air is almost tangible.

More and more companies are eyeing the renewable energy sector and the Philippines is on the radar screen of foreign investors as well that are keen on investing in RE.

The policies of the administration of President Aquino are also contributing to the growth and development of RE.

One such policy, for instance, is the so-called feed-in-tariff (FIT) scheme given by the government, which is a set of incentives to lure investors into the RE sector.

And signs of boom are evident not just in the windy provinces of the North and the Visayas but also in rooftops of buildings and malls across different cities and municipalities that are being powered by solar energy.

Indeed, a policy change introduced by Energy Secretary Carlos Jericho Petilla encouraged renewable energy companies to push through with their investments.

He said that when he came to office in 2012, there were the so- called flippers or those companies that did not seem seriously interested in developing renewable energies but use the sites only for speculation.

“At the beginning of his term, there were around 200 service contracts pending. As it turned out, these service contracts were not only pending because of the long and complicated permitting process but also because a considerable amount of applicants already sold their sites. Therefore, he decided on the one hand to streamline the permitting process in order to favor the serious players, and on the other hand to make sure that flippers are abandoned. His administration simplified the permitting process for RE plants and streamlined the requirements of the financial and technical assessments,” according to a December 2014 report prepared by GIZ, an international organization operated by the German government, on the success of RE in the Philippines.

Thus, he introduced the first-come, first served rule for FIT.

In a separate interview, Petilla said this rule for FIT was meant to weed out the non-serious developers or the flippers.

This approach proved to be efficient and successful, the Energy chief said.

Wind, Solar, Biogas

For instance, the Burgos Wind Power Project was built in a span of just six months.

Similarly, the San Carlos Energy Inc. (SaCaSol) successfully connected the first 22 MW of its solar plant in Negros in the southern Philippines in May last year and another 30 MW are under construction.

According to the company, the SaCaSol plant is expected to provide approximately 31,610,473 kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity annually to the Visayas Grid, which is currently suffering from brownouts and low voltage problems.

Petilla said this regulation created confidence on the Philippine government as a reliable partner supporting serious RE developers.

In 2014, the government had started to reap the fruits of its labor.

SaCaSol was inaugurated in May and at the end of last year, the installed capacity of net metering solar PV rooftops was around 450 kWh, with total potential of 1 MW in solar rooftops estimated to be in the pipeline.

SaCaSol chairman Jose Maria Zabaleta, in a December 2014 symposium celebrating the success of RE in the Philippines, shared the success story of the SaCaSol project.

Zabaleta, originally a sugar farmer, said it was in 2012 when he talked about his plans to build a solar plant with the credit agency Thomas Lloyd, which in turn agreed to provide funding for the project.

He said that aside from providing clean energy, the construction of the solar plant also provide employment to the community.

The project employed 2,500 people and the unemployment rate went down close to zero percent.

Furthermore, since there is now stable power, a Japanese company has set up shop in the province and is now employing 1000 people.
SaCaSol is set to double its capacity and is exploring new areas, Zabaleta said.

Tetchi Capellan, president of the Philippine Solar Power Alliance (PSPA) said the development of the solar industry in the Philippines started in 2011, when a group of private sector representatives organized a business trip to Germany to learn how to develop a solar power market.

In 2012, the Asian Development Bank built a 520 kW solar system on their roof, marking the first break through in solar development in the country.

To support development of RE, solar developers pushed for the net metering rules as a support mechanism for solar rooftops.

The net metering system is provided under the Renewable Energy Law of 2008. It allows electricity end-users who are updated in the payment of their electricity bills to their distribution utility to engage in distribution generation

The Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC), the power regulator, passed the implementing rules in June 2013.

Solar rooftops

Since then, the solar rooftop market has developed tremendously. While at the beginning of 2014, a capacity of only 200 kW were under the net metering scheme, this number increased already to almost 1 MW by the end of 2014.

Some of these solar rooftop installations and projects are the 22 MW SaCaSol project, the first solar farm in the Philippines and a solar panel rooftop in one of the branches of the SM Mall, the largest mall chain in the Philippines.

Launched in November last year by local firm Solar Philippines, the project involves 5,760 solar panels and 60 inverters installed over the mall’s parking building, covering 12,000 square meters.

The 1.5 MW plant will be able to augment the mall’s power requirements, or the equivalent of 2,000 Filipino homes. It is expected to operate for over 25 years and offset an estimated 40,000 tons of CO2, according to Solar Philippines.

Capellan said there are more solar rooftops and projects that would likely materialize this year, for both commercial and public buildings.

Solar Philippines, for instance, inaugurated on March 5 another solar rooftop project, this time at Robinson’s Place Palawan, another giant mall chain in the country.

Approximately 20 percent of the mall’s electricity consumption will be covered by the solar panels 1,100 tons of carbon emissions per year, the company said.

And it’s not only solar that has potential for growth in the country.

According to the Energy department, the Philippines has a total biomass potential of 4400 MW that remains to be fully tapped.

So far, the current installed biogas capacity in the country is only 11 MW and another 50 MW in the pipeline.

Indeed, Ditmar Gorges, chief executive officer of biogas company EnTech said the biogas industry is still starting to develop the market in the Philippines.

He said that biogas plants not only utilize industrial waste but also creates farm jobs.

Running a 1 MW plant employs around 120 farmworkers, Gorges said.
He said crucial to the establishment of a Philippine biomass market is capacity building and raising awareness for potential biomass investors.

Filipino-owned Cleangreen Energy Corporation (CEC) is another example of a company that is tapping the potential of biogas in the country.

The company is building a 12 MW biomass power plant in Bataan, a province in the north, to commence operations in 2017.

Indeed, wind, solar, biogas have huge potential in the Philippines. Hydropower and geothermal sources, meanwhile, already exist and have been providing power to the grid.

Generation Mix

According to the Department of Energy (DOE), as of 2011, the Philippines’ installed power capacity is divided as follows: coal has a 30 percent share, followed by natural gas at 18 percent percent and then oil-based plants at 19 percent. The share of renewable energy, meanwhile, is as follows: 11 percent for geothermal, 22 percent for hydro, and 0 percent for wind, solar and biomass. This was in 2011. Total installed capacity is 16,162 MW.

While there is no updated figure on this yet, the 2015 registered capacity at the Wholesale Electricity Spot Market (WESM), the country’s trading floor for electricity, may provide an indicator on how much capacity of renewable energy has increased.

The registered capacity at the WESM for 2015 is as follows” coal is at 36.55 percent, natural gas at 17.58 percent, oil-based at 15.50 percent, geothermal at 11.17 percent, hydro at 15.36 percent, wind at 2.44 percent, biomass at 0.87 percent, solar at 0.33 percent and small hydro at 0.19 percent.

Moving forward, energy players expressed optimism that the RE industry in the Philippines will continue to grow.

Ernesto Pantangco, chairman of the National Renewable Energy Board (NREB), a multi-sectoral body under the Department of Energy that aims to promote the RE sector, is very optimistic that the investments in RE will increase.

He said that NREB is working on an information campaign in order to make more companies aware of the feed-in tariff incentive.

Solutions to Power Crisis

Pantangco, who is also senior vice president of EDC, the owner of the Burgos Wind Farm, also believes that RE can be part of the solution to the looming energy crisis in the Philippines.

Solar power is definitely a part of the solution because solar PV plants produce just at the right time energy to provide peak power, he said.

He also said that even though wind power has its off-season during summer time, it would still produce around 20 percent output contributing to the power reserves.

Another official of the group that owns the wind farm agreed.
“Anytime the wind is blowing, (the wind farm) will generate up to 150 MW,” said Aloysius Santos, vice president of First Gen., the power generation company of the Lopez Group, said in a recent briefing with reporters.

He said even during the summer, there is a potential for the wind farm to generate 150 MW of power because there would still be windy days.

A power supply shortage is looming this summer for the Luzon grid, one of three grids in the country. The two other grids are the Visayas and Mindanao grids.

The supply shortage is at least 700 MW due to higher demand and insufficient supply because of the one-month maintenance shutdown of the Malampaya Deep Water Gas-to-Power Project in offshore Palawan.

The Malampaya facility, which supplies 40 percent of Luzon grid’s requirements, is scheduled for a maintenance shutdown from March 15 to April 15.

Indeed, there are many advantages of RE aside from augmenting supply this summer.

And the Philippines, blessed with manifold renewable energy sources, can do well to maximize these resources.

According to GIZ, increasing fuel prices, high energy import dependence, ever increasing carbon emissions and unconsidered external costs of fossil fuels make renewable energies the superior alternative.

It said that electricity generation from renewable energy makes the country less dependent on energy imports.

“In 2013, indigenous energy sources saved the country energy imports in the amount of $2.7 billion. 56.75 percent of the Philippines energy demand is already covered by indigenous energy sources. Yet, the energy demand is expected to rise annually by four percent. Renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, are free of charge and can help to cover the additional demand keeping the Philippine import,” GIZ said in a report on RE.

RE can also cushion the economy from volatile prices of fossil fuels.

“The prices for fossil fuels like natural gas and steam coal are very volatile. This makes it difficult to predict the future costs for electricity generated from fossil fuels. Most renewable energies have no fuel costs that makes it easier to predict their costs,” GIZ said.

More importantly, it said that the use of renewable energies would significantly reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“The replacement of 1 kWh coal generated electricity by 1 kWh RE generated electricity saves around 960gCO2,” it said.

Energy Revolution: Going Green

Environmental group Greenpeace also said that the Philippines could embrace an energy revolution and totally abandon coal.

“The Philippines can embrace an energy revolution, turn its back on coal, seize the moment and lead the way for renewables in Southeast Asia, capitalizing on its success in geothermal and in solar panel production,” Greenpeace said.

Furthermore, Greenpeace said that renewables ensure the country’s security of supply, help cope with rising demand and provide decarbonized energy.

“We all need electricity. It is vital. It powers our lives, runs our hospitals and schools – we need to for every aspect of our lives. But we need to be clean and sustainable. Embracing the energy revolution and harnessing renewables doesn’t mean bankruptcy and sacrifice. The facts show that it can bring us wealth, cost savings and employment,” the group said, adding that thousands of jobs can be created by the industry.

Moving Forward

For his part, Department of Energy director of Renewable Energy Management Bureau Mario Marasigan said in an interview that the goal is to increase the share of RE continuously.

“Our aim is to triple the capacity of RE by 2030. RE is clean so we need that,” Marasigan said.

The department he said, has the thrust to ensure energy security and at the same time, “climate proof” the future.

At the same time, he said the government needs the help of everyone in promoting RE because it cannot do it alone.

Going green and utilizing RE sources, indeed, will surely go a long way for the future of the Philippines as well as the health of its people and the environment.

Living with fear in the Everest region

Daki Sherpa remembers very well the flood that swept away everything from her. A glacier flood on September 3, 1977 in the Dudhkoshi River washed her home, took her pets and land. And most importantly, she couldn’t save her beloved father.

Imja is one of the 21 glacial lakes in Nepal that are potentially dangerous. 
Imja lies at an altitude of 5000m in the Everest region. 
Photo by Rajneesh Bhandari/ Asia Climate Journal
A glacial lake outburst  in Imja could damage many infrastructures along the Everest trekking route, scientists warn. Photo by Rajneesh Bhandari/ Asia Climate Journal
Many people like Dil Kumari Tamang live near the Imja River. They say they are afraid of the river. Photo by Rajneesh Bhandari/ Asia Climate Journal A landslide caused by glacial lake outburst at Mt. Amadablam. Photo by Rajneesh Bhandari/ Asia Climate Journal Daki Sherpa, 55, showing the area affected by the flood due to the glacial lake outburst  on September 3, 1977 in Dudhkoshi River. The flood washed away her father, home, took her pets, and land. Photo by Rajneesh Bhandari/ Asia Climate Journal Daki is now married and lives with her husband in Manju. “I am still afraid of this river,” she said. Photo by Rajneesh Bhandari/ Asia Climate Journal Melting of glacier has turned out to be a regular phenomenon in the Everest region, the big thaw it leads to is even fearful to the locals. Photo by Rajneesh Bhandari/ Asia Climate Journal
World’s tallest mountain Mt. Everest (center). Photo by Rajneesh Bhandari/ Asia Climate Journal A normal day in Jorsalle’s restaurants. The place was washed away by the flood due to the glacial lake outburst  in 1977. Photo by Rajneesh Bhandari/ Asia Climate Journal Chukung is the closest settlement from Imja Lake and it is four hours walk. Photo by Rajneesh Bhandari/ Asia Climate Journal Residents say they throw “purified rice” chanted with mantras by Buddhist Lamas on the bank of the river believing that the water level will not rise again. Photo by Rajneesh Bhandari/ Asia Climate Journal
Daki Sherpa, 55, showing the area affected by the flood due to the glacial lake outburst on September 3, 1977 in Dudhkoshi River. The flood washed away her father, home, took her pets, and land. Photo by Rajneesh Bhandari/ Asia Climate Journal

“It came all of a sudden at around seven thirty in the evening, there were many porters staying in my home (hotel),” Daki Sherpa, 55, said with tears in her eyes.

“Me and my mother were able to run away to the top of the hills, but father was at home. He couldn’t survive.”

Daki comes from a middle-class well-to-do family in Jarsalle, a popular trekking route for the Everest climbers. They had a busy hotel with land and pets. She was left with nothing.

All she had were the clothes she and her mother were wearing and an open sky to live.“I just got 20,000 rupees as relief after the incident happened. I haven’t got anything more and nobody has ever come to support and help, neither from the government nor the media. You are the first journalist who came to inquire about the incident with me,” Daki said.

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Many years later Daki learned that flood was caused by an outburst in Nare Lake, located below the peak of Mt Ama Dablam.  Today, scientists  warn that the glacier could burst creating devastating floods and damage to major constructions and infrastructure in the Everest region.

This is a serious problem in Nepal since many of those who live close to the Dudhkoshi river in the Everest region are at risk of possible glacial lake outburst flooding as global warming causes glaciers to melt more rapidly. So, too, the whole trekking route to the Everest region could be affected.

Imja at risk

Nepal has 3,252 glaciers and more than 2,323 glacial lakes.

A report titled “Glacial Lakes and Glacial Lake Outbrust Floods in Nepal” published by ICIMOD in 2011 puts 21 lakes in Nepal as potentially dangerous. One of them is Imja in the Everest region. This lake is the headwater of the Imja River, which later joins many other rivers and is called Dudhkoshi.

Imja lies at an altitude of 5000m in Solukhumbu district of Sagarmatha Zone.

Records show that Imja lake started forming only in the 60s and 70s as small pond. The lake was 1.3 km and 0.5 km in the length and width respectively in 1992 and occupied an area of 0.60 km2. The lake, however expanded by 28 percent in 2002. Scientists have said that the expansion of the glacial lake provides some of the clearest evidence of climate change.

Imja River touches most of the trekking route in the Everest region.

Dingboche, Pangboche, Phunki, Jorsalle, Manjau, Phakding villages and the hotels and lodges along trekking routes to Chhukhung are the most vulnerable to possible glacial lake outburst flood from Imja.

Life by the riverside

After nearly three decades, hotels and restaurants have reopened at the same place in Jorsalle, just below the hanging bridge. Every day hundreds of trekkers in the Everest region pass through the area and use the services of the restaurants and hotels.

Sushila Shrestha, who runs a restaurant/lodge, isn’t afraid of the river. Sushila, who has been residing in the area for the last 16 years, started her own business some time ago. She said that the hotels and lodge near the river gives good views and therefore attracts more tourists. There are other hotels near the banks of the river.

She, however, is unaware of the potential danger of a glacial lake outburst.

“I am never afraid of anything in life, not even of river,” 25 year-old Sushila said.

Though scientists have warned that the burst of Imja lake will cause extensive damage along Imja Khola/Dudh Koshi river, there has been no any precautionary measures taken  by  the government.

“The government hasn’t said anything to us regarding the glacial lake outburst,” Sushila said. “We don’t have a warning system and we rely on the information provided by the trekking guides.”

Experts say there is also a lack of a governing policy regarding setting up residences or operating businesses near the river.

Efforts to reduce water level

Community Based Flood and Glacial Lake Outburst Risk Reduction Project (CFGORRP), a joint undertaking of the Government of Nepal, Global Environment Facility (GEF) and United Nations Development Programme is currently being implemented in Nepal to reduce the risk of GLOFs by promoting community-based risk reduction approaches. The project aims to undertake the lake lowering at Imja by reducing the lake level by at least 3 meters.

Pravin Raj Maskey, Senior Technical Advisor at the CFGORRP said that by the end of 2014 the project plans to prioritize on finalizing the preliminary design of Imja lake lowering and channel structures. In 2015 the project will be prioritizing on the full-fledge construction and installation of controlled drainage for Imja lake lowering.

Life full of fear

Nimayangi Sherpa, 30, operates a restaurant just at the bank of the river in Fungitanga. Originally from Khumjung she is here because it’s the major trekking route during the Everest climbing season.

“As the water level rises during summer,” she said. “I am afraid that it might flood and landslide.”

“I know there is glacier lake at the top,” she said. “But I don’t know about it’s potential danger.”

The river took away many of the Buddhist prayer wheels that were here four or five years ago.  When asked about any precaution measures, she said she has thrown “purified rice” by Buddhist Lamas on the bank of the river believing that the water level will not rise again.

Climbers and Sherpa trek through the banks of Dudhkoshi to the Mount Everest. They cross the river many times through the hanging bridge.

Daki was 13 year old and supporting her family’s hotel business when the flood touched her and her family. She had to leave her village Jorsalle, a major trekking route for climbers in the Everest and other peaks in the region. She and her mother started living in a nearby village.

Daki said her mother died because of the pain of losing her husband and family assets. She now lives with her husband in Monju, a village that is 15 minutes walk from Jorsalle. She said her land has been taken by others as she lost all the government documents during the flood.

“Every time I hear the sound of Dudkkoshi I am scared of it,” Daki said.   “I hope I get my land back someday.”
Infographics Nepal story

Indonesia cracks down on haze pollution, will it succeed?

Forest fires, and the haze pollution they cause, are increasingly becoming a serious national headache for Indonesia. The country has been a target of finger pointing by its ASEAN neighbors – Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand – year after year because of this seemingly perennial problem.

Riau province in central Sumatra has emerged as the chief culprit for the haze problem. Land clearing by burning forests has traditionally been seen as a cultural rite by local farmer. The problem is, big palm oil plantation companies have also resorted to similar methods when it comes to clearing lands, according to latest reports by Indonesia’s largest environmental NGO Wahana Lingkungan Hidup (Walhi), or the Indonesian Forum for Environment, which is part of the Friends of the Earth network.

Haze pollution is not just a domestic headache for Indonesia, particularly for the provinces of Sumatra and West Kalimantan, where the problem occurs leading to dry seasons fro March to July. It has become a double-edged sword, affecting the local communities both on the health and economic aspects, and leading to “national shame” when neighboring countries start complaining about haze.

In August this year, a number of districts and cities in Riau had to bear forest fires, prompting the Regional Disaster Management Agency (BPBD) to deploy three helicopters on water bombing missions. According to Jim Gafur of the agency’s Prevention and Preparedness Section, the helicopters were sent to three areas worst hit by forest fire, Rokan Hilir, Dumai and Bengkalis.

In addition to sending helicopters, fire extinguishing operations have been undertaken by means of artificial rain.

The Indonesian government seems to have taken a serious note of the problem. Jakarta is about 2,000 kilometres from Pekanbaru, the capital of the Riau province, and many observers feel local administration hasn’t done enough to curb the practice because of its distant location from the capital. For all practical purposes, it’s up to the central government in Jakarta to resolve the problem.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who won the Valuing Nature Award from the Nature Conservancy, the World Resources Institute and the WWF in 2012 for conserving the nation’s natural resources, finds himself in the spotlight every time the problem is reported.

The President had taken stern action this March.

“If, within the next one or two days, the Riau administration and the ministers cannot tackle (this problem), then I’ll take over the leadership and control (of the problem),” Yudhoyono said in a statement via his Twitter on March 13, 2014. He landed at Riau airport on March 16 and led control of the fires by directing field personnel on how to deal with the problem decisively. He declared forest fires and haze pollution as national calamities, effectively putting the matter under the central government’s financing and control.

He has since then called on law enforcers to impose tough punishments on those burning forests, saying smoke disasters in the province of Riau would persist if law enforcers were lenient. “Seventy percent of land fires in Riau were [done] on purpose. Without deterrent effects, hundreds of billions will be wasted to solve this problem,” the President said during a meeting with regional leaders and business owners at the residence of the Riau governor in Pekanbaru later that day.

Based on data available with Indonesia’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) in Jakarta, forest and land fires in Riau Province between February 2014 and April 2014 caused economic losses worth at least Rp20 trillion (roughly USD 2 billion). They have affected at least 25,000 hectares of forest, plantation and peat-soil areas throughout the province. They disrupted around 30 percent of economic activities, in addition to over 60,000 people that needed medical treatments for respiratory problems up to end of July 2014.

So far, Riau police have arrested and named 183 people who had allegedly committed crimes of burning bushes or forests. A total of 116 suspects have been nabbed while undertaking forest crime activities between January 2014 and March 2014, while 67 others were named as suspects during the period April 5, 2014 to July 10. “The number of suspects could increase because the on-field team is still on the lookout for criminals responsible for new forest fires,” Riau Police spokesman Adjunct Senior Commissioner Guntur Aryo Tejo had said recently.

Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan has urged the Riau Province Administration not to issue more permits for oil palm plantations, as two million hectares of the plantations is illegal or has no permit. Four of the eight million hectares of plantation area of Riau Province has been used for growing oil palm. “Theoretically, additional permit may not be issued,” the minister had said, adding just 2,0 million of the total 4,0 million hectares of oil palm plantation area have an official permit for forest conversion.

Indonesia introduced a law against burning in 1999 after widespread fires in the two preceding years caused a thick haze to blanket parts of Indonesia and neighboring countries. The law carries penalties of up to 10 years in prison and a 10-billion-rupiah (USD 1 million) fine. The enforcement of the law nevertheless has been weak. Therefore, the Indonesian government has taken over matters related to forest fires, calling them a matter of national affair, not anymore a provincial issue.

At a meeting in Myanmar May this year, leaders of ASEAN noted transboundary haze pollution remains a concern in the region. In this regard, they agreed to further intensify regional and international cooperation including those under the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (AATHP), particularly to promote efforts among ASEAN Member States to ensure the full and effective implementation of the zero burning techniques in land clearing. They acknowledged the ASEAN Sub-regional Haze Monitoring System (HMS) is a useful tool to assist in monitoring and internal enforcement actions against irresponsible parties contributing to fires.

The ASEAN Agreement on Trans-boundary Haze Pollution is a legally binding environmental agreement signed in 2002 by all the ASEAN nations to reduce haze pollution in Southeast Asia. The agreement recognizes trans-boundary haze pollution, which results from land and/or forest fires, should be mitigated through concerted national efforts and international cooperation.

Malaysia must own up to its hand in haze menace

Jonathan Von blogs in his Facebook about the choking haze in Singapore that caused him to suffer breathing difficulty and prayed hard for the rain.

His FB posting in rhymed stanza on 21 July 2014 read:

MAIGAD this haze, is killin’ me,

I must confess, i cannot breathe,

When it gets smoky i lose my mind,

Give me a siiiiiiiggnnnnnn…..

Send the rain down one more time.

“The cavalry (clouds) arrives, bad news for the haze that haunts us for the last one week”, cheered Jimmy Leow, a manager-cum-citizen journalist for Malaysiakini.com, in his FB posting up north in Penang, Malaysia, a month later.

Von and Leow are two working professionals living 800km apart. They faced the same health hazard and the same sense of helplessness. As long as the dry season persists, they are on the same boat, lamenting their discomfort from the same concern.

Every time they swore, their mind turned to Indonesia, namely Riau province in Sumatra, the area from where the haze originated. and the cause large-scale open burning of forested land for oil palm plantations.

Satellite images have recorded many hotspots there. Haze is definitely an ‘exported’ trans-boundary air pollution that is carried by strong winds across the Straits of Malacca to neighbouring six Southeast Asian countries in the north; with the worst hit being Malaysia and Singapore.

This annual haze phenomenon is said to affect the health of some 75 million people.

With El Nino (dry spell) expected to hit this region, there is no slack in the intensity of the haze bellowing and shrouding cities in the weeks ahead.

One of the worst haze happened in June 2013 when illegal fires in Sumatra plunged the Southeast Asian region — Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Southern Thailand – into a crisis.

The Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) in Singapore hit a high of 401 (hazardous range), while in Muar, Johor, the Air Pollution Index (API) spiked on 23 June to 746, sending the district into a state of emergency. Readings exceeding 200 for both the PSI and API is considered as unhealthy and a health hazard.

Haze is not an isolated incident; it is a major environment problem since 1992.

Haze is man-made and a self-inflicted wound.

May to September is the time of the year when farmers eager to prepare their farm land for replanting go about with their traditional practice of slash and burn.

This alone will not bring about the volume of smokes sufficient enough to blacken the skies. Hot-spot images showed large scale open burnings that are happening in areas where oil palm plantations are found in the Riau province in Sumatra, Indonesia.

In the past decade benefiting from the high world palm oil prices, Riau has witnessed a change and reaped economic benefits the likes of which residents there had not seen before.

Corporate Interest versus Health Risk

Big multi-national corporations from Malaysia in search of land to open up for oil palm plantations found a rich hinterland in Sumatra. Their successes attracted companies in Singapore to join in.

Soon enough, with big profits make in selling palm oil that is fetching high prices, Malaysia’s superannuation funds like Employee’s Provident Fund, Tabung Haji and Armed Forces Pension Fund Board (LTAT) invested in Malaysian-owned companies operating these oil palm plantations in Indonesia.

It was a good return on investment and fat dividends were paid out to their shareholders.

Today, apart from the superannuation funds, Malaysia’s conglomerate Sime Darby Group has over 10,000 hectares of land under oil palm plantation there.

Indonesia, on the other hand, is benefiting from Foreign Direct Investments and the local economy in Riau also prospered.

Fast forward today, Indonesia has vastly expanded its oil palm plantations, overtaking Malaysia to become the world’s biggest supplier. The palm oil industry in Indonesia is worth US$21billion industry and it contributes to about 5 per cent of its GDP.

Malaysia, being a party to all this, cannot wash its hands. Last year, the Indonesian Environment Minister named eight Malaysian companies with fire hotspots on their concessions. The companies have, however, denied such claims.

This haze that has crossed over to the peninsula from Sumatra is self-inflicted. In the interest of lower cost and higher profit margins, the allegedly errant parties (Malaysian-owned companies) are putting at risk the people’s health.

Opposition deputy chairman S. Ramakrishnan in the State of Johor in Peninsular, the state closest to Riau province and facing the brunt of the haze air pollution, has disclosed that these Malaysian-owned companies as big and powerful corporations with heavy political patronage.

“I am just a small mosquito, but I believe that I am speaking for the majority of Malaysians who are fed up with haze. I am also calling for Malaysian consumers to invoke a wide boycott on companies accused of polluting the air through indiscriminate land clearing in Indonesia

“We must educate our consumers to play a part in eradicating haze once and for all from our skies,” the former Senator says.

Based on satellite data, it is estimated that 80% of the fires were set by plantation companies or their sub-contractors for land clearing purposes, while the remaining 20% by ‘slash-and-burn’ practice by farmers.

Political patronage and Impunity

Many Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean firms have been able to evade official investigation by the Indonesian Government even when there were repeated indicators of open burning. The widespread practice of patronage politics in this sector has emboldened errant companies to act with impunity, says Ramakrishnan.

“Malaysian and Singaporean companies in Indonesia are linked to powerful political elites back home who are more motivated by material gain than protecting the interests of the people affected by the haze.

“There is little hope to address trans-boundary haze effectively unless the root cause of the system, patronage politics is conclusively addressed. Political patronage protects the trans-border haze pollutants,” he claims.

Ramakrishnan says the records showed that Malaysian and Singaporean investors controlled more than two-thirds of the Indonesian oil palm plantation sector.

“They are a powerful lobby group. I hope Greenpeace will take up the cause as all other efforts including by Malaysia’s own environment ministry has failed miserably.

Haze a health hazard

Medical doctor Dr T. Jayabalan says while there are no official statistics done by the Health Ministry to indicate that the rise of respiratory ailments was due to haze, most would agree that respiratory ailments were always on the rise during the dry season.

“Patients who are previously non-asthmatic become asthma sufferers while the conditions of asthmatic patients become worse. I know as I am treating them,” he says.

Haze agreement in limbo?

Legislator Steven Sim says he is concerned with the effectiveness of the ASEAN agreement on trans-boundary haze pollution to curb haze pollution since it is already 12 years of existence.

“This is evidence that the 21st century requires a different set of mentality in dealing with diplomacy and foreign relation. We are dealing not just with state actors but many non-state actors as well, notably in this case MNCs’ haze-causing activities.

More than 10 years after the agreement, Indonesia, the largest ASEAN country and one of the major locations where land clearing is carried in large scale which causes serious air pollution has yet to ratify the agreement.

“While the blame is directed to Malaysian or Singaporean companies operating in Indonesia, the Indonesia government needs to demonstrate more commitment to tackle this issue within its own jurisdiction.

“Signing the agreement is definitely the first step. Enacting and enforcing air pollution regulation within its jurisdiction is next.

Malaysia, he says, should monitor the activities of Indonesia-based Malaysia companies in particular GLCs to ensure they adhere to the principles of the agreement. This is a major transnational problem which affects even our own country and we cannot be mere passive observers.

A case of the pot calling the kettle black

Lawyer S. Raveentharan says Indonesia should not resort to the case of the pot calling the kettle black.

“Indonesia has no excuses. It must act on all companies polluting the environment even if they are Malaysian or Singaporean firms.

“I hope the new Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo will have the political will to make the changes needed and not repeat the same stance of previous leaders by shifting blame to others,” he says.

Founder of Rights movement (an Asean human rights and anti-genocide organisation) Yusmadi Yusoff says it is paramount that in this age of globalisation, Asean must stand up as one voice and protect its own skies.

“If Asean cannot cooperate to tackle the environment concern, how can Asean tackle other issues,” he asks.

In a The Establishment report filed by Vanitha Nadaraj in July this year, the haze has caused Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore to suffer huge economic losses.

She quoted Adelina Kamal of Asean’s Bureau of Functional Cooperation in a 2002 report that “the total economic losses in terms of agriculture production, destruction of forest lands, health, transportation, tourism, and other economic endeavors have been estimated of US$9.3 billion.”

Another worst case happened in 2013 when the haze spread further affecting southern Thailand and Brunei. For Singapore itself, it was the worst ever and the government estimated the economic losses at US$1 billion a week, as quoted in the report.

In a concluding remark in her 2013 paper entitled on “Patronage Politics, Plantation Fires and Trans-boundary Haze” by author Helena Varkkey in the journal Environmental Hazards Vol. 12 noted succinctly that:

“The serious environmental hazard that is the almost annual trans-boundary haze in Southeast Asia can be seen to be bolstered by patronage networks that are prevalent in the business atmosphere of Indonesia.

“Well-connected local and foreign oil palm plantation companies have been able to take advantage of these linkages to ensure that they can act with impunity. Hence, these companies continue to use fire as a cost-efficient way to clear land in preparation for planting while disregarding the serious environmental implications that rise from the hazardous smoke that is produced from these fires.

“The national laws and regulations against the use of fire are rendered useless in the face of powerful economic interests, and the SoutheastAsian society continues to suffer the effects of haze pollution year after year.”

This self-inflicted bane will continue and with the onset of El Nino hitting Southeast Asia the worst is yet to come and again the people’s health is short-changed by profiteering.

Cycling to work, Bangkok’s new transport pitch

Beating Bangkok’s chaotic and notorious traffic has become easier with ‘Pun Pun’, the city’s public bike sharing programme and the Thai word for “pedal.” For less than USD 1 for the first three hours, renting a bike not only saves time but is also a small way Bangkokians can do their part in helping to reduce air pollution and make the City of Angels more sustainable.

The project began in 2012 under the initiative of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) and was one of the then-governor M.R. Sukhumbhand Paribatra’s pledges during his campaign for re-election for a second term. Many ‘bike lanes’ have been constructed to allow cyclists to navigate more conveniently through the city’s busy roads and sidewalks which are often filled with street vendors peddling goods, such as along Phra Artit Road around the Khao San area, popular among backpackers and visitors.

With stations located mainly in the downtown area, residents and tourists can rent bikes and ride around the city and conveniently return them at a station close to their destination. Popular stops include the trendy Siam Square and Zuillig House Stations in the city’s business district of Silom.

With non-stop development of new shopping centres and condominiums in the capital city, especially along Sukhumvit Road and along the Chao Phraya River, there is less and less green space and fewer trees that help to absorb the city’s polluted carbon emissions.

Vehicles are the main culprits

“When talking about air pollution in Thailand, there probably is no difference when we compare Bangkok with other large cities in developing countries which also face unavoidable problems with air pollutants resulting from nature as well as from human activities,” says Dr Sirimia Panyametheekul, an environmental engineer from the Chulalongkorn University.

Exhaust from vehicles is the main contributor to the capital’s polluted air. However, with the Thai government’s efforts through its Pollution Control Department (PCD) at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment the situation has considerably improved over the past decade. The PCD monitors round-the-clock the air quality index, based on four pollutants and provides details on its website, www.airforthai.pcd.go.th.

By far, the biggest culprit is diesel gas common among trucks and buses. Because of its importance to the country’s logistics and its close link with cost of living, successive Thai governments have had to subsidise the price of diesel, making it the cheapest among all types of fuel. What makes car exhaust dangerous to people’s health are the various chemical components that pose dangers to people’s health. Be it nox, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide or a host of other toxic chemicals harmful to our health. Nox and carbon monoxide can also be transferred and mixed with rain to produce acid rain.

Professor N. T. Kim Oanh from the School of Environment Resources and Development at Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) believes it is necessary to reduce black carbon, which is emitted from diesel vehicles because such substances absorb solar radiation that leads to a warming effect. Iyngararasan Mylvakanam, Programme Officer at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), an international organization that promotes collaboration among countries and supports capacity building to address air quality issues, explains carbon monoxide is toxic to humans while carbon dioxide is what warms the planet and what causes people to suffer from asthma.

According to Mylvakanam, the small particular matters, or dust, are the most harmful given that people breathe these in, causing allergies and other respiratory problems. Mylvakanam cautions that although there is exhaust from buses, this is deemed acceptable because of the lower per capita emission.  Mylvakanam compares how one bus full of passengers is equal to 50 cars driven by one person.

Introduction of alternative fuels

The successful introduction of plant-based gasohol using palm oil in 2001 was due to His Majesty King Bhumipol Adulyadej’s concern for the degrading environmental conditions in the Kingdom and His Majesty’s initiative to find sustainable alternatives for his subjects. With the introduction of lead-free gas and the promotion of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and natural gas vehicle (NGV) fuels as alternative sources of fuel, the city’s air has become increasingly better over the past few decades.

Many taxi drivers and motorists, for example, have modified their engines and installed LPG or NGV fuels, which are fuel efficient and environmentally friendly. Nevertheless, there is still some concern when it comes to particulate matter (PM-10) and tropospheric ozone along the roads, or ambient side, which still exceed the standard due to the heavy traffic found in Bangkok. However, Professor Kim states tests of air quality have shown sulfur dioxide and NoX 11 have decreased, which are good signs since more motorists use cleaner fuel.

How to resolve the problem?

“There is no single solution to this problem,” Panyametheekul explains, “the time it takes to address the issue also depends on the cause of air pollution, the concentration of the toxins in the air.” Pollution from one place can easily affect another area as the air is linked and cannot be physically separated.

Pochanart believes that the issue is a shared responsibility. Many Bangkokians prefer to drive their own cars because of the poor quality of the city’s public transport. Thus, if the mass transit system can be further expanded and cover more areas and the quality of city’s buses enhanced, more people would leave their cars at home, which would help reduce air pollution.

Tara Buakamsri, Campaign Director for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, feels people are more conscious about climate change, but they are not sure where to start. Many start by changing small habits such as by using cloth bags. However, bigger changes are more challenging given the fact people cannot see or perceive possible impacts and consequences.

Another problem is many organizations launch their own campaign to address environmental issues, “but there is a lack of coordination,” Buakamsri explains. There has to be greater coordination among the different stakeholders. Buakamsri adds “we should raise awareness in the whole system and introduce plans to develop the whole city”.

Use of alternative forms of transportation

With the construction of the BTS skytrains and MRT subway trains, Bangkokians now have alternative choices to get around the city and avoid traffic. The government has also embarked on expanding the coverage of these trains to more parts of the city, and within the next two years many additional stations will be available connecting more residents in the suburbs with the downtown core.

“One solution is to raise people’s consciousness and allow the public to take part in solving the problem, such as by using mass transit, walking, and/or using bicycles,” suggests Panyametheekul. She also explains that by improving Bangkok’s public infrastructure such as sidewalks and mass transit system for citizens of all walks of life, these simple solutions are more sustainable rather than introducing new technology.

Can Hanoi tame its pollution nightmare, the motorbike?

In 2014, the Environmental Performance Index again ranked Vietnam among the worst 10 of 178 countries on the air pollution index. Myanmar, Bhutan, Laos, India, Pakistan, China and Bangladesh were ranked worse.

Vietnam has grown remarkably fast from one of the world’s poorest nations in the 1980s to a middle-income country. Its urban areas have come under pressure from surging population, increasing transportation demand and economic growth. Is Vietnam getting short of breath?

Is the state of Vietnam’s air quality alarming?

The Environmental Performance Index, a worldwide ranking created by researchers at the Yale University and the Columbia Universities, uses satellite-derived estimates to measure fine particulate matter (PM2.5) exposure and exceedance. This method makes cross-country comparisons possible – many countries do not yet measure ground-based PM2.5.

A look at Hanoi’s real time Air Quality Index data shows the concentration of pollutants varies during the day. “While the air quality in some regions in the country is still good, we worry about some cities and industrial areas”, says Dr. Hoang Duong Tung, Deputy Director General of the Vietnam Environment Administration, under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. According to their data, PM2.5 concentration in cities on many days exceeds Vietnam’s national air quality standard, which is set at 50 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) for a 24-hours average, he says.

“Yes, the figures are alarming.  Air quality has become a priority concern for the government. We saw TV reports on Beijing’s severe smog pollution – a situation we want to avoid in Vietnam,” he says. Besides particulate matter, dust and ozone are also of concern, while SO2 levels are less of a problem, says Tung, adding Vietnam’s air quality issues are typical to many southeast Asian countries.

What is air pollution?

Source:  www.epa.govepi.yale.edu

What are the main sources of air pollution in Vietnam?

In the cities, the leading source of air pollution emissions is transport. Up until the end of the 1980s, the main means of transport in Hanoi were bicycles and trams. Economic growth and the rise in living standards have led to a surge in motorised transport. Bicycles have almost entirely given way to motorcycles as the preferred mode of transport in Vietnam. Motorcycles account for more than 9O per cent of the fleet in the nearly six-million-strong Hanoi, with its many narrow streets and alleys often too tiny to be accessible by car.

“Almost everyone has a motorcycle, while public transport is limited and not very popular. Busses carry only five per cent to 10 per cent of the population,” says Tung, adding, “Also, the habit of walking is anything but common here. People use motorbikes even for very short distances.”

Vietnam’s vehicle fleet grew consistently at an average of 16 per cent per annum from between 2000 and 2012, while growth in car numbers was highest, at 18 per cent, during this period, according to a report by the air quality network Clean Air Asia. More than 37 million motorcycles are registered in Vietnam, with a population of 90 million people. The number of cars is around two million.

Another significant source of air pollution are coal-fired power plants and cement and steel factories. Construction dust also adds to the pollution, as well as the burning of the field residue during the harvest season, which affects the local air quality during certain times of the day and brings noticeable smoke into Hanoi for about a week, Tung explains.

What measures are being taken in Vietnam to fight air pollution?

Vietnam is gradually tightening standards for new vehicles and has put measures in place to control petrol quality. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, Vietnam is moving to 50ppm sulfur in fuels by 2016 to meet Euro 4 vehicle emission standards, and has confirmed moving to Euro 5 by 2021.

To control the number of cars, Vietnam is also taking financial measures. The country has a 200 per cent tax on auto purchases. The registration fee in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City was increased. “Ironically driving up the price of cars makes them more attractive to own,” Dr. Terry F. Buss, a Fellow at the U.S. National Academy of Public Administration wrote in an article on traffic congestion in Vietnam’s major cities published by Tuoi Tre News. “Because they are a sign of wealth, car owners are very unlikely to ride buses or trains.”

Tung says for motorcycles the country still lacks a good maintenance program. “Many old motorbikes are still in use, although they often get sold in the countryside. There aren’t any strict inspections for existing busses in place yet either,” he says. Unlike in some other Asian countries, two-stroke motorbikes are not a big concern since they are not popular in Vietnam.

According to an article on traffic safety by Thanh Nien News from November 2013, several experts had proposed the idea of imposing a motorbike ban in major cities, which had been met by opposition. The article quoted Nguyen Hoang Hiep, deputy chairman of the National Traffic Safety Committee, saying a ban was currently impossible because of undeveloped economics, lack of infrastructure and insufficient public transport.

With the current limited infrastructure and street capacities, the number of public busses in the cities can only be increased in certain areas, says Tung. Metro projects for Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, which aim to reduce the use of private transport, face years of delay.

Eight subway lines are planned for Hanoi. The project is being coordinated and financed by several organisations including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the European Investment Bank. In Ho Chi Minh City, a rapid transit network with seven metro lines and three monorail routes is planned with Japanese aid. Construction work started in 2012. A new 14-kilometre rapid transit route for buses with a separate road lane in Hanoi is planned to go into operation in 2015.

Electric bicycles and e-scooters seem to be becoming increasingly popular in the cities, especially among students. “It is encouraging to see that more and more people are using e-bikes,” says Tung, “But we need to develop a sustainable battery collection and recycling system.” Hanoi is planning to start a pilot public bicycle rental program similar to programs in European cities and in China.

How could cities systematically improve their air quality?

At a local level, sufficient and consistent data on air quality monitoring is often unavailable.  The project Clean Air for Smaller Cities in the ASEAN Region, funded by the German government, is being carried out by the German International Cooperation (GIZ) in eight countries in Southeast Asia. “In Vietnam, we have recently started with our project activities,” says Project Director Martina Kolb.

In the city of Bac Ninh, an emission inventory is currently being developed to detect which sources are emitting which air pollutants and to what extent. The same procedure is planned for the city Can Tho. “At this stage we don’t have any completed analysis for these two cities yet,” says Kolb. “Generally speaking, in smaller cities in the ASEAN region, transport tends to be the main source of air pollution. In Bac Ninh public transport is currently limited,” she says.

Based on these emission inventories, targeted measures to reduce air pollution will be suggested in clean air plans. “Such clean air plans have been common practice in the European Union. If a city exceeds the air quality standard on a particular number of days, measures have to be taken to reduce air pollution, such as introducing low emission zones,” Kolb says.

Suggested measures in these clean air plans are following the approach “avoid-shift-improve”. Heavy traffic can, for example, be avoided or significantly reduced by an urban planning that keeps distances between workplaces and residential areas at a minimum. By offering more public transport, motorized individual transport can be shifted to more environmental friendly modes of transport. The infrastructure can be improved by creating sidewalks and lanes for busses and bicycles.

Flurry of new coal plants threaten Philippines’s Mindanao

Along the highway approaching the boundary areas of Davao city and Davao del Sur in Southern Philippines, Flora Salandron, a village councilor, opens the front windows she always locks up all day to keep away the dust from the highway. But these days, it’s no longer the dust, nor the fumes of passing trucks, that troubled her.

Just across the street, framed by her window and towering over most of the village of Binugao, stood the newly-built chimney of the 600 megawatt coal-fired power plant of the company Therma South Inc., a subsidiary of the Philippine company Aboitiz Power Corporation. “Soon there will be fumes coming out of that chimney,” says Salandron, her voice echoing her growing anxiety. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to us.”

Health activists and environmentalists have warned against the effects that the coal-fired power plant brings to the lives of people—from the toxic gases it will emit, to the dangers of contamination posed by coal combustion residues and the possible strain that operation of the plant might bring to the existing water resources. But the strong push of Davao city’s tough-talking and very popular mayor, Rodrigo Duterte, and the consent of village leaders, stifled the voices opposed to the plant.

The Aboitiz plant lies within the 60-hectare lot that straddles Davao city’s boundary village of Binugao and the largely fishing and farming village of Inawayan in Santa Cruz town of Davao del Sur.

It is one of the 45 new coal-fired power plants the Aquino government has lined up in the Philippines, supposedly to solve what business and power industry leaders project as the looming power shortage in 2015.

The sheer number of coal-fired plants built at the time when such plants are already being phased out in the West, have alarmed environmentalists.

Coal is the world’s top contributor to global warming, the leading culprit for climate change; and the Philippines has consistently been on the top 10 of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate catastrophe.

Mindanao, which never used to experience typhoons, also got a dose of extreme weather in 2012, when the Supertyphoon Bopha battered the provinces of Compostela Valley and Davao Oriental, killing over a thousand people, and destroying some P10 billion worth of crops and properties. Yet, 13 of the new 45 coal-fired power plants being lined up in the Philippines are in Mindanao, an island still enjoying a relatively cheaper power rates than the rest of the country for its reliance on hydropower.

Recent projection by the Mindanao Development Authority (MinDA) shows that the flurry of coal-fired power plant construction in Mindanao will change the energy mix of the island from its current reliance on cheap hydropower to reliance on imported coal. This trend, environmentalists warned, will not only make electricity more expensive to ordinary consumers but will lock up the country’s dependence on coal power by 30 to 50 years.

For Aviva Imhof, coordinator of the Pacific Coal Network of the Australia-based The Sunrise Project, the figure is quite alarming, considering how countries around the world are now shifting towards renewable energy and are abandoning the dirty path of coal. “What Philippines is doing is locking itself to coal dependency in the next 30 to 50 years,” said Imhoff, “It’s crazy because there’s the concern about the global increase in coal prices; and if governments agree on climate targets, it will drive up the cost of coal, which consumers will be paying because the (power) generators will pass on the fuel cost to consumers,” she said, “You will end up paying for it,” she warned.

In July, the environment watchdog Greenpeace released a stern warning in Manila, saying the country’s “continued fixation” with coal-fired power plants as a main energy source will only invite climate catastrophes.

“While we cannot prevent super typhoons from entering the country, we can address what causes these storms to be stronger and more frequent, and we tag coal as the culprit, the main driver of climate change,” said Reuben Andrew Muni, climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace. The group’s second volume of the report, “The True Cost of Coal,” blamed coal as the main culprit for the occurrences of extreme weather. “Building more coal plants will just be loading the dice for another typhoon Haiyan,” said the report released in July, referring to the world’s strongest typhoon that devastated a large swathe of land in Central Philippines in November 2013.

More than half of the total number of new coal-fired power plants being built in the country, are in Mindanao, an island still enjoying cheaper electricity rates compared to the rest of the country because of its heavy reliance on hydropower. The flurry of coal plant construction in Mindanao, however, is projected to reverse the trend in the coming years. While Mindanao still sources out 56 per cent of its energy need from renewable energy (mainly hydropower) this year, this reliance on renewable energy is projected to go down to 33 per cent in 2016; as the island will rely more on fossil-based energy like coal, according to the MinDA’s supply outlook projection for Mindanao.

Bryan Diosma, MinDA technical head, said the share of fossil-based fuel in the energy mix in Mindanao is projected to increase from only 44 per cent in 2014 to 67 per cent in 2016.

The MinDA data he presented shows that coal will make up 49 per cent of Mindanao’s energy mix in 2016 while hydro will share a minimal 29 per cent in the same year.

Environment groups assail President Aquino’s long-standing bias for coal.

Gerry Arances, national coordinator of Philippine Movement for Climate Justice (PMCJ), accused the President of listening first to power industry players before listening to his people. PMCJ said the power industry player’s proposed solution to the energy crisis is to approve and build more coal-fired power plants, most of which failed to get the consent of communities where they are located.

Francis Morales, coordinator of the Balsa Mindanao, a nongovernment disaster response group set up in the wake of supertyphoons Bopha and Hainan, said the setting up of more coal-fired power plants make the government of the Philippines the biggest disaster to the Filipino people, and that there’s no other way for the people to survive but to rely on their own strength. “It’s liberating for the people to protect and defend themselves when the government is putting people’s welfare way below in its priority list,” said Morales.

“For putting up more coal-fired power plants at the time when the country faces the threats of climate catastrophe, the Philippine government has turned out to be the biggest disaster that ever happened to the Filipino people,” Morales said. “People should brace themselves against the impact of climate change, coming to us through these coal-fired power plants, courtesy of the Philippine government.”

But President Aquino, hardly spoke about energy in his latest state-of-the-nation address, except to warn that hydropower, as a main source of power, is unreliable.

PMCJ also noted that the Philippine Energy Plan (PEP) 2008-2030, the country targets energy self-sufficiency but through heavy reliance on fossil fuel, oil, gas and coal.   “With or without an energy crisis, the proposed new coal power-plants will inflict debilitating effects on environment, health, loss of livelihood and to our resiliency to climate change impacts,” Arances said. “The government will put its people in danger with its energy plan.”

While government increasingly dangled coal as the fast and affordable solution to the energy crisis, environmentalists pointed out that governments are paying high cost for health and social catastrophes that confront communities, as a result of coal plant operations, and this does not yet include the severe damage caused by extreme weather to the economy. Dr. Jean Lindo, health activist and convenor of the group NO to Coal in Southern Mindanao, cited studies made by by Jeff Stant, director of the Coal Combustion Waste Initiative Environment Integrity Project in the US, warning that coal combustion waste is toxic, that it has high concentrations of 17 heavy metals including arsenic, selenium, mercury, cadmium, chromium, lead, antimony, thallium, molybdenum, vanadium, nickel and cobalt as well as boron, sulfates, chlorides and other salts.

These heavy metals cause birth defects, adverse physiological, metabolic effects, harms birds, fish and livestock. The study also showed that people living near coal combustion waste sites face a high risk of cancer and a high risk of arsenic contamination in their ground water.

At present, there are already 13 existing coal plants in the Philippines, with a total installed capacity of 3,799 megawatts. The Department of Energy (DOE)report in 2012 shows that the country still relies 38.76 per cent of its energy needs from coal, and Greenpeace pointed out that this reliance on coal has been growing, not receding through the years. Once the 45 new coal plants—being lined up now—will run, the country’s carbon dioxide emission level will increase to 79.8 million metric tons a year. Greenpeace also warned that the country’s continued investment in coal also undermines the Philippines’ position to push for legally-binding climate treaty that might save the country from the devastating impacts of climate change.

Most of the coal plant sites overlap biodiversity areas that the government itself has declared protected.

Along the strip of coastline where the Aboitiz’ plant sits in Binugao up to the village of Lasang in the north, people have been trading stories about their surprised encounters with butandings (whale sharks), a sign that biodiversity level in the area is still high, says Leonardo Avila III, a Davao city councilor and president of the Save the Davao Gulf Foundation Inc. The Binugao plant lies facing the Davao Gulf, earlier identified in one study as feeding ground of 11 species of whales and placed as one of the biodiversity hotspots. Greenpeace had earlier identified the area as cetacean priority in its Oceans Campaign, because of the presence of whales and dugongs in the area. But the string of coal-fired power plants built around the Davao Gulf alone is alarming, says Muni. “We believe, though, that once the coal-fired power plant will start operation, marine life will be affected, including whale sharks and dugong.”

Just four towns away, another coal-fired power plant is being built in Malita, Davao Occidental, by another Philippine conglomerate, the San Miguel Corporation (SMC), targeting to use the coal mined from its newly-acquired coal mines in the adjacent province of South Cotabato. Up north, where Mindanao’s first coal-fired power plant the Steag’s 210 megawatt’s Mindanao Power Plant which started running in 2006, another power plants are being built; namely, the 405 Megawatt FDC Misamis Power Corporation, a subsidiary of another Philippine company Filinvest Development Corporation within Villanueva town; and the plant being set up by Minergy in Balingasag town.

Just two provinces away, in Maasim, Sarangani, where the Conal Coal plant is located, members of the group Anti-COALition, a national network of communities opposed to coal and endorsing renewable energy, reported that the plant’s area overlapped with the Tampoan marine biodiversity area, where dolphins were often sighted and dugongs were known to thrive.


AS WAVES lap the strip of shore in the Binugao side of the coal plant, a group of farmers taking a rest in a shade watch as a man, they fondly called Bobby, push his small boat and prepared to sail in the water. Bobby had been known in the area as the man who used to swim with the butandings, a whale shark. As his boat sailed far deeper into sea, the farmers saw a school of fish jumping over his boat to the water. “He will not catch them, he’s not a fisherman,” says Celestino Gibao, 50, “He will only watch those fish play, they’re his friends.” Fishers used to be happy when the butandings come because they signal an abundant catch, says Annabelle Lovitos, who lives in the Binugao area for years. Lovitos said she only saw the butandings one late afternoon, when the sea was calm. “The fishers just left them alone, because when they come, swarm of fish follows. They have a good catch and that leaves the fisherfolks are happy.”

“Butandings are indicator species because they’re filter feeder,” says Avila, “They don’t have teeth, only filters, looking like tiny hairs. When they eat, they just swallow the water, then filter the small organisms inside—small shrimps, krills—these krills are available when the water is clean enough for certain planktons to thrive, so the presence of butandings indicate that the water is good, because the planktons are there, and where there are planktons, there are krills,” said Avila. “Imagine the volume of krills they eat all day,” he said, “That only means abundance.”

To their right, the coal dome of the new coal plant caught the sun’s rays. Gibao stared at the conveyor belt running from the dome all the way to the newly-built port facility, where ships carrying coal from Kalimantan, will finally unload their cargo. “I was told there would be no human contact,” he said. “No one will touch the coal. After it is unloaded from the ship, it will directly pass the conveyor’s belt to the coal dome,” Gibao said, “The pipe bigger than a man will take in as much water from the sea to cool the boilers and spit the water back again to the sea.” Alejandro Canque, a resident, thinks that the water released from the plant will be a lot warmer.

Soon, the first phase of the plant will soon start its test run.

They wonder how long will the krills survive.

Growing energy demand trips Philippines biosphere town

“Another bird trips the power line?”

Every time the electricity gets cut off, residents of a small but booming tourism city of Puerto Princesa in the Philippines flood their Facebook shout outs blaming the power supplier for inefficiency. The local electric cooperative then passes the blame on miniscule reasons like tree branches falling on electric lines or birds treading on them. It cannot be discounted, however, that ageing power lines and generators running on crude oil cannot cope with the increasing demand of the city, which has seen the number of hotels and restaurants grow exponentially. Three years ago, a three-storey mall also opened. This so-called development has driven local politicians to find ways of delivering the much-needed electricity within a short period. Gil Acosta, the governor’s spokesperson, said “the governor believes that Palawan has been left behind by other provinces, even though it’s the biggest in the region. Power plays a big role in development. Those who want to invest in Palawan first ask whether there is a stable power supply.”

Faced with criticisms and pressure from local leaders, the Palawan Electric Cooperative (PALECO), which is mandated to deliver uninterrupted power supply to the residents, signed a 25-megawatt supply contract with DMCI Power Corporation, a privately-owned company that specializes in power utilities, in July 2012. Aside from a coal-fired power plant, this also included a 5-megawatt diesel-fired power plant that began commercial operations at the end of 2012. The company, meanwhile, positions itself as a saviour. In a press release, it stated: “DMCI Power Corporation is building a power plant in Palawan to avert a looming power crisis in the fast-growing province, which thrives on tourism as a main industry.”

Much has to be said about the company that was contracted. Its mother company, DMCI Holdings has interests in construction, water and ore mining services. DMCI’s subsidiary Semirara Mining Corporation is the largest coal producer in the country and is one of the biggest in Asia. DCMI both exports and supplies its power plants with the coal it mines. While boasting of its corporate social responsibility and promising to follow environmental laws and regulations in building the coal-fired power plant in Palawan, DCMI doesn’t have the perfect grade in environmental protection. Its open pit-mine in Antique province’s Semirara Island has been blamed for a host of environmental destruction, causing low yields for farmers and low fish catch for fishermen.

In 2013, a part of a wall in its open pit mine collapsed that killed five workers and five others went missing.  Moreover, according to US-based Carbon Monitoring for Action (CARMA), which holds information about the carbon emissions of over 60,000 power plants and 20,000 power companies worldwide, DCMI’s  power plant in its mine site in Panian, Semirara emits 1,370 kilos of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour, while its plant in Calaca, Batangas province emits 1,190 kilos of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour, third and ninth respectively in the top 10 highest CO2 emitters in the country.

CARMA claimed that the usual intensity of CO2 emission among power plants in the Philippines is 506 kilos of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour while the intensity of pollution caused by two of DCMI’s power plants is more than twice the usual. In a press release, the company said it will use the newest and cleanest coal technology in a proposed power plant in Palawan. “DMCI will employ the Circulating Fluidized Bed Combustion (CFBC), also known as the ‘clean coal’ technology, which is the latest and cleanest in coal combustion.”

Man and Biosphere Reserve

Opposition to the proposed coal-fired power plant is mounting because of the province’s fragile state. Since 1990 the entire Palawan holds the status of UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve. It is cited as a “site of excellence where new and optimal practices to manage nature and human activities are tested and demonstrated”.

It’s also home to two UNESCO natural heritage sites – the Saint Paul Subterranean River National Park and the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Marine Park. According to Worldwide Life Fund (WWF), the province may lose its status if the proposed coal-fired power plant goes ahead. RJ Dela Calzada, the Palawan project manager for the WWF-Philippines, said “the Man and Biosphere status is like a Nobel Prize for good sustainable development management in one area. Palawan is one of the two recipients in the Philippines. When we say man and biosphere, we’re talking about how human beings consciously use its biosphere for its own benefit… If we fail to meet those criteria then we might be delisted. Having a coal power plant may be a reason to be delisted.”

When DCMI got the approval from a government environmental body to first build said power plant in the municipality of Narra, environmental groups immediately organized petitions citing the fragile flora and fauna surrounding it. Haribon Foundation, a forefront in biodiversity conservation in  Palawan, opposed the plan arguing that the coastal town of Narra is so close to Rasa Island, which it called “the last stronghold of the unique Philippine Cockatoo”. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the bird as Critically Endangered as only 1,000 individuals exist in the world. Haribon also claimed that the coal-fired power plant will threaten the proposed site’s surrounding air, land, water, vegetation and wildlife.

“These impacts can be felt during plant construction; when the plant’s physical structures are already in place; and when the plant is already operational,” the NGO said in a statement. “During construction, the dredging of barge unloading areas could affect fish, mussels and other aquatic life… Power plants build water intake and discharge facilities, so vegetation in surface waters can also be affected… But the coal power plant’s operation, when it is already spewing its emissions into the open air, can impact vegetation or result in air pollution.” After fierce opposition from environmentalists and the rejection of the municipality of Narra, the proponents moved the location of the power plant to the adjoining Aborlan municipality.

At the village of San Juan, the new proposed site, Tagbanua tribal chieftain Dominador Badilla could not hide his anger. “The ones who are pushing the project are better off. They have regular salaries. We only depend on our coconut trees and our plants. If our farm yield will be affected, where will my grandchildren get their livelihood? We, the members of the Tagbanua tribal community, do not want this coal-fired power plant. We would rather live with what little we have now. We can sacrifice without electricity,” he said in Filipino.

Outside his bamboo hut hangs a poster showing a picture of a coal plant emitting black smoke and dirty air. The poster reads: “Is this what you want to happen in Aborlan?” And in red bold letters it says: “NO TO COAL”. Badilla’s family and others in the community live through fishing and copra farming. On a good month, they earn about US$100 but they are content. The land they live on has been through many generations as their ancestral land.  “We inherited this land from our ancestors. This belonged to my grandfather since the 1930s. He was buried here. Then they will just put something that will destroy our land? What will happen to us?” he said.

The tribal chieftain is even angrier that the project has divided a once harmonious community. He insisted that there has never been a proper consultation for the project. “The proponents are saying they have consulted us. When things have stirred up because we voiced out our opposition, that’s when they said there will be public hearings. At first, they were hiding the meetings from those who opposed. They bring their own people using their own trucks to show there is a support from the public. If they only record what’s been happening in the public hearings they would know our reasons for opposing and how many people are against it,” he said.

As another resident Melvin Badilla enthused, “we didn’t like the process that our local leaders did. Before they let us know that the coal-fired power plant will be built in our village, they already prepared the documents for building it here. We were caught by surprise.”

The once opposed barangay (village) officials of San Juan, Aborlan stamped their endorsement on the project after they were reportedly showed around in another plant in Iloilo province. They argued that they saw first-hand that the company was responsible enough and the environment in the showcase piece in Iloilo was intact and unaffected. It was suspected, however, that aside from being dined and wined, they were only shown the sanitized version of the power plant.

The endorsement even came much easier from the provincial council of legislators who are allies of the governor who wants the project started as soon as possible. Allegedly without proper consultation and ignoring environmental impact assessment results, the provincial council unanimously endorsed the project to be built in Aborlan town.

As the proposed site is also near a fish sanctuary, the waste water discharge from the facility is deemed hazardous to the marine ecosystem. Dr. Lita Sopsop, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences of the Western Philippines University that is in the heart of Aborlan, said “we oppose the coal plant because of the negative impacts to health and the environment, particularly to locally declared fish sanctuaries in the area. The residents get their livelihood from fishing. The discharge of waste water from the coal plant will cause thermal pollution that is hazardous to the marine ecosystem, especially coral reefs.”

Marlene Jagmis, a staunch environmentalist before joining the university’s faculty, said “the coal plant poses many hazards like the threat of lung disease or damage to the brain, especially in children. Burned coal can produce chemicals like mercury, which can’t easily be dissolved by so called new technology. This particle can be hazardous to humans, and even babies inside the womb are not spared.”

Last Frontier

Often cited as the Philippines’ last ecological frontier, Palawan has been battering environmental degradation. It has the largest forest cover and fish biomass in the country, rich mineral resources and the surrounding West Philippine Sea has vast potential for oil and natural gas. Tourism is also thriving because of its beautiful islands, beaches and dive sites. These attractions are irresistible to miners, oil and gas drillers, illegal loggers and fishermen and other investors.

Ironically, given the fragile state of the province, past and current political leaderships have never been serious in using renewable energies (REs). This is despite repeated demands from environmentalists and NGO such as World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Even President Benigno Aquino III seems reluctant to support REs believing these are unstable. In a recent visit to the province, Aquino insisted that it is important for Palawan to have sufficient power supply to complement the government’s target of attracting 10 million foreign tourists by 2016. He said the province needed more power supply to fuel construction projects, upgrading of airport facilities, as well as the upstream and downstream industries and the only reliable available source of energy is coal or diesel.

The governor’s spokesperson Gil Acosta said officials at the provincial government have been discussing new and renewable resources for 10 years but this never took off until this coal plant proposal came along. “The most viable proposal for the governor is to use coal and biomass fuels. We’re looking at hydro and wind power, but these won’t be enough,” he added.

RJ dela Calzada of WWF-Philippines disagreed. “If you go into renewable energies and strategize how to put those REs  in Palawan, then again we can supply the requirements of Palawan…There are places already that say REs are very efficient in providing energy… A one-megawatt requirement only requires you 2.5 hectares of solar farm. How much megawatt do you need in Palawan? There are new technologies in terms of solar that it can provide electricity even without sun for seven days.”

Environmentalists also argued that REs are cheaper than coal. “Why should Palawan buy more expensive, dirty power when we have cleaner, cheaper alternatives available?” said Atty. Gerthie Mayo-Anda, Executive Director of the Environmental Legal Assistance Center.

REs experts said while the fixed cost of renewable technologies is higher than conventional fossil-fuelled alternatives, this cost is borne by the developer and not the consumers. “Renewable technologies also generally have much longer life cycles than fossil options and have no or very low fuel costs,” according to Diana Limjoco, a resident of Palawan blogging on the power of REs. “In addition to lower generation rates, renewable energy requires little or no subsidy and consumers are exempt from payment of the 12% value-added tax (VAT). The net result of integrating renewables into the power mix is lower rates and reduced subsidy requirements.”

Environmentalists also assailed the government’s reasoning that there are no serious investors on REs in Palawan. WWW-Philippines said that since 2010, there had been proposals for mini-hydropower plants for the capital Puerto Princesa and Narra municipality but these mini-hydro projects failed to obtain contracts with PALECO. “Despite obtaining all the other requirements, they have been unable to start generating power for the people of Palawan,” WWF-Philippines said.

Limjoco said the Palawan Chamber of Commerce and Industry receives many inquiries from foreign and domestic firms and funding agencies to develop REs on Palawan. She said, “there are currently three private firms, two of which hold renewable energy service contracts with government, which are active in the development and pre-development stages of installing solar, biomass and run-of-river hydro power plants on mainland,” adding that “the problem is not a lack of investor interest, but the existence of policy, political, and bureaucratic constraints and a lack of clear guidelines for development and implementation of REs on Palawan and throughout the Philippines.”

At the end of the day, the government seems to show that solving a perceived power crisis is only solvable through a quick solution that is coal, notwithstanding the fragile state of the environment that is Palawan. As Haribon Foundation puts it: “people do need electricity, but we think this should not be at the expense of biodiversity loss. It would be misleading to approach the issue by choosing between two seemingly disparate choices of ‘power’ and ‘environment’. The need for electricity only makes sense for a community that has an adequate resource base for thriving and where ecological benefits can be enjoyed by the majority over a long period of time.  Agenda No. 1 should be the protection and conservation of remaining natural habitats and its biodiversity. Without this prerequisite, notions of ‘progress’ are self-deceiving.”