Breathing spell | Inquirer Opinion

Breathing spell

Come June, “I hope we can toast together,” Manila Water Consortium president Gerardo Ablaza Jr. said. Toast what?

Cheer the P1.1-billion Cebu Bulk Water Project when it will turn taps on. Then, 143 other cities will watch 35 million liters of surface water, from 40 kilometers away, start flowing daily into a metropolis parched into perennial crisis.


There’s no substitute for water. “The threshold requirement to meet basic human needs is 20 liters per person daily,” the United Nations’ Human Development Report states. And six out of ten Filipinos lack clean water. “Ang taong malayo sa tubig ay huwag hanapan ng linis,” a Filipino axiom says. He who is far from water should not be expected to be clean.

The Philippines ranks second in diarrhea-related deaths among children below five. Water can further whittle down 29 deaths per 100,000 births. Compare that to Thailand’s 15. These preventable deaths fracture the right of a child to celebrate his first birthday.


Since 1993, UN member-nations have marked March 22 as World Water Day. Rites here range from the planting of 7,000 mangrove propagules in Bacoor Bay to a concert at Glorietta. A science forum unreels in Singapore, where rains petered out mid-January.

Contrary to myth, Asia does not have abundant freshwater assets. Filipinos have 6,332 cubic meters available yearly. Malaysians have four times that, Canadians 12. Saudi Arabians have only 118 cubic meters. But they swap oil for water.

Both cities and barangay lag in conservation. The Rainwater Catchment Law requires local governments to save rainwater. So why hasn’t anyone built cisterns, as required by Republic Act No. 6716? Not a single centavo from the pork barrel of Jinggoy Estrada, Juan Ponce Enrile, Bong Revilla and other lawmakers went for cisterns.

Many local government units fixate on bagging internal revenue allotment slabs to boost personal allowances or craft “waiting shed” projects. To “compel government to implement a law stillborn from cynical indifference,” Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Antonio Oposa asked the Supreme Court to issue its first writ of kalikasan ever.

Future summers will be hotter—and permanently so—as the equatorial “band of rain” shifts, University of Washington scientists caution. Early in March, farms in provinces like Maguindanao and Albay were scorched from lack of rain.

The promised June toast, for a Metro Cebu of 12 cities and towns, offers welcome contrast. Until today, nine out of ten cubic meters of water quaffed in Cebu had been siphoned from limestone underground reservoirs. Most were drawn by unregulated wells. Migration and industries quadrupled demand for water in half a century.

Overpumping allowed seawater to seep in “more than ten kilometers inland.” If groundwater extraction continues, wells as far inland as Talamban will be irreversibly contaminated come 2025, the Japan International Cooperation Agency reported Thursday. About a fourth will be wrecked for good. It’d  take five centuries to flush out tainted aquifers.


This contamination has wrecked the city’s main source of water up to now. The Metropolitan Cebu Water District serves less than half of city households. A quarter of the projected new  supply is about equal the volume of freshwater lost to consumers every day, MCWD’s Ernie Delco said. It will take more just to stay put.

Rainfall that seeps into groundwater tables, especially in the key Maghaway Valley, cannot equal the extraction rate in a province scalped down to 2-percent forest cover. “The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain,” Eliza Doolittle sang in the 1964 Broadway play “My Fair Lady.” Not so here. Most of the rain ends in the sea as runoff.

Yet, there has been no shortage of red flags.  At the Water Resources Center of San Carlos University, Fr.  Herman Van Engelen, SVD, warned City Hall in 1975: “Your children will never drink from those wells unless the intrusion of salt into aquifers is stopped—now.”

The WRC tracked, over the next four decades, the saline edge advance from a seashore foothold to 12 kilometers inland, wrecking aquifers irreversibly.

Tomas Osmeña’s three terms as mayor offered a window of opportunity to start reversing Cebu’s skid into ecological disaster. But he opted for denial. “What water shortage?” he’d dismiss warnings from such institutions as Asian Development Bank and Delft University.

Osmeña bridged multiplying needs by overpumping already depleted aquifers. He signaled ecological policy insolvency last year by hiring a water diviner. “Lola Choleng is 100-percent accurate,” he told Cebu Daily News. “But voodoo didn’t resolve a crisis which he insisted didn’t exist,” the paper said. He was thrashed in the last elections, barely scraping through in his barangay.

“We will not be trapped into similar inaction,” then Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia vowed when she signed her province’s first-ever surface bulk water agreement with Manila Water Consortium. In this “private-public partnership” project, the Capitol put money where its mouth is. It plunked down P49 out of every P100 for the project; the Ayala-led firm put in P51.

The mint-new governor, Hilario Davide Jr., inherited, willy-nilly, the first-ever breakaway from overreliance on wrecking aquifers and shifting to groundwater. Even when toasts are offered, come June “there’d still be a 15- to 40-percent shortfall in Cebu water supplies.”

How well Davide handles this breathing spell will define his future. “History is a relentless master,” John F. Kennedy warned. “It has no present, only the past rushing into the future. To try to hold fast is to be swept aside.”

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TAGS: Juan L. Mercado, opinion, Viewpoint, water, World Water Day
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