By Roy Lagarde

A ‘No to Kaliwa Dam’ hangs outside the St. Mark and the Child Jesus Cathedral in Infanta, Quezon.

A campaign has been rolled out to gather signatures of 10 million people urging the government to drop a controversial dam project in the mountains of the northern Philippines.

The Prelature of Infanta said it began gathering signatures a month ago, as the government started the construction of the P18.7-billion Kaliwa Dam project.

Bishop Bernardino Cortez is appealing for help in a last-ditch effort to protect local communities and their environment.

“The struggle is far from over… and we are asking for your help,” Cortez said in an Aug. 4 letter to his brother bishops.

The dam is one of the pet projects of the Duterte administration to be financed by China through a bilateral loan agreement.

The Duterte government has set aside a 2016 international arbitration ruling favoring Manila over the West Philippine Sea dispute, in exchange for closer economic ties with Beijing.

Located in Quezon province, the project is seen as long-term solution to the increasing water demand in Metro Manila.

However, local officials and environmentalists have opposed the project over concerns it would ravage the biodiversity in the Sierra Madre mountain forests and flood several villages downstream.

In 2004, a flash flood in the province claimed more than a thousand lives and destroyed over a million pesos worth of properties.

Anti-dam advocates also said the project would displace thousands of people, most of whom are from the Dumagat tribe since it would be built on their ancestral domain. 

“We thus call on President Duterte and all government leaders to revoke the Kaliwa Dam project,” read part of the prelature’s petition.  

“We believe that this project will not address the problem but also make conditions worse for the Philippines,” it added. 

In a July 2018 pastoral letter, Bishop Cortez warned that that the dam will only bring more problems than gains especially to the villagers. 

With the hefty budget for the project, he urged the government to instead look for alternative sources of water such as watershed rehabilitation and improving existing dams and water distribution facilities.

The statement was supported by at least 55 prelates led by Archbishop Romulo Valles, president of the Philippine bishops’ conference.