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Power cuts put Philippines' automated election at risk

Call for emergency measures as the effects of El Niño leave the country parched and its hydroelectric capacity desperately low.

A Filipino boy fills his water container in a Manila street. The Philippines is currently suffering severe drought brought on by the El Niño effect.
A Filipino boy fills his water container in a Manila street. The Philippines is currently suffering severe drought brought on by the El Niño effect.

MANILA // The worst drought to hit the Philippines in more than a decade is raising concerns about how it will affect the country's first fully automated elections in May. Some politicians have called on the president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, to declare a state of emergency on the southern island of Mindanao, one of the worst affected regions and a major food producer.

From the north to the south, dams and rivers are drying up, crops are withering and hydroelectric power stations have had to cut supply. For weeks now, Mindanao residents have endured two-hour blackouts. As water levels in dams continue to drop, Angelo Reyes, the energy secretary, said the blackouts could be increased to four hours a day. Mr Reyes is expected to report on the energy situation to Mrs Arroyo this week. A deputy presidential spokesman, Gary Olivar, said that any decision Mrs Arroyo makes "will be in the national interest".

Last week the National Grid Corp of the Philippines, which maintains the country's power grid, placed Mindanao on a red alert, which means the private power companies that supply the grid have no reserves. "Most hydroelectric power plant units in Mindanao are running with limited capabilities due to low water levels," the utility was quoted as saying in local media. Hydroelectric power services more than half of the Mindanao grid.

Rufus Rodriguez, a congressman for the second district of Cagayan de Oro, in northern Mindanao, has called on Mrs Arroyo to declare a state of emergency in Mindanao, concerned that the blackouts will affect the elections in May. Speaking before the House committee on energy last week, Mr Rodriguez said: "If the election machines re quire uninterrupted power but the classrooms [polling stations] are without electricity you will have a problem."

Mr Rodriguez said declaring a state of emergency would allow the government to enter into bilateral contracts with private corporations with excess capacity that could be contracted to supply additional power. Charito Planas, Mrs Arroyo's deputy spokeswoman, said the president was "considering the proposal". Roughly 12 million of the 50 million registered voters for the elections on May 10 live in Mindanao, which in the past has proved vital to outcomes, especially who sits in Malacanang, the presidential palace.

Roilo Golez, who represents the Paranaque district in Manila in Congress, agreed with Mr Rodriguez. "One province can decide the outcome of these elections, especially if [it] experiences power failure." Six months ago, the northern Philippines was battered by a series of typhoons and tropical storms that left 80 per cent of the capital underwater. No sooner had it stopped raining than the country hit by effects of El Niño. This weather phenomenon refers to warmer-than-normal sea-surface temperatures in the Pacific which causes drought in Asia and Australia and wet winters in the United States.

In 1997, an El Niño dry spell brought drought conditions to 68 per cent of the Philippines. This year, the government has started to seed clouds in an effort to bring on rain, while in some northern tribal areas indigenous rain dances have been revived. According to the department of agriculture, extreme heat has dried up 122,748 hectares of corn fields and ruined 128,891 tons of corn valued at 1.88 billion pesos (Dh150 million). A total of 35,360 hectares of rice fields have been destroyed, resulting in the loss of 56,696 tonnes of rice lost, worth 964m pesos.

Many areas of the main island of Luzon have been placed by the president under a state of calamity to allow the use of public funds to help distressed farmers. Farmland that was under several metres of water in October is now parched. Water levels in dams have reached critical levels affecting irrigation and hydroelectric power supply. The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration said water levels in dams in Luzon, including those serving Metro Manila's 14 million inhabitants, will reach "critical levels" by March or April unless it rains.

"The impact of droughts may not be as immediate as that of typhoons, floods and mudslides; there have been no evacuation or rescue operations yet of drought victims," the Philippine Daily Inquirer said in a recent editorial. foreign.desk@thenational.ae