(Last of two parts) ‘Water crisis’: No cause for worry yet, authorities say
The first order of business is for the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) to put its foot down every time the two water concessionaires close their valves to repair pipes and clean filters during the dry season, according to an activist consumer organization.
Gerry Arances, convener of the Power for People Coalition, said it was the job of the MWSS to ensure that Maynilad Water Services Inc. and Manila Water Co. Inc. efficiently deliver on their contract with water consumers, especially during the dry season.
“Why does the regulatory body allow maintenance shutdown during the peak season?’’ Arances told CoverStory.ph.
MWSS managers traced service water interruptions in many parts of Metro Manila to the concessionaires’ repair of water pipes and cleanup of water treatment plant filters as the dry season peaks.
Maynilad serves the west zone of the metropolis, including Cavite province, and Manila Water, the east zone, including Rizal province.
Asked if the MWSS should fine the concessionaires for supply interruptions, Arances said: “Definitely, that is their role as regulator. If there is no rule yet, MWSS should promulgate rules to curb violations from the concessionaires and protect water consumers.”
Patrick Lester N. Ty, chief regulator at the MWSS-Regulatory Office, has been quoted in news reports as saying that the agency was studying the possibility of penalizing Maynilad if the supply cutoffs continued.
At the height of the 2019 water crisis, the MWSS slapped a P1-billion sanction on Manila Water for its failure to deliver water to its customers 24 hours a day.
Sen. Grace Poe has bewailed the lack of coordination among government agencies to address the water shortage ahead of the onset of El Niño.
The government should have crafted policies and drawn up contingency measures to address the impending crisis given that El Niño is “foreseeable,” said Poe, who chairs the Senate committee on public services.
“While there are many water-related agencies, there is a drought of common goals that would set clear directions and actions toward water security for all Filipinos,” she said.
The MWSS has a raft of augmentation measures to deal with the shortage of water, including activating deep wells and fast-tracking leak repairs.
It disclosed plans by the concessionaires to tap 9 million liters per day (MLD) of water from a National Irrigation Administration plant in Cavite, generate an additional 10 MLD in reused water from a plant in Parañaque City, and reuse “backwash water” in La Mesa Dam.
Through backwashing, dirty water is forced out of the filter bed to flush out accumulated impurities.
Arances said it was high time the national and local governments revisited the rainwater catchment system, a practical idea that has been enacted into law but has yet to capture the public imagination.
He said certain local government units had adopted the system but the rest needed to catch up.
“It’s important to reduce the overall need [for water] and lessen the stress on centralized solutions,” he said, referring to large-scale or community-based water impounding dams.
As early as 1989, the government passed Republic Act No. 6716, which provides for the construction of water wells, rainwater collectors, development of springs and rehabilitation of existing water wells in all barangays. It tasked the Department of Public Works and Highways to lead the construction of these facilities.
Arances said the reforestation of the Sierra Madre should be a top priority if only to preserve the watersheds and reservoirs as sources of water. The MWSS said the reforestation of watersheds was ongoing.
‘Disjointed water governance’
Albay Rep. Joey Salceda, chair of the House committee on ways and means, described “water governance” in the country as “disjointed.”
After sifting through Malacañang’s National Expenditure Program for this year, the lawmaker stumbled on a well-known fact: The government has no integrated water infrastructure program.
“If you dig up our documents on the national budget, it’s this high,” Salceda said at last week’s Pandesal Forum in Quezon City, gesturing with his hands. “There’s no single page there that includes an integrated water infrastructure program.’’
If at all, the projects are “scattered” in such agencies as the National Irrigation Administration, Department of Interior and Local Government and Local Water Utilities Administration, he said.
“In the first place, the Philippines has one of the highest precipitations per year,” Salceda said. “But literally, we can’t hold water. What we need is to build dams.”
He said San Roque Dam in Pangasinan, built in 2003, was the last such project undertaken by the government.
The MWSS said the controversial Kaliwa Dam on the boundary of Rizal and Quezon provinces in the Sierra Madre would begin operation by December 2026 and generate an additional 600 MLD for Metro Manila.
But last February, 240 members of the Dumagat-Remontado tribe mounted a nine-day, 148-kilometer march to Malacañang to demand a halt to the construction of the P12.2-billion project, which threatens to submerge 291 hectares of forests and displace thousands of Sierra Madre folk.
The Dumagat-Remontado accused the MWSS and the National Council for Indigenous Peoples of railroading the process of consultation by wangling consent from pre-selected pro-Kaliwa Dam signatories, and excluding Sierra Madre Indigenous communities vocally opposed to the project.
Salceda pushed, as a long-term solution, for the creation of a Department of Water Resources that President Marcos Jr. identified as among the priority legislation in his first State of the Nation Address last July.
The House of Representatives has passed the measure, while the Senate refiled its version.
Under the measure, the department would act as the main agency to craft policies, and to plan, coordinate, implement and monitor the management of water resources.
“This water challenge will accentuate the inequality in the lives of poor people,” Salceda said. “We need an institution that has power, so we don’t need to bring everything to the attention of the President.”
The measure “is very exciting” for the water sector because it seeks the creation of a body responsible for water supply and sanitation, said Ramon “Dondi” Alikpala, former MWSS chair and now CEO of FutureWater Asia.
According to Alikpala, only 53.9% of Filipino families have household connections, while the rest are “in bad shape.’’ Another 46.3% of households get their drinking water from water refilling stations. And only 87.7% of Filipinos have access to safe drinking water.
“It now provides synergies among the different users of water. Can we find synergies between waste water and irrigation? Can we find synergy between water supply and hydropower?” Alikpala said at the Pandesal forum.
Sought for comment, Arances said: “As long as it will pursue mandates that ensure water supply that is ecologically sound, ensure consumers’ welfare and water as a basic right as mandated by existing laws, then it will [synergize efforts at water supply and sanitation].”
In February, Mr. Marcos ordered the creation of a Water Resources Management Office (WRMO) to manage the country’s water resources, as well as act as a transitory body pending the creation of the proposed department.
This early, the WRMO should “get its feet wet amid the water shortage being felt by households, businesses, and the agriculture sector,” Poe has said in a statement.