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Brownouts Darken Outlook for Aquino : Philippines: Power outages cripple industry and snarl traffic. Criticism has focused on the president.

April 24, 1990|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MANILA — It is the summer of discontent.

Widespread daily electric power outages, called brownouts rather than blackouts here, have turned Manila's normally chaotic life to a sweltering nightmare of candlelit offices, crippled factories, terrifying traffic, spoiled food and frayed tempers. Virtually every household and business is affected.

The power crisis led to outages Monday for more than 300 government and major office buildings in the Makati financial district plus tens of thousands of homes and businesses in other areas. It has sharply undercut President Corazon Aquino's attempts to rescue an economy still reeling from December's failed coup.

With double-digit inflation and steamy 99-degree heat fueling daily discomfort, criticism has focused on Aquino and her staff for failing to heed repeated warnings of crumbling infrastructure and an inevitable power breakdown. The criticism echoes that heard last November, when citywide brownouts and rising prices preceded the failed coup attempt.

"The parallels are uncanny," said one diplomat. "There's a torrent of rumors about something brewing. There's a torrent of intelligence about a hit against Americans or American facilities."

Partly because of those increasing threats, a U.S. State Department panel is now considering putting the Philippines in the same "most dangerous" category as Lebanon, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Columbia and Peru.

The listing would add up to 20% hazardous-duty pay for about 300 U.S. diplomats. They already receive 20% extra pay for what are considered the country's poor schooling, medical care, climate and other daily difficulties.

Eight Americans have been killed, reputedly by Communist guerrillas, since 1987, including six who worked for the U.S. military. The U.S. Navy commander in the Philippines, Rear Adm. Roger Rich, warned last week of a "real threat" to Americans as bilateral talks, due to start May 14, focus on the future of the six U.S. military facilities in the Philippines.

Hoping to foil potential assassins, one U.S. diplomat said he literally rolls dice each morning to decide what time, which route and which car he will use to drive to work.

"No one in this city knows where I'm going to be or how I'm going to get there," he said. Few Filipinos in this city of 8 million have such a choice. Public transit is so bad that commuters spill into most roadways to rush aboard jammed jeepneys, crowding the garbage-strewn, potholed streets even further. And despite a persistent drought, up to 40% of Manila's water leaks in aging mains.

But none of the discomfort compares to the unannounced power outages that have plagued Manila's commercial and residential districts for more than a month. In Makati, the nation's financial hub, the post office has suffered power cuts for four hours each morning and two hours each afternoon for weeks.

"We sort the mail by candlelight," explained Postmaster Projecto T. Tomagan.

The daily disruptions became so critical that under a new power-saving plan, electricity was cut all day Monday for at least 302 Makati buildings, including government offices, major banks, airlines, embassies and most international companies. The plan calls for a four-day work-week for five consecutive Mondays for about 200,000 employees.

Most large companies used gas generators to run fans and a few lights. Smaller businesses weren't so lucky.

Under the plan, electricity in factories will be cut one day a week for four hours. The scheme, called "voluntary curtailment," promises to allow managers to choose when they want the power cut off. Homeowners, who have seen food spoil and bedrooms broil, get no choice and usually no warning.

Officials say the outages will last at least until late June, when several gas turbine generators are to supplant Luzon's overloaded system. But the new turbines will raise rates and probably won't prevent new shortages next year.

One reason is that 12 of the 22 generating plants in Luzon are now inoperative because of overdue maintenance, storm damage and low water levels at hydroelectric dams, according to the state-run National Power Corp. New geothermal and coal-fired plants will not come on line until 1993.

The crisis began after Aquino kept a campaign pledge to mothball the nation's only nuclear power station before it could open. Constructed by Westinghouse Corp. in Morong, Bataan, the plant was supposed to generate 620 megawatts of power, enough to cover the current shortfall.

But critics said the plant was unsafe and that Westinghouse paid millions in bribes to former President Ferdinand E. Marcos and his cronies.

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