POSTSCRIPT / February 5, 2006 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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TV reaps bitter fruit of poor's exploitation

TRAGIC REBUKE: The stampede that claimed yesterday more than 70 lives, mostly women, at the ULTRA multi-sports complex in Pasig is a tragic rebuke on society and those who dare to exploit the desperation of the poor.

The victims were among the thousands who had camped for days outside the ULTRA to assure themselves of early entry into the first anniversary program of the popular variety show “Wowowee” of ABS-CBN.

One does not have to be a super analyst to see the obvious, that many of those pushing to gain entrance came from the lower strata of society lured by the hosts’ extravagant handing out of cash (some in US dollars!) and other gifts to those called to the stage to answer easy questions.

Finding the remarks of Anakpawis Rep. Crispin B. Beltran echoing some of my thoughts on the tragedy, I quote part of his statement thus:

“It is profoundly tragic that things have come to this point. The ‘Wowowee’ tragedy is not only due to the lack of disaster-preparedness and crowd control systems of the event organizers and the local government. It is partly poverty-induced. The big cash prizes up at stake in the show added to the entertainment show’s crowd-drawing power, especially at this time when millions of Filipinos are unemployed and desperate over sinking wages and rising costs of commodities, rates, and services due to the VAT and oil price hikes.

“It is unfortunate that our country has reached this point of desperation, where the only way for the masses to uplift themselves out of poverty is to win in the Lotto sweepstakes or in cash-and-entertainment shows such as ‘Wowowee’ or ‘Laban o Bawi’ (of GMA-7), because the Arroyo administration is grossly incapable of giving our workers jobs, our peasants land to till, and our urban poor chances for sustainable livelihood.”

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SEMIRARA SPILL: Off Semirara island in Antique, another case of negligence has resulted in the spilling of a large quantity of oil after a barge of the National Power Corp. was battered by strong winds and waves. Initial reports had it that at least 120,000 liters of bunker oil were spilled.

Semirara at the northern tip of Panay island is the site of one of the biggest coal mines in Asia and a source of some of the inferior coal that Napocor distributes to some power producers. This is a point we will discuss in future columns.

Not only the people of Semirara are paying the price of such neglect but also nearby islands whose shorelines and whose means of livelihood are threatened. For a while, there was fear that the island resort of Boracay about 10 kilometers away may also be ruined by the oil spill.

Power barge 106, a vessel contracted by Napocor, overturned off Semirara last Dec. 19 while being towed after huge waves and strong winds hit it. The vessel was out at sea despite warnings that there was bad weather in the area.

Why did Napocor allow the barge to leave Masbate despite the foul weather knowing that that barge was unfit for travel in such weather? This is a question that government investigators, and maybe even senators, should ask Napocor officials.

* * *

SLOW MOPPING UP: The spilled oil has been carried by wind and current to mangroves so crucial as habitat of marine and brackish-water aquatic species and as sources of food and revenue for nearby communities.

Authorities said that the oil spill is likely to contaminate some 200 hectares of mangroves and 40 sq. km. of marine waters not only off Semirara but also around nearby islands.

Remember the Alaskan oil spill many years back when an oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground off the coast of Prince William Sound, causing extensive damage to its pristine coastline and sea life.

The Semirara spill is small compared with the Alaskan incident, but the impact of the local spill could be magnified by the slow mopping up.

At the slow rate of 6 percent rate of cleanup of the contaminated 56 hectares (so far) of mangroves per month, the mopping up could take from six months to one year. The Coast Guard has spent P7 million since last month, but the final cost may reach P90 million, according to the last estimates.

* * *

NAPOCOR TO PAY?: The law says Napocor must shoulder the cost of the cleanup and compensate the affected residents.

But how can cash-strapped Napocor answer for the huge expense when it has virtually been run to the ground by corruption and mismanagement?

Does this mean that the Coast Guard, itself in need of money, will have to wait for a refund that may not come? Remember that the Napocor’s insurer British Marine of London has denied its claim on three grounds:

* The Towage Approval Survey was not done by the London Salvage Association, as stipulated in the Napocor’s insurance policy.

* Napocor did not follow the surveyor’s requirement that the vessel be towed within 48 hours of suitable forecast winds of less than 12 knots and less than three feet.

* Napocor’s ABS class had expired way back in November 2001.

* * *

NAPOCOR LYING?: That is not the only problem plaguing Napocor. Recently, the firm announced it has sold at least 10 percent of its assets, which is way below the original target of 70 percent by 2004 set by law.

But the Congress has discovered that Napocor officials led by its president Cyrill del Callar have been hiding the correct figures as to how many plants had been sold. The true figure turned out to be a measly 3 percent!

This prompted Sen. Joker Arroyo to air the collective disappointment of the members of the Joint Congressional Power Commission that not even one Napocor-owned generation company was sold in 2005.

“The Epira (Electric Power Industry Reform Act) mandates that within three years (by 2004) after its passage, 70 percent of all the gencos (generation companies) must be sold,” Arroyo said. “But from 2004 to 2006 how many have been sold? Three percent! What kind of performance is that?”

* * *

NO BID T.O.R. YET: Part of the blame for the delay has been slapped on Napocor officials, who suspected of deliberately delaying the privatization of the state-owned power firm so they can continue to enjoy their richly rewarding tenure.

Sources said that after four long years since the passage of the Epira, these officials have not done anything to transfer the titles of the gencos, nor moved for the approval of creditors for the sale and the transition supply contracts.

Another reason given for the slow privatization is the failure of the administration to finalize and publish the terms of reference for the bidding.

President Gloria Arroyo herself told me some time back, after she asked Energy Secretary Raphael Lotilla, that the terms of reference would be published on Dec. 8, 2005. That was more than two months ago, yet no TOR are now available.

President Arroyo has said the privatization of Napocor is crucial to rationalizing the power situation in the country and stabilizing rates. Yet despite the law mandating a timetable, they can show only 3 percent instead of the 70 percent targeted by 2004.

* * *

SLOW DRAG: Industry estimates have it that if no new investors take over and rehabilitate the plants, the country could run into another power crisis by 2010. That is only four years away.

That is scary since one does not buy a power generation plan in a box and just unwrap it on site to start operating the next day.

Friends from the Visayas have told me that there is a big shortage now in Panay and some brownouts reported in Cebu. They said Mindanao is already experiencing a shortage because there are no new plants there.

Maybe the administration wants to keep the pace of development at 4 percent, which would require less power? But I have been told that even a measly 4-percent growth in the GDP will translate into a 6-percent growth in power demand.

At 6 percent every year, that would be a 30-percent power growth in five years. How is that when there are no new plants being built because of government’s lack of policy and enthusiasm in the energy sector?

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of February 5, 2006)

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