The Arc of Darkness: the dark cloud over Mindanao

I wrote here about the electrical outages affecting Mindanao in the Southern Philippines.

General Summary: Lack of rainfall means a decrease in water for the hydro plant at Lake Lanao to provide enough electricity for the southern region.

Dark clouds approaching
The Dark clouds are here, but only in certain regions … Why?

Some of the problems in Mindanao

After I published this, I received a lot of email & messages via twitter ( @TLWH ). Aside from concerns that I was in this troubled region, many Pinoy’s said they had electricity.

That night in a hot humid & dark guest house room I watched as my phone’s battery slowly ebbed away. Tweets from Manila said they had 24/7 electricity. Cebu, Palawan had no problems. Okay, even the national newspapers said it was a Mindanao problem, so I wasn’t anxious.

Map of The Philippines
The whole of the Philippines had electricity it seemed … Except for a region to the south:  Mindanao

Then, came a tweet from Davao (southern Mindanao), there were no outages. General Santos, the same, and so it continued.

How come I was getting constant power outages and the rest of The Philippines was alright?

These days Manila gets brownouts every other day, for 2-3 hours. In specific regions of Mindanao, it ranges from 16-5 hours, everyday.

Electricity blackouts are not random

Add to this warnings that Lake Lanao’s water reserve is so low its past critical. That the hydro turbines are in danger of seizing up with irreversible damage if they continue at such low levels. And, that there are no more reserves to tap into.

Why then when Manny Pacquio was fighting was there 24 hours of electricity?

Why for 3 days during the elections this week was there 24 hours of electricity?

And why, during daylight hours are suburban street lights switched on?

The Arc of Darkness

The outline of the blackout areas is a sobering picture. True sense of it comes if you only know why in this paradise nation, a large portion of it is a no go zone.

As you may know Mindanao is a troubled region in The Philippines. There are many things going on here, and it’s not my place to state who’s right or wrong.

Here’s a general overview about the problems in Mindanao:

The MILF/MNLF are an organization that wishes to have a region of Mindanao made autonomous. The region is largely Islamic, in an overwhelmingly catholic country.

It’s known that there are many “private” armies in the region.

Some of whom are controlled by local warlords seeking separation.

The most infamous is the Ampatuan clan. Accused of a mass murder last year of over 50 people. They obtained their arms from the government. Like many political families in the Philippines, the Ampatuan’s have family members from Governors on down to Mayors throughout the region.

Mix this with national government & local intervention and you can see problems. Oh, and should we not forget U.S.A. military training intervention too. Over 150,000 people have died in this little known conflict.

Journalists die in Mindanao

In late 2009 over 50 people were mass executed in Mindanao. Over 30 of them were journalists. Here’s a report by ABC reporter Mark Willacy, it’s worth watching (20 mins)

The head of the Ampatuan clan who is / was a friend of the outgoing president, Arroyo, has been arrested, as one of the many accused of organizing the mass killing. He’s shown in the video above. (the latest news is two key Ampatuan members have been released after presenting alibis).

My findings on the Arc of Darkness in Mindanao

With map in hand I asked some people on the street. Why were certain regions blacked out, and the rest not?

Personally, I feared the worse. With the elections it seemed politically motivated to provoke individuals from within this conflict region. It could affect anyone’s political campaign, one way or another.

Map of blackouts in Mindanao
My rough map of blackouts in Mindanao

However, there have been no outbreaks of violence or accusations based on this issue alone.


In typical Pinoy fashion it took a while for people to open up with a story. It turned out I met a random person who grew up by lake Lanao. Their view is that the situation is far more financially motivated than political. Yet, the two webs are intertwined.

Lake Lanao is shrinking due to a high level of silt pouring into it. The silt is coming from the surrounding mountains, which are being stripped bare due to illegal logging.

Who is doing the illegal logging? Well, allegedly it’s the local militia and gangsters. They are armed, and well known for kidnapping, ransoming, and executing hostages. Both foreign and local, including reporters and journalists.


None of the above can ever be proved. Maybe this is why mainstream news agencies are not reporting it. Then again, in a land where more reporters have died …

Mindanao is now rated above Iraq & Afghanistan as being the most dangerous place for journalists in the world today.

It’s simply not feasible to garner this evidence if you look at the complexities and people involved within the region. Violence is a simmering undertone here. Profit is undermining that, for now. A lesser of two evils?

Illegal logging is hugely profitable. They are not going to stop. During an election, it would make sense not to rub your sore spots in public. Just let it ride as you turn a blind eye.

Turn off the power, and no one will protest as vast quantities of money is pouring into those allegedly involved in the logging.

Still, why is the government not preventing the illegal logging?

Strange how the electricity which is Nationally governed is only turned off in this outlined troubled region and nowhere else?

Is someone pushing power buttons of a different nature here?

Kids on bamboo rafts on a river in the Philippines
Water levels don’t seem that different to me – life goes on either way (click to enlarge)

No escape from Mindanao’s problems:

I see this problem escalating over the coming years. If the lake is truly shrinking due to rising silt because of illegal logging, with a growing population – Electric blackouts will become more frequent and last for longer.

What happens if an internal dispute with the factions in control within this Arc of Darkness triggers a retaliation? aka the money runs out.

This could well be the beginning of the end for what some people are already calling a failed state.

The more worrying aspect about Mindanao:

Why is this not being reported more? Yes, there are some columnists writing about this. Yes, there are wild rumors floating about. Yes, there are headlines about Hydro-Power. Yes, certain local electrical companies are using strong words to issue blame and even state that the crises is “artificial” (source the original that was removed – Now all links have been removed as of March 2012) . But is this garnering national interest, no.

Then again, remember: Mindanao has been quoted as being more dangerous to cover as a journalist than Iraq or Afghanistan.

When you live here, that means something more than just a quote.

The president has declared Mindanao in a state of calamity … but such terms seem to be lost in the media frenzy of the 2010 elections.

Share the electrical load:

Electricity is split into various sub companies that distribute it.

The grid is not physically connected on a national basis. Davao for example is getting electricity from diesel stations. While others rely on hydro.

If this is the case, why can electricity not be purchased from other areas?  Other nations can manage this (Nepal/India), why can The Philippines not manage this internally?

The future of Mindanao (The Philippines):

I have tried my best to write great things about Mindanao in my Seeing the Unseen series. Indeed for long term readers here you will no doubt notice the positive slant I give all of The Philippines.

Sadly, in recent times, I see a downward spiral that’s undeniable in fact.

At the moment I cannot hand on heart recommend Mindanao as a tourist destination. Yes, I do think, and believe it’s more safe than international media makes it out to be.  But compared to other tourist destinations I cannot recommend it.

It’s a shame, as the majority of the people from this region are some of the nicest, most honest you will meet.

Why then have more journalists been killed here than anywhere else in the world?


I don’t have the answers in this complex web of so many virtues. All I know is that the rains are overdue. And, with them electricity along with regular services will return.

The people will forget their woes as flash floods and more human tragedy make the headlines once more. Promises by former governments that this would be addressed year in year out will be excused by the new government who in turn will make a promise.

Then next year it will all start over again. And, it will continue on until there are no more trees left to fell.

Or, when the money runs dry like the lake. Then, I fear, something much worse will bring the worlds media back to Mindanao.


Since election day there have been no electricity blackouts. There’s a new president-elect from a party that’s currently not in power. There has been no heavy rain since election day either, so I imagine that Lake Lanao is still at “critical level” for producing hydro power.

There were few problems in Mindanao over the election period. Yes, there were deaths, under a dozen were reported, but nothing of note to suggest ill will nor disruption to the masses.

That’s not counting debacles such as polling equipment not showing up, broken machines, lack of officials and vast queues of voters unable to vote due to this and more. Lesser known in Mindanao are the reports of trucks filled with armed people preventing local villagers from leaving their houses on polling day.

The official response to the electrical crisis has always been a lack of rainfall and a lake that’s been at “critical” and danger levels for months. People are not asking why the electricity is back for fear it might remind someone to hit the power button again.

More clouds on the way:

For one week the people here have had constant electricity for the first time in months. The only thing that’s changed is the election is over and new people are coming into office.

Will this and the other problems in Mindanao continue? Yes. This was only a new one. And, at the moment it’s not officially over. The people within the Arc of Darkness are just grateful that for the past week life has returned to normal. They are still very aware that at any minute the light may go again.

A few brave souls now mention the impending rains.

The ground is hard, when the rains come they will bounce off the earth and form this years flash floods. Another repetitive tragedy is looming.

With a new administration comes new hope. Every cloud is meant to have a silver lining. I hope for the people of Mindanao this is true.  For now though, the problems in Mindanao seem to be on hold; as the people live day by day in wait …

Hotel search at the Longest Way Home

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I recommend you try my own hotel search for The Philippines.


Coming Soon:

Decision Time

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20 Replies to “The Arc of Darkness: the dark cloud over Mindanao”

  1. You pose some excellent, hard hitting questions. Methinks you have an investigative reporter deep in you somewhere. :)

  2. Do you think that someone is ever gonna solve these problems? Don’ think so …

  3. You really are an investigative journalist! I always specialized in breaking news, as we have the exact opposite skills. I’ve envied the writers who do exactly what you do and have many close friends who cover regions all over the world. You’d better let us know if you start taking on assignments!

    1. -Nomadic Chick- Just trying to let people know what’s really going on :)

      -Ivy- I think it should happen. I also think that if no one knows about these things, then nothing will every get done anywhere.

      -Abby- Thank you. Who knows what the future brings. There was / is plenty more to this story. But for now, being directly affected, and seeing that not much is being written or spoken about it – someone had to step up.

      -Tim- Yes, money and power are hand in hand partners the world over, no matter where you go. Will it change? It’s been like that since the beginning of civilization. I hope it will improve as we evolve. Will it go away anytime soon? I don’t think so. But the moment we stop challenging it, that’s when we’ve lost hope.

  4. You mean, it’s not “paradise”? ;-)

    Isn’t is interesting that looking in from the outside in other countries the problem seems so obvious yet inside our own countries we’re so blind?
    It’s always about money and power wherever you go. Sadly, those with the money and power know how to use it to keep every one else “in the dark”.
    Excellent reporting.

  5. Well, as you became famous to me (at least through the italian newspaper website) I started to follow your blog but now I realize things have changed.
    You are not moving on any longer, either you have finally found your home or just change your website to a Philippines description.
    You still have interest things to say but the search of a final home is losing its appeal a lot !!!
    Sorry for being too sincere.

    1. -Enzo- You can be as sincere as you like, theres no issue. There are many reasons for my length of stay in The Philippines. Not everyone who follow’s my website will agree with how I go about things. Then again, there are few people out there to set any example.

      Two months I wrote that for the next while I will be writing about others, and about other issues in regards to my journey before I return to my own story. The seeing the unseen series is over, and there is one more interview. Then it’s back to me and the journey.

      If I don’t cover things such a culture, social integration, politics, and how life in places is, then I am cheating myself. Which I will not do.

      What’s happening here is real, many people will have different perceptions of it, as is their right. Just as this is my journal on my life to find home. Just like life, it’s not all going to be about nice places, travel and always being on the move.

      Do I really want to live in a place like Mindanao with all this going on. The final few paragraphs should give you a clear indication on that …

  6. I read your journey on email. I think I understand what you are doing here. I think it’s very brave.

    You are experiencing something we don’t or can’t ever. It’s better to see this now, than if you decide to live there

    1. -Renny- Yep, there are many aspects to finding a place to live that are simply not mentioned here. Mainly due to a lack of time.

      -Tim- I prefer not to use the word “challenge” in that context. I really believe it’s not my place to tell Filipinos how they should run their country. Nor do I want to be seen as someone trying to convert people one way or another. However, like I mentioned in my

      about not commenting on a countries politics, I will do so from my own perspective in trying to find a place to live. This electricity thing is ridiculously blatant on many fronts and has become a huge factor in my choices. Hence I wrote about it.

      -Gina- Thank you for the kind words. Study is important, but so is life’s lessons.

      -Argentina Tours- Thanks. And, I agree.

  7. Yes, challenging a corrupt system is a noble effort.
    What about passive resistence or non-participatory participation?
    Imagine what would happen if nobody showed up at the polls. Can you have an election if no one votes?
    Participation in a corrupt system only encourages them.

  8. @Enzo Even Superman has a day job is the message here. Keep going, your writing inspires me. And I learn from you more about life than my studies.

  9. A person once commented on a site that the Philippines has incredibly free press. I thought it was weird, since this country is considered the most dangerous place for journalists to be. But after ruminating on that post, I thought it was quite right.

    This is one country where journalists dip into the lives of politicians and politics with abandon. Politics is our Hollywood, and there is no shortage of exposes. But couple that with several political dynasties, and you have a problem. It doesn’t help that some parts of Mindanao practice rido (clan wars), while there are some dynasties that do the same thing.

    But we tear through the government in newspapers with abandon. We are honest in our reporting, and unlike CNN, we aren’t biased. It’s too packaged, too vanilla. Although there are days when I think the bad news is just too much PR.

    I love your blog, and I thank you for championing the country (and your bravery for going there despite all the bad warnings). But Mindanao, I think, is still on track with recovery. It’s a region which has only gotten attention in the past years, and negative ones at that. I think it’s gotten the short end of the stick for so many years, and we all need an attitude change in order to give them a break.

    But paradigm shifts do not happen overnights, or in 2 years. Still, I think we are starting. I didn’t vote for the incoming president, but people trust him, and that is an excellent start.

    Again, thank you for championing the country.

    1. -Kriszia- You certainly raise some interesting points. Yes, the celebrity politician being raked through the press is fairly free and liberal, but when done in this way it almost becomes gossip magazine like. Somehow, to me, this looses it’s impact. In the UK the tabloids do the same, but hound wrong doers until the truth comes out and they are forced to resign.

      I think all news agencies are bias to an extent. Some are very politically motivated, others in this day an age are still trying to cope with the dying print media and internet take over. Bad news sells better than a happy story. I found this very true in Iran whereby the media is very much controlled. People were being told the USA was planning to attack any day. While in the west, at the time, we were being told they were planning something for “any-day”.

      Mindanao recovering? 1 year ago I would have agreed. But with the mass killings, the clan wars, and now the electrical crises I don’t personally see it. I certainly wish it, but from an outsider looking in over the past year, I do see a decline.

      With electoral change there is always hope. I do wish there was less celebrity involved. In that sense I think the President elect is far from a glassy celebrity, and given his dynasty that’s an accomplishment already. If the people trust him, then that’s certainly a good thing. I hope he lives up to this.

      The Philippines has amazing potential on so many fronts. Yes there are negatives. But, I truly feel that with someone at the helm of steering the country for the good of the people rather than personal gain, good will be achieved.

      The history of The Philippines is unique, and many people don’t know about it. The people are very different from the rest of Asia and they are also some of the most honest and friendly people out there. Mindanao still has indigenous festivals no one’s heard of anywhere in the world, a rarity these days. I hope the future will be a positive one for this nation. And, I hope they can do what few countries nor cultures have been able to do: learn from other nations mistakes and ones own.

      When people read my journals and they come away with learning something new or undiscovered about this island nation its a good feeling. It’s something that can encourage them to visit, talk about, learn and share with the world. The country has such an incredible diversity, culture, history and the potential for a trailblazing future I am very happy to have spent so much time here.

  10. my husband has been over there since jan 2010. he was in contact for awhile , but i have not heard anything in over a month i am worried.. but dont know how to go about finding out about him.. i have contacted the embassy and various news papers and sites like yours..his name is Bob Reynolds he is an american. 5’2″ grey hair 53 years old.
    please if any one knows where i can find out information.

  11. It’s a while since I was in Mindanao but I can say that here in the Dumaguete area we are seeing a lot of development and subsequent infrastrure improvements: new shops, roads, sewers and electricity poles etc. In this respect I must strongly disagree with what dave says on RP’s future. things are changing for the better here. Unlike my home country (UK), which is becoming a police state with huge transfer of wealth from poor to rich.
    Here in Valencia (near Dumaguete) we have little traffic (not on the Nat Highway), a beautiful Plaza, an elevated position (cooler), Subsidized electric from Geothermal, Drinkable spring water on communal tap, and plentiful mains water (rain quiet a lot here).
    I want to say to readers that Philippines is a truly excellent country to start a new life in retirement, but even more so for younger people with vision and energy.
    I agree with other posters that Dave should have paid more consideration to a future in Investagtive Journalism here in RP. He could have benefitted himself and the country greatly.


    1. I will take exception to your point about “… Dave should have paid more consideration to a future in Investagtive Journalism here in RP.” and point out this article was about the “electrical” problems in “Mindanao” One that was backed up with physical facts that occurred during this period of time. And, was further backed up by Mindanao regional and national News/Press organisations.

  12. I agree with “The Longest Way Home”. I was born here in the Philippines and immigrated in the US at the age of 9. I came back when I retired in 2005 and It seems that Philippines has not changed at all. Corruption is still here and it will never go away. This country is not well developed and it seems to me that the country is living in the 1950’s or earlier especially in the provinces. There are good laws here but nobody enforces the laws at all. I also live near dumaguete and how many of you foreigners have seen young kids riding motorcycles without drivers license? I bet you have seen them in this country. We also have brownouts here at least twice a week for about 10 or 15 minutes which isn’t bad at all but still, I have experienced brownouts when I was a kid living in Baguio City before going to the US. Now that I am grown up, it seems to me that the problem has not been resolved.

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