USAID-led Laguna Lake project: Social-Ecological disaster in the making

Posted on 3 November 2016

photo courtesy of Tudla Productions, 2016

IBON International Feature Series #2

Since the 2001 launch of its public-private partnership (PPP) program, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has initiated 1,600 so-called “development PPPs” around the world. [1] USAID is also a strong promoter of “infrastructure PPPs” by means of technical assistance. Its promotional efforts have been particularly strong in the Philippines. The case of the Laguna-Lakeshore Expressway-Dike (LLED) project stands out both as an example of USAID’s influence (discussed in our previous article: How USAID influences PH national policy: Technical aid to advance US interests ) and as a cautionary tale illustrating some of the serious problems that can arise in PPP projects.

According to the USAID COMPETE year-two report, “The LLED Project was not on the original list of the government’s PPP projects [. . .]. But now, it is No. 1 on the list and the biggest PPP project to date.” [2]

The USAID COMPETE report describes the LLED project as follows:

LLED has two components: (a) a 6-lane expressway-dike; and (b) land reclamation. The project aims to mitigate flooding in the Laguna Lake coastal towns, particularly in Southern Metro Manila and Laguna, improve the environmental condition of the Lake, and promote economic activities through the efficient transport of goods and people. LLED involves the construction of a 47-kilometer flood control dike on top of which will be a high-speed tollway. The project will likewise provide opportunities for developing a new business and residential district (Central Business District) in the reclaimed areas.

As in many official descriptions of the project, the aims of mitigating flooding, improving environmental conditions and promoting economic activity are placed side-by-side. While it would be ideal for this to be the case, such a comprehensive approach would require giving equal attention to each element, something that has not occurred in the LLED planning stage. Instead, the attention has narrowed to the more profitable aspects, heightening the risks posed by unforeseen complications, which could jeopardize the project and endanger the community surrounding the project site.

Besides being the Philippines’ biggest, the project has also become perhaps its most complicated, both technically and politically. In fact the project has been considered by bidders to be “unviable.” The government consequently is under pressure to repackage the project to find ways to increase its profitability, something that has happened before with other PPPs failing to secure bids. This is a questionable approach given the government’s duty to the public interest.

It is difficult to imagine how the LLED project, with its potentially catastrophic social costs, might be attractively repackaged in the context of public opposition. This opposition to the project focuses on both the large-scale resident displacement that would result and the serious disaster-related risks in its current design that would threaten the proposed infrastructure, not to mention the endangerment of its future inhabitants, utilizers and maintainers. Given all the technical assistance provided by USAID, it would be disingenuous to suggest that the social costs were undetected by USAID or the government. A more truthful assessment would be

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