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

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,

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?


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.

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.”