The Power of the River

Article | 8 November 2010

Villagers in remote districts of Negros Occidental are ending their isolation from economic opportunities with the aid of hydropower.

Toboso, Negros Occidental - When residents in the hard-toreach districts of this municipality heard they would soon get electricity from a US$1.5-million micro hydropower project, many refused to believe it. "It's a smokescreen for a treasurehunting expedition on the Dalinson River," or "There are strings attached," they scoffed.

Giovanni Templado, chair of barangay (district) Bug-ang - the most isolated in the municipality - led the skeptics. "At first, I did not believe in it because there have been so many failed initiatives," he said. But after a couple of years and many meetings, Winrock International, the implementing agency behind the proposed project - Renewable Energy and Livelihood for the Poor in Negros Occidental - converted the doubters. "Now, I can see that it was for real. And I am so grateful," Templado acknowledged.

Isidro Zayco, governor of Negros Occidental, was encouraged by the hydroelectric potential of the province's seven large rivers and abundant, year-round rains. So he pushed for the hydroelectric plants to help end the province's rotating power outages.

When the 26-kilowatt (kW) power plant on the Dalinson was finally opened for business in mid-2008, villagers celebrated with typical Filipino zeal: They feasted on roast pork seasoned with lemongrass, set off midday fireworks, and enjoyed heartfelt singing and dancing.

Three micro hydropower plants with an aggregate output of 88 kW were built to provide energy to 308 homes and to rice and corn mills. The plants were part of an innovative poverty reduction effort to pilot renewable energy and livelihood development in poor, off-grid rural communities in Negros Occidental.

Dubbed "Renew Negros," the project completed 11 systems: the 3 micro hydropower plants and 2 solar-biomass hybrid systems under the environmentally friendly renewable-energy plans, and 6 hydraulic ram pump systems for water supply, benefiting a total of 1,972 households.

Residents of Toboso were trained to form and manage a cooperative - the Vergara Magtuod Development Cooperative - to run the project.

Tough Traveling

The isolation of such communities, often caused or worsened by poor roads, can make it hard to attract economic opportunities. Roads built on Toboso's rocky terrain and clay-like soil deteriorate with the regular afternoon downpours, and can pierce tires or sink vehicles up to the axles.

Even on foot, farmers in Vergara take a half day to carry produce 6 kilometers down to the town, using the patch of grass running down the middle of the road to negotiate the mud and puddles. More often than not they simply leave produce at home to rot. The local electric utility, Central Negros Electric Cooperative, could not connect the hard-to-reach parts of the district to the grid because of the high cost and lack of economic activity.

This changed though, when ADB, through its Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction, proposed the micro hydropower plants. "While the electricity will not totally solve the community's isolation due to the existing bad roads, the presence of electricity will boost agricultural production and economic activities that will eventually get the attention of local leaders and business interests, resulting in more development interventions in the area," said Winrock's Jim Orprecio.

Besides the Toboso plant, a 32 kW micro hydropower plant was commissioned in barangay Laga-an, municipality of Calatrava, and a 30 kW plant in barangay Baclao, Cauayan.

Among Renew Negros' other schemes, two fish-drying systems were built on the islands of Molocaboc and Sipaway to provide the additional capacity needed for drying 100 kilograms of marine products per day, creating a ready market for the fish catch in the two communities. These systems run on a mixture of solar energy and biofuels.

The hydraulic ram pumps, meanwhile, have given 360 families in six districts a daily water supply of almost 500,000 liters for households, schools, and farm irrigation.

Lasting Livelihoods

The program's important provisions for livelihood efforts - financed under the microcredit Renew Fund and managed by the Negros Women for Tomorrow Foundation - have provided residents with low-interest loans of up to P5,000 (US$109) for electricity connections, fertilizers, carabaos (water buffaloes), and other benefits.

Before hydropower, Toboso relied on kerosene, batteries, candles, and traditional biomass fuel. Now, students study into the night under bright lights, households breathe more easily without toxic kerosene fumes, and economic opportunities are expanding. The grain-milling operation is boosting rice and corn production, reducing the cost of processing, and ensuring a better market and price for produce.

Power costs are also down. At just P5.50 (US$0.12) per kW, the new power is cheaper than kerosene, which is P44 (US$0.95) per liter, yielding savings of almost P200 (US$4.30) per month for the average household.

Greater disposable income and the availability of low-interest loans have encouraged people to raise livestock in their backyards.

"If it were not for your help, we would not have been able to improve our lives," said Rico Rivera, president of the Vergara Magtuod Development Cooperative. "If we had relied on the government, it would have taken longer, maybe 50 years."