Manila Water Co. warned in August last year that there could be a water shortage in its concession area as early as 2021 because the country’s regulators had not approved its plan to build a new water treatment plant in Pakil, Laguna.
The shortage, however, is now being felt two years early, as the taps in many of its concession areas began running dry starting last week. What gives?
The company issued a cryptic advisory close to midnight on March 7 saying that, because of “threat to Metro Manila’s domestic water supply” and to help “arrest the rapid decline” of the water level at La Mesa Dam due to El Niño, it was going to reduce water pressure or shut off supply completely during “peak demand hours.” Soon after, long lines of people, angry and frustrated and carrying an assortment of containers, began to sprout in Manila Water’s concession areas around the metro, including Pasig, Marikina, Mandaluyong and Quezon City. Some residents were forced to skip work just to make sure they were around when fire trucks came to distribute water. In some communities, residents went without water for up to six straight days.
The company said the supply shortage was compounded when people in areas not directly affected by the restricted water flow, perhaps scared of being similarly affected, started storing water at the same time, further depleting supply.
On Thursday morning, the water level at La Mesa Dam, where Manila Water had been getting its water, dropped to 68.74 meters, below the critical level of 69 meters, the lowest mark in 21 years, according to Pagasa. A day before, the dam stopped supplying the Balara filtration plant used by the company. Another La Mesa water treatment plant to the east is getting less and less water from the dam. Meanwhile, Angat Dam is now supplying water directly to Balara.
But is El Niño the culprit in the current water problem? Pagasa weather specialists do not agree; the problem isn’t as widespread, they pointed out. Other dams do not have the same problem as La Mesa. Also, El Niño is a predictable phenomenon, which should have given the company and water authorities enough time to prepare contingency measures for it.
Manila Water said it could have alleviated the supply shortage if its water treatment plant in Cardona, Rizal, had been finished as planned last December, but technical problems caused by the inadequate design of its contractor held up its opening. More ominously, it said no immediate relief is in sight, because its supply of water from Angat Dam was no longer enough for its growing number of customers, who will have to bear with six to 20 hours of daily water service interruptions until the rainy season sets in.
How is this an acceptable explanation? The water utilities were privatized on the premise that private companies like Manila Water would be able to supply this essential need more efficiently and reliably. Are there other problems directly concerning the public that the water concessionaire is facing—and that it is not disclosing? That it seems unable to get its story straight at this point only heightens frustration and speculation. Also, are responsible company officers being held to account for this fiasco?
To help Manila Water cope with its problem, the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System has requested the National Water Resources Board to allow the company to draw up to 100 million liters from deep wells, and the other concessionaire, Maynilad Water Services, to share 50 million liters daily of its own supply.
Meanwhile, the government conveniently took the water shortage as an opportunity to press the case for the P18.7-billion China-funded Kaliwa Dam project, also called the New Centennial Water Source Project, as supposedly the answer to the water shortage in Metro Manila. “Had this been done before, the water crisis could have been much less of a threat,” said Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III.
Too late and too useless for now for such tsk-tsking on the part of the government, which should have done its part to expedite the plans for greater water security in the metro and its environs. The emergency task at hand is to ensure that adequate water supply is available in the next months, especially as the searing summer season unfolds. The old issues regarding the lack of long-term solutions to the perennial problem of inadequate basic services for the people are once again floating to the surface, and in the face of this all-too-sudden crisis—with people stewing in anger and discomfort, unable to wash or do the daily routines that allow for a measure of decent living—any mealy-mouthed, less-than-transparent explanation from either Manila Water or the government is dead in the water.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.