Arsenic and other threats to our water quality | Inquirer Opinion
Second Opinion

Arsenic and other threats to our water quality

/ 05:10 AM June 07, 2024

Residents and local officials in at least two Laguna towns—Bay and Los Baños—are rightfully distressed over recent reports of high arsenic levels in their water supply. According to a 2021 Commission of Audit report that the recent outrage draws upon, arsenic levels in some areas are as high as 0.07 and 0.06 milligrams/liter (as in the case of Lopez Heights and Jubileeville, respectively), several times higher than the national “maximum allowable level” of 0.01 mg/L.

It has not helped that locals have long held grievances against the Laguna Water District Aquatech Resources Corp. (LARC), the water supplier for several Laguna local government units. As Joanna Patricia Padrid, the municipal administrator of Bay, wrote in a complaint before the Local Water Utilities Administration (LWUA), “The continuous water interruptions have disrupted daily life, affecting households, businesses, schools, and health-care facilities.” It is thanks to Raffy Tulfo’s program, concerned citizens like Genevieve Cayton (who initiated a petition), environmental scientist Jabez Flores (who called this to my attention), among others, that this relatively old concern has (re)circulated.

But people having to resort to “ipa-Tulfo” or “ipa-viral” to address a fundamental right raises deeper and even more problematic questions. For instance: why has this issue not been acted upon by LARC and the LWUA all these years; whether (and how long) has our water quality been compromised, and how the privatization of water in the 1990s, by privileging the profit motive on a public good, has impacted not just water access but also water quality.

In fact, arsenic has been a longstanding environmental health concern not just in Laguna but all over the country and around the world, with similar episodes of attention and outrage in Pampanga, Batangas, and elsewhere (see Faulmino and Rola, 2023 for a summary). As a naturally occurring volcanic byproduct (hence a particular concern around Taal and Pinatubo), arsenic has not historically been seen as a chronic health threat beyond acute toxicity from large doses. With the benefit of more research, however, it is now well established that long-term exposure to arsenic in drinking water, even at low levels, is linked to skin, bladder, and lung cancer, as well as diabetes; it is also linked to adverse pregnancy outcomes and infant mortality.


Such is the concern in European countries, like the Netherlands, that the goal is to keep arsenic to 0.001 mg/L, or 10 times less than our standards. Unfortunately, arsenic is not easily detectable, and its long-term effects, both on individuals and entire populations, are difficult to establish without expensive and equally long-term investigations, making it even more difficult to exact accountability and demand change. Such is the nature of what the South Africa author Rob Nixon, calls “slow violence,” that is, “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.”

Meanwhile, beyond arsenic, there are various other threats to the country’s water quality today. These include heavy metals like lead and mercury, as well as Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or the “forever chemicals” whose impacts scientists are only starting to understand. People and the government alike may be more concerned with water security, but ensuring water quantity and quality should not be mutually exclusive pursuits, especially if—as the evidence suggests—a failure to address quality can be even more costly for the country in terms of the economy, human development, and public health.

Perhaps more crucially, people actually care about water quality. In my own ethnographic research alongside professor Anita Hardon of Wageningen University and Research and our Embodied Ecologies team, we are finding that people use their own experiential knowledge and their senses to measure water quality, and that they engage in various practices—from waiting for the water to settle overnight, to buying water filters—to make water that is “puwede na” (good enough).

However, there are also limits to what people can detect with their senses, and what their knowledge can act upon, calling attention to challenges of water governance in the country, as the works of Agnes Rola, Maria Helen Dayo, Juan Pulhin, and colleagues (2015) have documented; indeed, a critical look at what actually gets tested and what gets acted upon by the government and private companies reveals an underlying “hydrological injustice.” For instance, as the environmental scholar Donovan Storey (2012) noted, typical measurements of the quality of Pasig River are anti-poor in the sense that they are designed to measure the “domestic waste” that comes from them—but not the heavy metals that come from factories and industrial enterprises.


Clearly, what is happening in Laguna and elsewhere in our water-surrounded but water-insecure archipelago is not just a matter of water quality, but of governmental responsibility and corporate accountability that call for engaged citizenship, sustained advocacy, and activism.



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