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‘IOUs’ against tomorrow

/ 10:51 PM August 16, 2013

“Make failure your tutor, not your undertaker.” The Philippines’ 142 cities watch a tutorial unfold on Cebu’s spreading shortages of an irreplaceable resource: water. Diseases surge when taps run dry.

Quit drilling artesian wells, the Department of Public Services (DPS) urged Cebu this week. The city’s 1,345 wells is an undercount. Kampsax-Krüeger Lahmeyer International earlier estimated that parched residents had dug up to 5,000 wells. Most were hand pumps sans permits.

Salt irreversibly taints many urban aquifers, warned the DPS. Wells in mountain barangays are “not sustainable.” Once pumped dry, they’ll be difficult to replenish. In summer, over 42,000 residents must truck water in.


The “saline edge” seeped inland up to 150 meters a year, University of San Carlos hydrologist Herman van Engelen discovered in 1975. “Stanch it,” the SVD priest urged City Hall then, “or your children will never drink from those aquifers again.”

Just 50 liters of seawater can taint 1,000 liters of fresh water, cautioned the Water Resources Center (WRC). “It’d take three centuries to flush the salt.” From Delft University to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank urged reforms. The call fell on deaf ears.

The World Health Organization sets a 10mg/l safety cap on nitrate content in drinking water. A 2013 survey monitored 124 wells in Metro Cebu and found a 36-percent tainting surge, compared to 2012, Dr. Fe Walag of the WRC reports. The “saline edge” is now seven kilometers inland, shattering aquifers in 12 cities and towns.

Babies and migrants have tripled Cebu’s population in 40 years. They use 94 million cubic meters yearly. Demand will surge to 210 mcm/yr in 2030. By then, the population would have topped 4.3 million.

In 2005, WaterRemind published “Water for all Cebuanos.” This consolidated earlier studies and calculated costs for a supply of safe drinking water for some 1.5 million people in Greater Cebu. That study was ignored.

Cebu instead drew “IOUs against tomorrow.” It pumped double what aquifers recharged. This deficit caused water tables to slump twice as deep in a decade. Slum dwellers pay ambulant peddlers thrice the cost of piped water from a Metro Cebu Water District that serves less than six out of 10 homes. Industries are saddled with hefty bills for inadequate water.

The P136 million-plus city legislative building boasts of plush councilor seats. But it lacks a catchment to save rain, although Republic Act 6716 requires all to do so. In contrast, Singapore collects every drop of rain for funneling into 17 reservoirs.

How can 142 cities avoid similar water-policy bankruptcy?


Don’t ask ex-mayor-ex-congressman Tomas Osmeña. From Day One of his three terms as mayor, he insisted: “We don’t have a water problem.” Amen, chorused a stamp-pad city council.

Delusion doesn’t alter reality. The sustainable capacity of aquifers was “already exceeded 3.6 times” in the late 1990s, an Ayala Land study found. “If no reforms are adopted, groundwater will turn undrinkable. It’d no longer be a question of supply but include the politically volatile issue of quality.”

Before his election defeat, Osmeña hired “water diviner” Soledad Legaspi, 83, to locate wells. “She is 100-percent accurate.” But despite “Aling Choleng,” brackish water still spews forth from taps.

Cebu’s only escape hatch was to tap surface water from outside the city. The World Bank, Ayala  and several firms proposed to pump surface water from Carmen town 40 kilometers away. Osmeña and his councilors torpedoed the idea—and didn’t propose alternatives. This blindness necklaced Osmeña with a legacy of aquifers wrecked for centuries. It gutted a resource that makes disintegration the heritage for future generations.

“We will not be trapped into similar inaction,” then Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia pledged on signing the province’s first-ever P702-million agreement with the Manila Water Consortium. This will funnel 35,000 cubic meters daily to Cebu towns, including the city, by 2016. Still short of the demand by 18 percent, it’d ease the pressure on aquifers.

Cebu’s fiasco should prod 142 cities to look at Cambodia’s success. In 1992, the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority gurgled murky water for 10 hours daily to only 20 percent of the residents. Water theft topped 72 percent.

Reforms instituted over 14 years resulted in today’s 24-hour service to nine out of 10 customers. Illegal connections were whittled down to 6 percent. The firm won the 2004 Asian Development Bank Water Prize, the 2006 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, and the 2010 Stockholm Industry Water Award.

What unlocked this turnaround? “Leadership, professionalism and integrity,” said Director Ek Sonn Chan. Add to that “community participation and information sharing,” plus transparency and accountability.

Leaders of our 142 other cities must see water for what it is: a God-given, limited and irreplaceable resource, not a political bludgeon. Some cities are more endowed than others. But there is a common denominator: No one can afford to waste a drop.

Involve citizens in crafting water supply plans. Start by assessing the resource realistically. Tap expertise from agencies and universities to develop multiple approaches. That’d end reliance on a single source.

Then, conserve rain and rehabilitate watersheds. Penalize waste and reward conservation. Price water realistically. And remember to stash that water-diviner mumbo jumbo. “Make failure your tutor.” Otherwise, it will be “your undertaker.”

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TAGS: cebu, environment, Juan L. Mercado, opinion, Viewpoint, water
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