Monday, February 22, 2010

Lights Out

It used to be that the residents of Mindanao had the notion that it had access to something their fellow countrymen in the Luzon and Visayas regions did not have - plentiful and relatively cheap electricity courtesy of the hydroelectric power plants that supply much of their power needs. In the past decade or so, while the more northern parts of the country were struggling to find ways to balance expanding demand for electricity with often inadequate power generation facilities, Mindanao, on the other hand seemed to have more than enough to spare of this most essential requirement of our modern technological civilization.

Well, it seems that the past week or so has shown how dreadfully wrong this assumption was.

The recent series of "rotating" brownouts simply caught many here in Lianga by surprise. For most local residents, it was only when the outages which would last four hours or more became a daily fixture that it began to finally sink in the popular consciousness that something was suddenly and desperately wrong and that they may have to learn to cope, without prior warning, with a looming power crisis that they never expected to happen so suddenly and without warning.

The culprit according to the government was the so called El Niño phenomenon, that climate pattern across the tropical Pacific Ocean that may be on everyone's lips but remains poorly understood except by meteorologists or weather experts. The technical jargon describing the phenomenon is beyond me but suffice it to say that the effect on the Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines is the onset of periods of less than normal rainfall and drought.

That means that water levels at the mighty lakes and rivers that provide the water power which drives Mindanao's hydroelectric power plants have fallen almost to their critical minimum levels. This has led to reduced power output which can be disastrous for the island which depends on hydro-generated power for 52 percent of its total power needs. The power situation in the next few months is even expected to worsen as the country goes through the coming hot summer months.

In Lianga, local folks are having some difficulty in coping with the power outages not because they are not used to brownouts (after all, heavy rain or strong winds do have the tendency to play havoc on a regular basis with local power lines) but because the power interruptions seem to occur with no definite and predictable schedule every day. On some days, the lights would go out in the late morning and come back in the early afternoon. Then, the next day, it would happen just after lunch and power would be grudgingly restored in the late afternoon. Or the early evening until about 9 pm would be suddenly be dark and powerless forcing residents here to prepare and eat dinner by candlelight while missing out on the chance to see their favorite drama tele-novelas on national television (a sacrifice which for some people, my mother in particular, consider the unkindest cut of all).

People on the street soon developed the rather masochistic habit of playing guessing games which involved trying to figure out what time of the day the damn (pardon the expletive) lights will go out. In my case, I began having recurring fantasies of tying up a couple of the government's energy head honchos and top officials of the National Power Corporation and helplessly suspending them below local power lines during a brownout and letting them figure out for themselves how much time they had before the power would return and instantly fry them to a crisp.

Of course, one cannot blame the Napocor and the government about the El Niño phenomenon. Such things are, despite their best efforts, beyond their control and not even the latest in human technology can do much in attempting to subvert what is essentially a natural process or force of nature unless one considers global warming due to man-made carbon emissions as an indirect cause of such phenomena.

But, like so many here in Lianga and Mindanao, I greatly resent the fact that Napocor and government energy officials “neglected” to warn electric consumers here of what was clearly an impending power crisis and why nothing was done, in the previous months before the brownouts had become inevitable, to find even temporary solutions to the problem.

The people here can, thus, almost be forgiven for wildly speculating on more “sinister” reasons for the daily brownouts. Many locals, for example, believe that there is no actual power shortage and that the brownouts are merely a ploy to condition the public to the inevitability of power interruptions during the actual voting process in the May 2010 elections and, therefore, opening the way for the government to implement plans either to rig the election results or create a scenario leading to de facto failure of elections. That would supposedly usher in a situation which would insure the continued stay in power of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Others point fingers at a dark cabal of industrial and business interests said to be closely allied to the Arroyo government who is supposedly eager to invest in the power industry and is said to be helping Arroyo loyalists manipulate or sabotage the coming elections in return for potentially enormous profits. Such accusations may be more than a bit off the mark but they do point out to an growing sense of frustration among the people here over a shared problem with causes and origins they do not fully comprehend and which consequences they have been forced to endure without prior warning and adequate preparation.

Mindanao residents also resent what they often perceive as a Luzon first mentality among energy officials. When Metro Manila and its surrounding provinces were threatened last week by the same rotating brownouts that were already in force in Mindanao, government officials led by Energy Secretary Angelo Reyes practically moved heaven and earth to find ways to get the the power supply back to normal. In Mindanao however, little has been done basically except for government officials to continue to wash their hands and pontificate about how El Niño and low rainfall in many areas of the island is solely responsible for the energy shortage without actually doing something to help find permanent solutions to the problem.

Even the government and energy officials seem unsure of how to address Mindanao's sudden energy shortfall. Some sectors have suggested the deployment of power barges (as the government did in the 1990's) as a temporary measure to help narrow the gap in the power supply versus demand ratio. Energy experts have also urged the fast tracking of the construction of fossil fuel power plants such as the one being proposed in Sarangani province and running existing power plants fueled by bunker oil and coal at full capacity. The downside, of course, will be the end to the era of cheap and affordable power rates for Mindanao since power barges and conventional power plants cost more to operate than hydro-powered ones.

In short, making both short-term and long-term solutions to the power crisis here will require making hard and critical decisions - something that no one yet in the government has the gumption to make. In fact, there seems to be a sense of denial yet at the current administration's highest levels, a condition that may lead, by inaction, to the worsening of what is already an alarming state of affairs.

The indifference and apathy can also be seen in how the local government here are dealing with the effects of the power shortage. I suggested to a local town official here a couple of days ago that the town government and SURSECO, the local electric cooperative which distributes electricity in the Lianga area, should get together on a way to inform the town population on a day to day basis of the actual schedule of brownouts so that local residents can adequately prepare for them. That would, at least, help minimize the negative effects of the outages on local businesses and the local economy. Others here have also suggested that local leaders and the private sector meet in order to find ways to help the town deal with the crisis.

Yet nothing of that sort has happened and everyone here is forced to deal with the brownouts on their own as they happen and when they happen every day. It is as if the very people we have charged to be looking after our welfare and well-being are saying to us, “Look here, this is a problem beyond our control. Learn to live with it on your own. Make do and adjust. Don’t bother us because it is not our fault anyway.”

In the meantime, as I write this, darkness is falling all over the town as another day ends. This time though, no bright lights flicker in the windows of the houses here. The streets are getting dark and silent except for the anxious murmur of people groping through the streets, eager to get home before the last rays of the fading sunset fades away.

The lights went out suddenly a short time ago and it will be probably four hours yet until power comes back on. It could come back though anytime just as unpredictably. It remains, come to think of it, anybody's guess.

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