Water access in a pandemic
Face mask: check. Physical distancing: check. Handwashing: Um, with what water?”
This is now a common grievance in many Philippine towns, as water shortages persist in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s absurd that something as simple as handwashing—a practical, affordable way to curtail the spread of the coronavirus—is not even doable in a country surrounded by water. Our communities are pretty much left on their own to withstand the lack of lifesaving essentials such as hygiene and sanitation.
Study upon study has pointed out that Filipinos’ access to clean water is mismanaged. One such study, published in the Philippine Journal of Science, concluded that
“[i]nappropriate water governance at various levels contributes to ‘artificial scarcity’.”
Water scarcity being “artificial” doesn’t mean that our water resources don’t get depleted, or that low water levels are a hoax. What it refers to is the mismatch between water supply and demand, which is largely due to water administration weaknesses.
There are numerous points along the water supply system that need improvement. Some issues often cited: The water governance sector is fragmented, making it difficult to adopt and implement policies; watersheds are mismanaged and underprotected; freshwater ecosystems are polluted; the infrastructure of service providers is sorely deficient in quality (pipe leaks and power outages at wells are especially common).
These weaknesses also amplify inequities in water access—why some communities experience water stress much more sharply or frequently than others do. It’s no secret that while wealthy neighborhoods rarely worry about water supply, those of us in rural and congested urban communities have to contend with rotating water interruptions and waterless spells.
A joint report by the World Health Organization and Unicef confirms that access to basic water services is 99 percent among the one-fifth richest households in the Philippines, but only 80 percent among the poorest quintile.
Poor water governance is sadly not new to us, and it should have been given more serious consideration ages ago. We have yet to see how this pressing need is prioritized by the government now that we are faced with a health crisis.
Last year, one of the priority bills enumerated in the President’s State of the Nation Address (Sona) was the creation of the Department of Water Resources. This Cabinet department is aimed to streamline the administration of our water, a task currently spread across dozens of government agencies whose functions are fragmented and sometimes overlapping.
The creation of an integrated water department is hoped to minimize inefficiencies that plague water administration. It should also mean a more solid regulatory structure to oversee water service providers, and subsequently, should give us customers better service. (Theoretically.)
As of this writing, the bill establishing this department is still awaiting comments from the House committee on ways and means and committee on appropriations. Will it get renewed attention in the upcoming Sona, and will it remain a priority in the following months?
Reforms in water governance are something we should be watching closely and talking about more. We’ve become so used to rotating interruptions and adapting our daily routines to supply schedules that we forget how water is a basic utility we should be expecting in our towns and cities. Isn’t it awful that a country so proud of its modernity and globalization still has its citizens rely on imbak (water fetching and storing)? This practice should have become unnecessary by now, especially as we’ve had plenty of opportunities to improve from the shortages of the 1990s and the droughts of recent years.
On top of being a basic utility, water is a most essential human right. Not just a service to wait for (like, say, transportation or internet coverage), but an actual need for our well-being. We are entitled to water. We are not supposed to tolerate being deprived of it, especially not in a time when clean water can spell the difference between health and grave illness.
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