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First break

/ 12:08 AM January 13, 2015

Early January, 14,000 parched Metro Cebu water consumers started getting an additional 18,000 cubic meters. That surface water is piped in from Luyang town, 40 kilometers away. It is the first ever breakaway from crumbling underground aquifers overextracted by half of their recharge capacity.

“Did Cebu miss by the proverbial inch, the fate of Yemen’s cities?” We asked this in our Viewpoint column “Decisive turn” (Opinion, 3/24/12). “‘In Sana, the price of water bolted tenfold in some areas,’ the New York Times reports. ‘[It] could become the first capital ever to run out of water.’

“Wedged between Mexico and Guatemala, Mayan cities crumbled between 800 and 950 AD. Food systems collapsed and epidemics erupted when rainfall dwindled to less than half of normal, Science 2012 states.

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“Twelve miles east of the Taj Mahal, the ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri molders. Your footsteps echo in empty palace halls. Cawing crows swoop over deserted balconies. The city died when water cisterns ran dry.

“Saudi Arabia pumped its fossil (no-replenishment) aquifers dry, Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute notes. Riyadh harvested two years back its last wheat crop. Starting 2012, some 30 million Saudis—equivalent of Canada—will swap oil for imported grain.

“There is no substitute for water. ‘Twenty liters per person each day is the threshold requirement to meet basic human needs,’ UN’s Human Development Report states. Here, about 72 percent of water, from rivers or ponds, is unfit for human use.

“The Philippines is second to China in diarrhea-related deaths among children below five. Just washing hands can save lives. But first, you must have water. Hand-washing rates are three times higher in households with piped water. It is obscene ‘if people cannot drink water without courting disease or death,’ author Sandra Postel writes.”

Two years back, the Cebu provincial government and an Ayala-led consortium cobbled together a P702-million joint investment agreement that would allow the daily delivery of 35 million liters of potable water to a parched metropolis and northern towns. For the first time ever, surface water from Luyang River in Carmen town, was tapped.

Until then, 9 out of 10 cubic meters of water, quaffed in a metro area of 12 cities and towns, had been siphoned from narrow limestone underground reservoirs.

“Overpumping of these aquifers allowed seawater to irreversibly seep in more than four kilometers inland,” we noted in our Viewpoint column of Aug. 20, 2011. And in our March 24, 2012 Viewpoint, we rued: “This contamination wrecked irreversibly the city’s main source of water. Who will answer for this crime?”

Of 136 cities, Cebu is the most water-stressed. The province has only 2 percent of forest cover left. In-migration, industries and trade quadrupled the demand for water in less than half a century.

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In mid-1990, the sustainable capacity of aquifers in Cebu City had been exceeded 3.6 times and, in Mandaue, 7.4 times, an Ayala Land study found. If no reforms are adopted, Cebu’s groundwater will turn undrinkable. It will no longer be a question of supply, it will be a politically volatile issue of quality.

In 2007, water demand continued to pull away from supply, Cherry Ann Lim notes in “Vision of Thirst.” It continues to do so, but at an accelerating pace. Withdrawals are double what small reservoirs recharge.

For decades, the stark alternatives to overreliance on underground wells were: (a) total collapse of aquifers a la Yemen and Fatehpur Sikri, or (b) draw surface water from outside Metro Cebu.

Former mayor Tomas Osmeña’s three terms offered a window of opportunity to start reversing the slide into disaster. He opted for denial. “What water shortage?” he would dismiss warnings from the Asian Development Bank and the Delft University to the Water Resources Center at San Carlos University.

Osmeña bridged multiplying needs by overpumping depleted aquifers. He signaled ecological policy insolvency by hiring a water diviner. “Lola Choleng is 100-percent accurate,” he told a bothered media and an indifferent electorate. But voodoo didn’t resolve a crisis which he insisted didn’t exist.

Population, industries and commerce shoved Metro Cebu’s borders 40 km south and north. Today, they render obsolete Cebu City’s pretensions to be “first among equals,” or primus inter pares.

“History is a relentless master,” John F. Kennedy said. “It has no present, only the past rushing into the future. To try to hold fast to the past is to be swept aside.”

“We will not be trapped into similar inaction,” then Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia vowed when she signed the province’s first-ever surface bulk water agreement with Manila Water Consortium’s Gerardo Ablaza.

In this “public-private partnership” project, Capitol put money where its mouth was. It plunked down P49 out of every P100 for the project; the Ayala-led firm put in P51 for every P100 of the cost. But potable water will already be pumped into towns that the pipeline reaches.

Taps have now been opened. Even then, there’d still be a 15-40 percent shortfall in Cebu’s water supply.

Some P35 million was advanced to Carmen town, which is led by Mayor Martin Gerard Villamor. He has safeguarded watersheds and water use prudently—so far. “Will he shun doles and instead use the windfall to conserve this resource into the future?” Sun Star asked. “Maintain that record and Villamor will tower among Cebu’s leaders day after tomorrow.”

Today’s project started from the first red flags raised, in 1975, by Herman van Engelen of the Water Resources Center. This SVD priest-scientist retired in July 2011, a year before the launch of Cebu’s project. Prophets often yield to those who build on their vision.

Juan L. Mercado was a communication officer for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Bangkok, Thailand. Thereafter, he was posted in FAO headquarters in Rome, Italy, as attaché de cabinet. He wrote for the Inquirer as a regular columnist from February 2004 until December 2014.

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TAGS: column, Juan L. Mercado, overextraction, water, water shortage
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