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Commentary

What we need: Long-term water security

During his first State of the Nation Address, President Benigno Aquino III singled out the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) for all the wrong reasons. He painted the water agency as the mother of all corruption. The agency’s payroll reached an obscene P211.5 million annually. For every meeting, each director got P14,000 or P98,000 per month, plus P80,000 annual grocery incentive, a midyear bonus, productivity bonus, anniversary bonus, yearend bonus and Christmas bonus. Each director received P2.5 million exclusive of car service and other financial assistance.

But barely 11 months into the job, then administrator Gerry Esquivel and chair Ramon Alikpala turned things around. They replaced the board of trustees with  people of professional qualifications, stopped the financial hemorrhage by cutting down board meetings from seven times a month to only once a month, broke the bad habits of employees who were used to political patronage, instituted a series of seminars and lectures on professional management, etc. Most importantly, they laid down the groundwork of a transformational plan that would assure long-term water security for the rapidly growing population of Metro Manila.

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The components of the plan were: water infrastructure development; natural water resource management and protection; disaster management and mitigation; management of water distribution, sewerage and sanitation through closer concessionaire partnership; and water appreciation and discipline.

Under Esquivel, the MWSS reasserted its role as overseer of the metropolis’ water supply. While various aspects had been devolved to private concessionaires Manila Water and Maynilad, which had to their credit fulfilled most of their key performance commitments, the MWSS assumed ultimate responsibility for an adequate and safe water supply.

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MWSS officials worked jointly with the  two concessionaires to draw up a comprehensive road map for water and waste management of Metro Manila. They revised standards and challenged old practices. Using the concession agreement as guide, they redefined roles and relationships between MWSS and the two concessionaires.

One of the most ominous situations at the time was the almost exclusive reliance on the La Mesa watershed for our water needs, which Alikpala likened to putting all our eggs in one basket. The MWSS board and management teams prioritized the exploration and development of new water sources. Studies on water demand and pricing were completed. The World Bank and the Japan International Cooperation Agency gave generous grants, and local partners like the University of the Philippines National Engineering Center and the National Water Resources Board huddled with the MWSS to come up with imaginative solutions.

Esquivel’s team made a study of seven alternative priority water sources to address a demand gap of an estimated 500 million liters per day by the end of President Aquino’s term. They put together a set of proposals to develop Kaliwa Dam as a public-private project that would have assured adequate water supply for  many years. But the incoming new administration decided to obtain funds through government loans from other countries, which completely derailed the project.

MWSS was spearheading the creation of a comprehensive watershed protection and management plan for a number of watersheds, including Umiray, Ipo, Angat, La Mesa and Marikina, with other agencies and nongovernment organizations included in the effort. Even Manila Bay continued to be under the watchful eye of MWSS, which tasked the concessionaires with sewer and sanitation coverage targets, treatment of pollution loadings and such.

MWSS scrutinized its concessionaire partnership and business plan, including rate rebasing preparations (which ultimately puts your monthly bill under the microscope). Entitled “Water Appreciation and Discipline Communications,” the plan was four-pronged and highly operationalized.

During the Aquino administration, the MWSS was planning for the far future. It was able to shed its mantle of shame to assert its role in assuring the water supply of the country’s premier metropolis. We hope the present MWSS team will revisit what Esquivel and his management team had begun, and focus on leaving a water security legacy for the next 50 years.

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Carlos A. Agatep is chair and CEO of Grupo Agatep.

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TAGS: Carlos A. Agatep, Gerry Esquivel, Inquirer Commentary, MWSS, Ramon Alikpala, water security, water shortage
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