‘Water crisis’: No cause for worry yet, authorities say

angat dam water
Angat Dam in Norzagaray, Bulacan —PNA FILE PHOTO

(First of 2 parts)

Call it déjà vu on a yearly basis.      

The dry season sets in, dam water dips, taps run dry for as long as 12 hours a day in certain parts of Metro Manila, and “water crisis” comes to everyone’s mind. 

What else is new? And El Niño hasn’t even set in yet. What if the rains don’t come when they’re supposed to?  Everyone looks to the government as well as to the private water concessionaires for answers.

Angat Dam is still operating within its normal level, so there’s no cause for worry yet, according to the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS). 

Metro Manila takes 90% of its water from Angat, 9% from Laguna Lake and 1% from deep wells.  

From Angat, which lies deep in the Sierra Madre mountain range in Bulacan province, MWSS allocates 1,600 million liters per day (MLD) to Manila Water Co. and 2,400 MLD to Maynilad Water Services Inc., or a total 4,000 MLD for the metropolis. 

At its minimum operating level of 180 meters, the dam is able to deliver water to the metropolis and to irrigate farms in Bulacan.  At 6 a.m. on April 21, the dam level stood at 196.86m, way above the minimum operating level.  Per authorities, Angat has enough supply for the dry season. 

Where then lies the problem?

Fixing water lines

If supply is cut off at certain hours of the day, it only means that Maynilad and Manila Water are fixing water pipes in their areas of operation, MWSS said.  

Maynilad serves the west zone of the metropolis, including Cavite province, and Manila Water, the east zone, including Rizal province. 

MWSS field operations manager Jose Alfredo Escoto Jr. (second, from left); Dondi Alikpala (third) and Rep. Joey Salceda (fourth) at Pandesal Forum hosted by Wilson Lee Flores (right). —PANDESAL FORUM SCREENSHOT

“If there are water interruptions from the two concessionaires, that’s because there are lines that are being fixed,” MWSS field operations manager Jose Alfredo Escoto Jr., said at last week’s Pandesal Forum. 

Both Maynilad and Manila Water also draw water from Laguna Lake, and treat it at their plants in Putatan, Muntinlupa City, and in Cardona, Rizal province, respectively. 

There are times the lake water is turbid and treatment proves very “challenging,” resulting in lower production and lower supply, Escoto said.  

“If plant production is reduced, parts of Paranaque to Cavite will experience low supply,” he said.  

Maynilad said it had to schedule interruptions to give way to the intensified cleaning of filters at its Putatan plant.    

For some Maynilad customers, a 12-hour cut-off has become as normal as hard lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“We have water interruption from 11 p.m. to 11 a.m. That’s good enough because it coincides with our sleep. We don’t get to use the shower in the morning though. But that’s a minor inconvenience,” Joanna Ramos, a resident of Pilar, Las Piñas City, said on Tuesday afternoon. 

Weeks earlier, it was the reverse. Water was available at night, and so they had to stay up late to store water in jugs, drums and pails, Ramos said. It gets more frustrating when Maynilad makes the announcement a mere hour before the scheduled interruption, she added. 

Refreshing news 

But there’s some refreshing news amid the intense heat.  

Last week, the National Water Resources Board granted MWSS’ request to raise its allocation from 50 to 52 cubic meters per second (CMS) during the period April 16-30, boosting the level of La Mesa and Ipo Dams, and increasing the production of the two concessionaires.  

With this, Maynilad said it would halt the water interruptions within the week, except in some areas in Cavite south of Manila.  

Maynilad runs a water system in the north through the Bagbag reservoir in Quezon City, and in the south through the Putatan treatment plant in Muntinlupa. The Bagbag reservoir benefited from the 52 CMS allocation.  

In a worst-case scenario, Manila Water can share its allocation with Maynilad if the latter runs short of supply.  

(Remember the heavy downpour in Metro Manila on April 13, probably the first rain during this year’s summer? What relief it brought to the concrete jungle of 12 million. For 24 hours, it dumped 51.6 millimeters of rainfall in some parts of Quezon City, and 51.33 mm in Angat Dam—a drop in the bucket, but significant enough to slow down the dip in the dam elevation.)

Late in March, President Marcos Jr. himself admitted that the country was facing a water crisis; he then announced the creation of the Water Resources Management Office. 

And yet for MWSS managers, there’s no water crisis, only service interruptions.  

There could be more than meets the eye. The booming population’s demand for water may have long exceeded Angat’s daily capacity of 4,000 MLD — thus the need for other sources of clean water.  

Three years ago, MWSS said Angat’s capacity was insufficient to satisfy the demand of Metro Manila’s more than 12 million residents between 2020 and 2025. That’s why it looked to the controversial Kaliwa Dam in Quezon province to shore up the metropolis’ supply. 

Manila Water’s customers, for example, have grown from 3 million in 1997, when it acquired its concession, to nearly 7 million in 2019, but its allocation of 1,600 MLD is unchanged, according to its officials. 

‘Worrisome’ September 

If anything, Filipinos should brace for the impact of El Niño on the country’s water supply next summer, said former MWSS chair Ramon “Dondi” Alikpala. 

Angat Dam is replenished by rainwater. During the dry season, the water level expectedly dips, but as soon as the rains come during the rainy season, it begins to climb back to a comfortable level. 

“What’s worrisome is September. When El Niño hits us in September and the rains don’t come in June, our concern will be summer next year,” Alikpala, now CEO of FutureWater Asia, said at the Pandesal forum. 

“If the rains don’t come, we won’t reach the safe level of storage in the dam that will carry us to next year. It’s not this year. The concern will be next year if the rains don’t come,” he added. 

El Niño is a climate pattern arising from the warming of waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean. It’s characterized by below-normal rainfall that could lead to a dry spell. It’s forecast to impact the country between July and September.   

The Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) has forecast near-normal rainfall in many parts of the archipelago from May to September.  

“So if we’re going to experience El Niño in June, the coming of rain is not affected at all,” Pagasa hydrologist Ailene Abelardo said in an interview. “We’ll still experience something akin to normal rainfall.’’ 

Before El Niño hits, some areas in the western section of Luzon will experience heavy rainfall induced by the southwest monsoon or “habagat.” But the rest of the archipelago, such as the Visayas and Mindanao, will experience below-normal rainfall.  

Once the southwest monsoon weakens, the same areas in Luzon that experienced heavy rainfall will transition to a dry spell. 

“If El Niño is prolonged, then it becomes critical,” Analiza Solis, chief of Pagasa’s climate monitoring and prediction section, said in an interview. 

According to Albay Rep. Joey Salceda, the dry spell may force more families in rural areas to access water from unsafe sources. 

2 extreme events  

Even so, the public should brace for two extreme events under El Niño: heavy rainfall and dry spell. 

While it’s generally associated with less rainfall, the phenomenon may also enhance the southwest monsoon to induce heavy rain across the country, Solis said. 

During El Niño, cyclones form from warm ocean temperatures, recurve in the atmosphere, and interact with the southwest monsoon, she explained.   

“Remember ‘Ondoy’, ‘Pepeng’? They struck during an El Niño year,” she said, referring to the powerful cyclones in 2009 that cut wide swathes of destruction in the country and left hundreds of people dead.

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