MANILA - Provincial officials of Pangasinan and other concerned groups are mulling the filing of charges against the administrators and operators of the San Roque Dam for releasing water at the height of tropical depression "Pepeng."
Pangasinan Gov. Amado Espino said water from the dam caused massive flooding and destruction of property and crops in 38 towns and cities in the province. Some local officials also questioned the supposed lack of advance notice from the San Roque Multipurpose Project (SRMP) about the release of water from the dam.
Opposition Sen. Francis Escudero said private operators of dams across Luzon may be held liable if they are found guilty of failing to adequately warn residents about the release of water. “In extreme cases, they can even be criminally liable. Any complainant may also add reckless imprudence to the class action suit,” he said in a statement.
Escudero said that two days before Typhoon Pepeng (international codename Parma) made landfall, the private operator of San Roque dam was telling the public that the dam can absorb all the rain the typhoon can bring.
The maximum capacity of the dikes in the area was 4,000 cubic meters per second only. At the height of the typhoon, 5,361 cubic meters per second or about 5.361 million liters of water were released into towns and villages. This is equivalent to 380 million liters of water per minute or 19 billion liters of water per hour.
“In the span of 10 hours, 190 billion liters of water were released by the San Roque dam. This is the exact reason why the dikes along Agno River gave way and overflowed. What is ironic and more annoying about this is the head of the Agno River flood control project was also begging to be rescued after being trapped in the roof of his office,” he said.
The Bagong Alyansang Makabayan supported the filing of charges against San Roque Dam officials even as it called for the decommissioning of the dam as a long term response to the problem of flooding.
“Both public officials and private operators of the dam must be held accountable for the sudden and devastating release of water which flooded most of Pangasinan in a matter of hours, giving people very little time to be evacuated. The latest flooding shows the inherent problem with the dam, that it is not really a flood control system,” said Bayan secretary general Renato M. Reyes, Jr.
“Data from PAG-ASA shows that there was basis to release water as early as October 4 when the water levels breached the 280 meter mark. It appears the interest of power generation won out over public safety. The people at the San Roque Power Corporation and the National Power Corporation now must be held accountable," he added.
The group said it will be consulting with its local chapter in Pangasinan on the possibility of joining legal action against dam officials.
'People didn't heed warnings'
A National Power Corporation official, meanwhile, welcomed any investigation into the release of water from the San Roque Dam during the height of tropical depression Pepeng.
NPC spokesman Dennis Gana said the water level at the dam was at 284 meters on October 5, which was still within the 288 meter critical level set by PAGASA. He added, however that PAGASA gave a go-signal to SRMP on October 6 to start preparations for a spilling operation after heavy rains threatened to bring the water level in San Roque above spilling level.
Gana said the NPC and SRMP sent out patrol cars with sirens at 4:30 p.m. of October 6 to warn communities to evacuate to higher ground ahead of the spilling operation later that night. He said warnings were sent to downstream communities in San Manuel, San Nicolas, Tayug, Sta. Maria, Carmen, Rosales and Sta. Maria in Pangasinan.
Faxes and radiograms were also sent to affected communities while the SRMP also contacted local radio stations to issue the flood warnings.
He said the spilling operation was conducted at 12:01 a.m., October 7, after the flood warnings were issued.
"Ample time for evacuation is about four hours but we allocated about seven hours for the evacuation. There was also a broadcast discharge warning, a siren which warns that we would be opening the dam," he said
He added: "I really cannot speak for them (people). Maybe they have their reasons for not leaving and deciding to stay. As far as we are concerned, we have done all the warnings that we can."
Gana said the flood warning system has been used for San Roque downstream communities for the past six years while a similar warning system is implemented in Angat Dam. He added, however, that warning the public about the floods should be a joint responsibiity of the NPC and local government units.
"Warning the public is not just the function of NPC, it is also a part of the disaster preparedness plan of any LGU. Once we issue a warning to the Provincial Disaster Coordinating Council, it would help if they would disseminate the same information to the people who will be affected if we spill. It's a joint responsibility of all those involved in addressing any disaster," he said.
Using the example of a scientist from the University of the Philippines, Gana said Typhoon Pepeng brought "5 billion boxes" of rainfall during its onslaught last week. He said that despite an increase of the San Roque Dam's spilling level from 280 meters to 288 meters, the water level was still too high and forced officials to release water.
"When you reach a very critical level of the dam, before it spills on the top, the outflow will have to equal the inflow which means that you have saturated the capacity of the dam. At one point, we had to increase the level of water being discharged from the spilling gates. Otherwise it would spill over the top and cause more problems," he said.
Lack of foresight
Escudero, meanwhile, said dam officials should have foreseen the large volumes of rain of Pepeng and opened its flood gates way before the water reached the maximum level. The senator explained that the reservoir of the dam was at 290 meters above sea level (masl).
“The only time San Roque released its waters was at its critical point of 288 (masl). If only they started releasing water at 230 (masl) the floods could have been avoided or at least controlled. It also begs the question, what is the standard operating procedure of releasing waters by dams?” he said.
Aside from San Roque, Escudero also wants to review the procedures of Binga, Pantabangan, and Angat dams. “Although I admit that no one wanted the tragedy to happen, dam officials appear to have lacked in preparation and knowledge in dealing with typhoons,” he said.
He said that that the dam operators were given sovereign guarantee by the government which enabled them to build, lend, and sell the electricity produced through hydro-electricity. He said that developers and local government units could also face fines or be sued in court for allowing housing projects along the river beds. “Who allowed the construction of these houses?” he asked.