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The Philippines' capital is running out of water. Is building a dam the solution?

The giant white marble boulders that line the Agos River just north of the Philippine village of Daraitan are sacred to the Indigenous Dumagat people. They use the boulders to perform rituals to ward off sickness and keep their village safe. If the Kaliwa Dam is built upriver, the Dumagat say these rocks will be destroyed to make way for the increased water flow.
Ashley Westerman
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NPR
The giant white marble boulders that line the Agos River just north of the Philippine village of Daraitan are sacred to the Indigenous Dumagat people. They use the boulders to perform rituals to ward off sickness and keep their village safe. If the Kaliwa Dam is built upriver, the Dumagat say these rocks will be destroyed to make way for the increased water flow.

DARAITAN, Philippines — Nestled in the Sierra Madre more than two hours outside Manila, this village is lush and green — brought to life by the Agos River, which cuts through the unforgiving terrain like a quiet, slow-moving highway.

Daraitan is a tourist village of about 5,000, where children play in the river while the adults cook fish and fix their broken karaoke machines under makeshift tents on the banks.

"The community is peaceful. We have everything we need here," Maria Clara Dullas, 43, tells NPR.

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Dullas is a member of the Indigenous Dumagat people, who claim this area as their ancestral lands. Her family are farmers, like most in the area, and have lived off the land and the river for centuries.

But Daraitan is in danger of disappearing, under the waters that give it and its people life.

Some 40 miles downriver, the sprawling Metro Manila area and its more than 13 million people are facing a looming water shortage. It's the result of an exploding population, human-caused climate change and, some would argue, poor planning on the part of officials over the years. The Philippine government commissioned the building of the Kaliwa Dam on the Agos River decades ago as part of a larger plan to help get more water to Manila. But construction finally broke ground last year, as officials amped up claims that the dam would alleviate water shortages that could hit the capital as early as next year.

Dullas, who is the president of Dumagat Women of Sierra Madre, has been leading the fight against the building of Kaliwa Dam for years. Though the dam will be built more than 6 miles upriver, once completed, the new water flow will submerge Daraitan and destroy precious sacred sites in the area, Dullas says. Despite her and her community's efforts, the project is moving forward.

"It hurts us. It's devastating," she says.

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Children play in the Agos River in the tourist village of Daraitan in the Philippines' Rizal province. In late April, temperatures are high and the humidity is stifling — driving tourists and residents alike into the river's cool, running waters.
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Children play in the Agos River in the tourist village of Daraitan in the Philippines' Rizal province. In late April, temperatures are high and the humidity is stifling — driving tourists and residents alike into the river's cool, running waters.

"This is just a matter of supply and demand projections," Delfin Sespene, supervising engineer at Manila's Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewage System, tells NPR. "We are building the Kaliwa Dam to augment our water supply in order to meet an increasing water demand."

From dams in the Philippines to sea walls being built in Norfolk, Va., clashes are playing out all over the world as people try to adapt to the threats from climate change. The choices are acute in the global south: countries there, like the Philippines, are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather, but they often lack the resources or civil society safeguards to make sure solutions help people equitably.

The search for climate solutions frequently lays bare the fact that there could be winners and losers when it comes to decisions about protections and development. And in the case of dams like Kaliwa, it spotlights some shortcomings of a climate change solution that has been touted for decades.

Nature, exacerbated

The Kaliwa Dam was proposed as a project in 2012, and it's part of a larger group of water supply projects centering on the Kaliwa River Watershed that have been in the works since the 1970s. The construction of the Kaliwa Dam finally began in 2022, three years after the Philippine government secured a development loan from China.

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Today, officials say that if the dam is not built, the water crisis will leave the capital area without an adequate water supply starting next year, with a severe shortage by 2027 — the year officials say the first phase of the dam will be completed.

"One of the battles is the increasing population, so there will be an increasing water supply demand," Sespene says.

According to the Philippine Institute for Development Studies, Filipinos use between 48 and 108 liters per day. So as Manila's population rises every year, the current water supply cannot keep up, he says.

The Metro Manila area is home to more than 13 million people. Officials say the megalopolis may begin to experience a water shortage in 2024 that could become extreme by 2027.
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Bloomberg via Getty Images
The Metro Manila area is home to more than 13 million people. Officials say the megalopolis may begin to experience a water shortage in 2024 that could become extreme by 2027.

But there's another driver of the water shortage: the anticipation of the next El Niño, a naturally occurring weather pattern that has to do with the ocean getting warmer along the equatorial Pacific. El Niños are known to bring less rain, which means "there will be less rain for those dams that impound water for Metro Manila," Sespene says.

There is currently an El Niño affecting weather worldwide, but Philippine climate scientists and officials expect upcoming ones to be worse. Climate experts say man-made climate change will exacerbate the effects of future El Niño events.

"The El Niño will be more intense and for us in the Philippines, that would actually mean like 46% of the country would suffer a dry spell," Angelo Kairos Torres Dela Cruz with the Manila-based Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities says.

The Philippines is one of the most vulnerable countries when it comes to climate change, according to the United Nations. Along with droughts, the archipelago nation has also experienced sea level rise, ocean acidification and more extreme weather events, such as multiple devastating typhoons in recent years.

In 2020, more than 4 million Filipinos were displaced because of the effects of global warming, the 2021 Global Report on Internal Displacement said. And soon millions may not have enough water.

But building the Kaliwa Dam is not a "silver bullet solution," Dela Cruz says.

"It could have a role to play because it has scale. It's bankable; it can be invested in real quick," he says. "But it shouldn't happen at the expense of other equally important issues. For example, Indigenous peoples' rights, forest and land degradation, and so on."

The Agos River cuts through the Sierra Madre in the Philippines' Rizal Province. Officials hope to build a new dam upriver from the village of Daraitan to increase the water supply to the capital, Manila. But the project threatens the environment and people who live downstream.
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The Agos River cuts through the Sierra Madre in the Philippines' Rizal Province. Officials hope to build a new dam upriver from the village of Daraitan to increase the water supply to the capital, Manila. But the project threatens the environment and people who live downstream.

Dams and their downsides

While dams are often billed as a drought-protection measure and a renewable energy source, they have also been known to contribute to climate change — such as emitting a lot of planet-heating carbon dioxide and methane when the lakes created by dams suffocate and kill vegetation, releasing those gases into the air.

Dams can also intensify drought by diverting water from rivers and increase the risk of flash flooding by releasing too much water during storms. Brian Eyler, director of the Stimson Center's Southeast Asia Program, says dams have to be built and operated in a sophisticated manner.

"Dams are just kind of Band-Aids," Eyler tells NPR. "Because the weather is going to become so much more extreme, to the point that it's hard to predict how to design a dam for that future extremity."

But in the Philippines, people seem more distracted by other things concerning the Kaliwa Dam, such as how much the dam will cost to build and who is paying for it.

Dela Cruz says the connection between the dam and how it could possibly be a solution to climate change is also not being made explicitly.

"I think the discussion has not matured enough to allow a more nuanced discussion about how a dam can be part of a broader resource management system in the Philippines," he says.

Maria Clara Dullas (far right) and other community leaders of the Indigenous Dumagat community wash their faces in the Agos River. Their people, mostly farmers, have lived off the river for generations.
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Maria Clara Dullas (far right) and other community leaders of the Indigenous Dumagat community wash their faces in the Agos River. Their people, mostly farmers, have lived off the river for generations.

A disjointed conversation

The existence of climate change is not up for debate in the Philippines. But how to adapt to it and integrate those adaptations into the nation's development plans is still an open, often hotly contested question — a familiar struggle that is taking place across the globe.

Maria Clara Dullas of Daraitan doesn't feel like her Indigenous Dumagat community is being included by the Philippine government in discussions or decisions about development or climate change adaptation.

"We aren't against progress," she says. They just don't want to see their homes destroyed.

But while the national government has offered the entire village the rough equivalent of a little over $1.4 million to relocate, Dullas says she cannot imagine leaving home.

"We keep saying we don't want to benefit from the dam," she says.

The Dumagat people just want what is theirs: the land.

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Paul Nicholas Soriano contributed to this story.

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Ashley Westerman
Ashley Westerman is a former producer who occasionally directed the show. She joined the staff in June 2015 and produced a variety of stories, including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. During her time at NPR, Ashley also produced for All Things Considered and Weekend Edition. She also occasionally reported on both domestic and international news.