Public Lives

Water woes

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One of the first things we had to face after my wife and I decided in 1973 to live with her grandaunt, music professor Jovita Fuentes, inside the University of the Philippines campus, was the water problem. Built on the gentle slope of a hill at the edge of the sprawling campus, the house of the maestra was one of the pioneer homes in UP Diliman. Its high elevation gave us a beautiful view of the neighborhood, but put us at a disadvantage in the community’s water distribution system.

The water pressure had to be adequately strong in order for us to get any water, and that happened only from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. The irony is that we were just a stone’s throw away from the Balara filtration system. I remember visiting the old Nawasa office to plead with the gods of Balara to increase the pressure so that the water would reach us before it ran out.  They couldn’t do it. An increase in water pressure would burst the pipes and produce more leaks in the aging system. Everywhere there were telltale signs of precious water springing from underground leaks.

I did not realize until later how much we had woven our daily lives around the impounding of water. Our lives centered on the water tank that we piously filled during the wee hours when the rest of the community was asleep. Every day, someone had to wake up, wait for the sound of trickling water, and switch on the pump to coax the water up the reservoir. We stocked water in all kinds of recycled plastic containers, dipping into these when the tank went empty.

The rust and silt that came with the water made it necessary to filter and boil it before we could drink it. Also, the old pipes usually delivered a few droplets of water but drove a lot of wind into our pipes. The air pressure with no accompanying water caused the water meter to whirl like a jet propeller, registering consumption levels that defied reality. This was reflected in our monthly bill, which was at least twice the amount we pay today. I paid under protest.

The situation was replicated at school where the toilets perpetually stank. Janitors had to carry pails of water at the end of the day to declog them. In frustration, students sometimes celebrated the New Year by rigging the dysfunctional toilets with firecrackers and blowing them up as symbols of a stinking government. I am not a great fan of privatization. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that unless the government recognized the immense complexity of the water problem in view of an expanding population, and completely modernized the system, there was no option but to let the private sector do it.

We were spending a lot on gallons of distilled water. The informal settlers in our neighborhood were paying even more for cans of water delivered by wooden carts to their shanties. It was a problem for everybody regardless of class. In summer, when there was less water to share, the metropolitan rich sought remedy by deploying the biggest pumps to suck the limited water into their houses. The urban poor solved their despair by illegally tapping into the mains and opening fire hydrants.

When Manila Water people knocked on my door sometime in 1997 to tell me that they were laying new and bigger pipes in our street, and to apologize for the temporary inconvenience, I was skeptical. I wasn’t sure how long it would take them to dig up all the old pipes left behind by the Americans. But, not long after, as promised, the water came 24 hours a day.  It felt like living in a modern city. I gave away the water pump, but kept the reservoir as a relic of a waterless past. I would hate to go back to that primitive era.

The main issue in the current debate concerning the water companies is how much they are entitled to charge consumers for the water they deliver. Where there is competition, the answer is decided in terms of who can offer the best sustained service at the lowest rate. But, where the public must deal with only one designated service provider, there is a state-sanctioned procedure for keeping rates at just and reasonable levels while allowing the company to develop the business, recover its investments, and earn reasonable profit.

That procedure is called “rate rebasing,” a process scheduled every five years in the case of Metro Manila’s water services. This is when the water tariff is reviewed and, if warranted, adjusted. The operators of the concessions—Manila Water and Maynilad—have asked for an increase in rates, even as various groups representing the consumers are demanding a lowering of rates from current levels. This is healthy and is to be expected.

We should worry if the government regulator approves everything submitted by the concessionaires. But we should be equally disturbed when the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System, the government agency in charge of the privatization and regulation of water services in Metro Manila, questions the terms of the concession agreement itself. This stance raises all kinds of questions about the government’s ability to honor the contracts it signs with private parties. Disputes arising from conflicting interpretations of the provisions of the agreement can always be brought to a court of law if necessary. They ought not to be unduly politicized, for this is what prevents the private sector from investing in such projects.

Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile put it quite well when he was recently asked what he thought of the call for a congressional hearing on the issue: “I don’t know if Congress has the power to intervene, because it’s very clear that you cannot impair the obligation of contracts. Now, the only remedy here of the government would be to renegotiate the contract, if the parties agree.”

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  • Descarte5E

    Lay down the facts. The public is protesting because they/we don’t know what is really happening. With cases of corruption happening almost everywhere, the only solution is to be transparent to regain the public trust. We are a bunch of reasonable bastards.

  • tadasolo

    When I was going to shool in Manila in the early 70s I was living around Central Market and then on to Intramuros with the population of Metro Manila less than 50% of what it is now and there is no water at night when you need it most before going to bed. Government agencies at that time and still more pronounce are hot bed of corruption with entitlement mentally. They do not work but collect paycheck and engaged in all kinds of activities. Some 5 years ago I was a the Ninoy International Number 1 terminal on the waiting lounge and this airport worker set up a little table selling goodies after checking us in the lounge. ONLY IN THE PHILIPPINES. There is no professionalism in government bureaucracy. Until this is a corrected the Philippines is a FAILED STATE. One more thing on my observation most politicians it seems to me are doing it for prestige and image instead of improving the system overall. I do not see any concerted effort by Congress and this president or all LGUs and the private leadership and public on how to improve the system and effectively deliver services to the public.

    • Edgar Lores

      @tadasolo,

      I have to agree. The lack of professionalism indicates the great defect of the Filipino character. This defect is both exhibited in the civil servant and the elected politician. They are both sworn to serve the people, but they do not. Service, in the Filipino lexicon, is tantamount to servitude. It is demeaning because it puts one below others. The civil servant and elected politician see themselves as masters of their domain after having enslaved themselves to earn their positions.

      Here in the country I live in, it takes 10 to 15 minutes to get a driver’s license renewed. Perhaps 30 minutes at most to register a car. And the public servants behind the counter are attentive and polite, focused on the minutiae of the transaction, and do not carry an attitude.

      It is the slave-master complex that has to be changed for the Philippines to succeed. The Civil Service Commission (CSC) is tasked to promote efficiency and courtesy among public servants. But the concept and attitude
      of service goes beyond mere efficiency and courtesy. It is a mindset of genuine helpfulness combined with respect for the ‘customer’, the ordinary citizen. How to inculcate this attitude is the problem. Training seminars, periodic reviews, employee monitoring, and incentives based on performance are some of the possible steps. But first if all is the awareness of this psychological defect in the national psyche. With awareness comes the possibility of change.

      • KaEnchong

        While I agree with observations that most civil servants and, to a certain extent, even some employees in the private sector, lack professionalism in dealing with us their clients, it would be unfair to assign the entire blame on them. We, too, are at fault – because, we Filipinos are too patient, too forgiving and too accommodating to a fault. Most of us simply do not demand courtesy and efficiency from them. Masyado tayong mabait.

  • kayanatwo

    10jul2013

    nobody asked me, but….when public utility provider, i.e. water or electricity, keep raising or charging the consumers more as per agreed contract, but the public utility provider can not deliver its product on timely manner, efficiently and sometime can not meet the minimum standards in purity or quality, these public utility provider is robbing poor juan dela cruz blind.

    as an end user, and we are paying for the services, we should expect no brown out, no loss of water pressure during hot summer days. and it was a given, like clockworks, brownouts and water supply rationing are the common problems that we all have to endure year in and year out.

    so, who benefited most at the end of the bargain????????

  • buninay1

    I can understand the bliss and the cloud nine feeling that Randy David felt upon opening the 24/7 faucet which instead of air gushed forth water in copious amount. But for the majority of consumers who do not live alone in this planet and know how to compare their status with their neighboring countries situations, they can not but feel shortchanged by the concessionaires once they realized they are paying one of highest water bill rates in the world despite the fact the contracts so entered guarantee the concessionaires’ insulation from damaging losses. The problem seems to be the big businesses’ penchant to max out the favors being granted them by the govt. They want to have their cake and eat it too.

    • Remrick Patagan

      Actually, your assertions regarding the cost of Manila water rates are unfounded.

      “One also cannot ignore statistics showing that despite the massive capital infusion and superior operational metrics (24-hour water availability, low NRW, etc.), the two concessionaire’s water charges are also among the lowest in major cities in the country. For example, a 30-m3 consumer in the east zone is billed ₱458 for his water consumption compared with same volume water bills in Metro Cebu (₱463), Iloilo (₱509) or Baguio (₱1,137). The differences are even starker for those consuming up to 10 m3, even while the service quality in these areas are more like those of pre- privatization MWSS.

      Note too that Manila Water rates compare well also versus other Asian cities. Based on a 15-m3 consumption, Manila Water dollar rate (0.26/m3) falls in the middle of Jakarta (0.59), Beijing (0.47) Bangkok (0.27), New Delhi (0.19), Hanoi (0.19), Kuala Lumpur (0.18) and Phnom Penh (0.16).”

      Quoted from “Water now and for tomorrow” in BusinessWorld.

  • nice_boy

    The issue is exemption from paying income tax by the concessioners. They have a monopoly yet whatever taxes they pay, income or otherwise, are to be shouldered by the water consumers. This to me is immoral.

  • josh_alexei

    How long was the concession agreement and if there were defects, what are the process of fixing them? Mr. David, our Province here built a 70 kms expressway that was leased to the Private Concessionaires to operate and maintain for 99 years for something over $ 2 billions for the Province and there are times there were issues with the way the World’s First Barrier Free toll Road is operated but parties were able to settle them out. And it was a profitable agreement since the Expressway is now 108 kms and one lane wider in both direction and Still Barrier Free after more than a decade in Private operation, the only Toll Roadways in this province that is bigger than the Whole Western Europe put together (just to relieve the world’s busiest and widest hway on top of the city).

    As for the Water, here is what the City owned utility is doing. Every time it subsidizes program of Water Conservation like for example Replacement of Toilet bowls for more efficient new models, it is going to charge the cost in the Water Bills per Volume to encourage everyone to avail the program since everyone will be paying for it anyways. The city may loss on the water income, since there will be less usage,(efficient toilet bowl and shower use half or less water) but will recoup on less expense on water treatment Plants operating expense. Aren`t they smart?

  • Fulpol

    they are afraid to tackle the contract issue with oligarchy..

    but how many times did the philippines questioned the contracts made by Philippine gov’t to other countries??

  • http://jaoromero.com/ Jao Romero

    we are a country that enjoys frequent rainy days. that our people suffer from water shortage shows us how we lack imagination and/or ingenuity.

    it’s a simple thing to build drains on our roof that leads down to a tank with a filtration system.

    • JoseMaquiling

      That’s true. Why don’t we build a mega dike that can store rainwater. Or build a rainwater collection system all over the country. In Saudi Arabia, they’re lucky if the rain comes 3x a year. The King is asking his people to pray to God to provide more rain as their water consumption is rising every year. In the Philippines, you don’t have to pray to have rain. It comes naturally all year round. We are very blessed. We just don’t know how to make the most of what God has given us as our government officials are busy pocketing the taxes of our people through pork barrel. In fact, if we are just storing rainwater, we can filter and export them to Middle East countries. I think it’s high time now to get our imagination work.

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December 18, 2014

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