The lifeblood of a nation
Water. Man can live for about three weeks without food, but he/she dies after three to four days without water. Water is essential to life. We in Manila are fortunate that the Ramos administration privatized water service. It turned a government-run disaster with only about a quarter of the population with on-tap water 24 hours a day to today’s situation where 98 percent of the Manila service area has 24-hour potable water access. Or at least those areas did, until the first week of March when supply to some 280,000 households ran out or became intermittent. This happened because sources of supply remained unchanged, even as there was a threefold increase in Manila Water’s service connections — to about 990,000 in 2019 from 325,000 in 1997.
Manila Water has been blamed for the debacle, but it shouldn’t be. Water concessionaires Maynilad and Manila Water have won a number of global awards recognizing their excellent performance, considered world-class for a developing country.
I blame previous governments. It has been known for decades that Manila needs more water sources. Yet government after government has dithered and done nothing. That’s where you should put the blame. In fact, the original concession agreement in 1997 required the government to provide an additional dam within 10 years. It didn’t. Manila Water saw the crisis coming and asked permission to develop other sources in February 2017, but the National Water Resources Board denied the request until March 2019. That meant two years were lost.
I don’t want to downplay the suffering of people who went through days without water. It’s not something we should ever have to experience, but we would have years ago if water supply wasn’t privatized. The Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) did a lousy job. When MWSS managed it, only 67 percent of the population was connected to the system. Of these, only 26 percent had 24/7 water service. System losses stood at an incredible 63 percent of total water production. But with Manila Water running it, it’s 12 percent.
It’s human nature to fly off the handle when things go wrong, but a little more balance could have been exhibited. Yes, it was bad that about 280,000 households suffered poor service, but they’d had 24/7 water practically uninterrupted for about 22 years. The exaggerated threat that there’d be no water worsened the situation as people scrambled to store more water than they needed, even those outside the affected area, draining La Mesa Dam, which is an important source for Manila Water.
What happened was the fault of previous governments sitting on their hands, not doing what was blatantly obvious: build another dam. It wasn’t the fault of the present MWSS leadership and the concessionaires, which already warned the public of the impending disaster. So why want the head of MWSS administrator Rey Velasco when he’s only been in the MWSS for two years? Go after his predecessors.
The water crisis we are now facing boils down to a root problem: the source — our one and only source, Angat Dam, and the La Mesa Dam it feeds. They cannot support the (too rapidly) growing population. What if there’s a massive earthquake, as Indonesia experienced, and the one dam we have is damaged? We’ll have no water, and millions will die. So it’s a relief that the Duterte administration did act and a contract has been signed to build the Kaliwa Dam—finally. But that will take about five years, so a quicker solution is needed.
The only feasible short-term solution is to tap Laguna Lake, and that can be done. In the longer term, though, Laguna de Bay must be cleared of fish pens and dredged. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo did issue a contract to a Belgian firm to do just that. President Noynoy Aquino, bless his heart, canceled it due to alleged irregularities. But in his do-nothing style, he never replaced it with something else. Laguna has since gone from 10 to 12 meters deep to 2.5 to 3 meters.
The water regulatory setup is a mess. Water regulation and management need to be under one authority, with one law. It should be adequately funded to deal with chronic water woes. The House Speaker has introduced a bill to create a water department. It should be supported, as we need a single agency with overall control of our water systems.
New clean water sources are needed with urgency, and people have to pay for it. People also have to conserve water because far too much is wasted. I’ve seen no discussions on being more thoughtful in our water consumption. Reducing our personal use is a whole other subject in itself, and the government needs to act on it, too.
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