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Senate panel to probe delays in implementation of Balog-Balog projects

The Senate Committee on Agriculture will open an inquiry into the slow implementation of projects under the P7.7-billion Balog-Balog Multi-Purpose Project (BBMP) in San Jose, Tarlac, which  started during the term of former President Corazon Aquino.

The inquiry will be conducted after Sen. Panfilo Lacson flagged the delayed BBMP projects cited in a 2018 Commission on Audit (COA) report.

Interpellating committee chairman Sen. Cynthia Villar during plenary deliberations on the agriculture budget for 2021, Lacson said the BBMP should be looked into because it provides a “good case study” for the National Irrigation Administration (NIA), which is perennially bugged by project delays.

In the 2018 audit report, P20.704 billion of delayed projects were listed, of which, Lacson noted, “one of the highest aggregated contract costs is for the 5 projects of the Balog-Balog Multi-Purpose Project in San Jose, Tarlac, amounting to P7,773,510,386 or 37 percent of the P20.704 billion worth of delayed projects.”

To this, Villar raised the possibility that either she, or Lacson file a resolution calling for a “special hearing on this” in order to ferret out the reasons for the delay and prod the implementors to fast-track work on the delayed projects.

“We cannot solve this now, this is just an interpellation. I am willing to do a hearing on this. Maybe [Senator Lacson] can file a resolution and I will do a hearing, they will be there to answer,” Villar said, partly in Filipino.

Slippage

Meanwhile, Lacson asked Villar to provide a list of the 15 contracts or projects which incurred negative slippages, and Villar replied, “We will make a report, we will ask NIA to make a report to you.”

However, Villar also reported that NIA had “corrected some of their bad practices,” like devoting a disproportionately big share of their budget to repairs instead of setting up new irrigation facilities, as a result of congressional prodding.

“They [NIA] used to spend 50 percent of budget for repairs and 50 percent for new irrigation facilities,” she said. “I asked then Budget Secretary [Benjamin] Diokno what is a reasonable amount [for repairs] and he said, 20 percent. From then on they have been in transition, now they are doing 70-30, we’re trying to reach 80-20; now they do less repair but more irrigation facilities.”

According to Villar, in the private sector, if repairs take up more than 10 percent of budgets, it’s considered a bad ratio. “We’re trying to adopt new practices that will make them more efficient.”

Asked by Lacson how NIA responded to her advice, Villar replied, “If you look at the budget now it’s 70-30 —70  [percent] for new facilities, 30 [percent] for repairs. You just have to watch over them and teach them to be more efficient. I will try to influence them that they choose better contractors.”

Balog-Balog, other projects

Meanwhile, Villar said Lacson was free to suggest for inclusion in the planned Senate inquiry on delays at NIA “any project you would want to include,” noting that inquiries by lawmakers make officials “more alert; but if not, they become even slower.”

Lacson said he recently sent his staff to follow up on any progress made in the Balog-Balog project since a 5-part documentary was aired on television in 2019.

“Just to check on the status of the implementation of the project, I sent a team to the site. These are their findings, and we compared the status of the implementation in September 2019. What they discovered only this month, November 16, 2020, when they visited the site, that’s the comparison. The project barely moved,” reported Lacson in a mix of English and Filipino.

Showing a series of slides on the part of the project for the Balog-Balog storage dam in September 2019 and November 2020—with a contract cost of P5.863 billion, started on June 21, 2017, Lacson pointed out the gross slippages.

According to him, the original target completion for the project was June 2020, revised to January 2021, and later further revised to June 2021.

“Following the date of its implementation, it is undergoing construction for three years with only 29.56 percent completion. Compared to 93.56-percent planned accomplishment. The plan is good, but actual completion is just at 29.56 percent. So this gives us an idea of how glaring the negative slippage is at 64.03 percent.”

He recalled the actual construction of the Balog-Balog irrigation canal and a dam began in 1988 during the presidency of the late Corazon Aquino. It involved the construction of a 105.5-meter elevation. Lacson described it “as a massive project, dam and reservoir irrigation network and drainage canals in San Jose, Tarlac.”

In 1992, Lacson said, the NIA proposed to implement the Balog-Balog project in two phases. Phase 1 covers an area of 12,475 hectares and mainly consisted of the construction of a diversion dam, a conveyance canal, and a siphon underneath the Tarlac River to connect the conveyance canal to the Tarlac River irrigation system main canal.

The BBMP dam project Phase 2 was approved by the National Economic and Development Authority in May 2015, entailing the construction of new irrigation service for 21,935 hectares and stabilization of water supply to the currently irrigated areas of 12,475 hectares developed under BBMP Phase 1.

He recalled that the BBMP Phase 2 was originally expected to be finished in 2018, at a total cost of P13.37 billion. Lacson said he checked the data from the General Appropriations Act (GAA) from 2015 to 2020.

“Total appropriations as of GAA 2020 amounted to P7 billion. The total appropriations for the BBMP until 2020 amounted to at least P7 billion, while it received no appropriation in 2018. For 2021 there is a proposed appropriation of P500 million.”

Lacson then asked Villar, as sponsor of the budget of DA and its attached agencies: “Considering the track record of the construction delays and other issues involved, what can P500 million accomplish to contribute to the completion of the project in 2021?”

In turn, Villar explained that the project is multiyear, and the segments as completed are supposed to provide incremental benefits to the wide area covered by the total of 18 small dams under the ambitious program spanning the two Aquino presidencies.

She described BBMP as the “favorite project” of President Benigno Aquino III, noting that the allocations in GAA were much bigger during his term—P5 billion in 2015 and, P3 billion in 2016.” Still, she added, “since this is from Tarlac, I think President Aquino [the son] should have finished it during his term.” The allocations after 2016 have since become much smaller, for various reasons. Among those she heard were “conflict with cropping season, pandemic, insurgency, flooding, unresolved right-of-way.”

Villar added, “But I guess this is part of the government bureaucracy. The only thing I can promise is from now on I will monitor this so we will do a better job in the future.”

On Lacson’s query whether it still made sense to allow P500 million for 2021, a sum he deemed “too small an amount considering the delays and billions of pesos poured into the project during the past several years,” Villar said  in her view, the allocation, though measly, should stand.

Lacson said he was inclined to “propose to delete altogether the P500 million, “adding that “if it will accomplish nothing, let’s just put it into another project, maybe within DA or some other agency with more urgent need of the money.”

Villar asserted, however, that, “even if that’s just P500 million, for as long as it’s continuing every year it’s fine with us. The local government of Tarlac will supervise this better.” But she stressed the need to have someone monitor it closely, “otherwise, it’s really so slow.”

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