Our imperiled intimacy with water
Unsurprisingly for an archipelagic people, our past can be characterized as having an intimacy with water. Our ancestors established settlements near streams and lakes, traveled by boat through rivers and seas, and bathed with such frequency that the practice scandalized the Europeans who, for a long time, bathed no more than once a month. The fact that “Tagalog” and “Subanun” both mean “[people] of the river,” and Maranao “people of the lake,” further reflects the centrality of water in the everyday life, and even identity, of early Filipinos.
As Filipinos clustered (and were made to cluster) in cities, however, what was once an abundant natural resource began to require provisioning through artificial means (e.g., the Carriedo waterworks in the 1700s), making access to water a matter of governance and politics (e.g., privatization in the 1990s). Even so, many of us still took our water supply for granted.
The recent water shortages in various parts of the country, however, show that this privileged state can easily change. Indeed, we now live in a period of water insecurity brought about by both increasing demand and decreasing supply. Demand for water has sharply risen owing to the growth of our population; beyond household consumption, societies require water for a variety of purposes, from agriculture to energy.
On the other hand, freshwater supply has decreased owing to pollution, wastage, run-off, rainfall variability and deforestation. For a long time, environmentalists have been calling for stronger measures to protect watersheds like Ipo, but these calls have largely been drowned in the public discourse. The overall neglect of our forests has not just led to flooding, but also impacted our water supply.
While the dry spell may be gone for now, the same cannot be said of our urban poor, many of whom struggle to stay afloat amid a virtually permanent water crisis.
In an illuminating account of what it means to live with water insecurity, Lisa Reyes Mason (2012) interviewed residents of a marginalized community in Baguio City and documented their coping strategies, like collecting rainwater, restricting water usage during the dry season and lowering olfactory standards. As one of her informants said: “The CR smells bad because we are using laundry water. But you have to live with that.”
There was a cost involved in securing “water portfolios,” according to Mason’s study: An Orocan drum, for instance, “can consume almost an entire month’s income.” In the end, as Mason noted, “lower-income households… spend higher percentages of their monthly income on water than higher-income households.”
Meanwhile, water shortages are being invoked to justify the construction of more infrastructure, like the proposed Kaliwa Dam which locals in Daraitan fear will submerge their houses and livelihoods (i.e. ecotourism). Subordinating rural and environmental interests to urban demands, the dam is a reminder that our water supply comes at a price—even as political and economic actors strive to profit from it.
Our challenge is to manage water resources while minimizing impacts on local communities and environment, a challenge that entails consultations with both locals and experts, as well as improved governance of water agencies. Science and solidarity—not expediency and patronage—should guide water policy.
Another challenge is to urgently protect our watersheds. We need to support unpaid and underpaid forest guards, scale up reforestation efforts and put an end to destructive practices like illegal logging and mining. With so much at stake in our forests—climate change, health, disaster risk reduction—we must treat deforestation as nothing less than a national emergency.
Finally, the water crisis is a reminder that we are living unsustainably and we need radical changes in our lifestyles. Just like the traffic situation, it is a manifestation of failed planning and leadership, but there are nonetheless individual choices we can make to reduce our “water footprints.”
If we fail to act as individuals and as a nation, a dry future awaits us. Only by better managing our water resources, protecting our watersheds and rethinking our consumption practices can we continue our intimacy with water in the years to come.
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