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‘First collision’

“THERE ARE only two families in the world,” Miguel de Cervantes, author of “Don Quijote,”  would muse. “The haves and the have-nots.”

The Malampaya Natural Gas Project in Palawan earned P77.1 billion over eight years. That’s chicken feed to oil-rich “haves” like Saudi Arabia. Oil wealth allows Riyadh to slam Indonesian and Filipina housemaids who seek a couple of hundred dollars increase in wages.

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“Let me tell you one thing I have against Moses,” the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir griped. “He took us 40 years into the desert and brought us to the one place in the Middle East that has no oil.”

Just like the Philippines? Nonetheless, we stood tall among the “haves” in other equally-valuable natural resources: lush forests, gushing waters and teeming seas. That’s past tense now.  “When God made the Philippines, it was perfect,” friends insist. “So, He made the Filipinos.” Look at our trees. One remains out of the 10 we originally had. Serial floods were the result, as we saw in water hyacinth-clogged Rio Grande de Mindanao. Torrents swept away between 74 to 81 million tons of topsoil. It takes nature a century to form an inch of topsoil, source of food for our children.

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The Philippine eagle, cockatoo and 87 other birds are critically endangered. Government banned the selling of giant clams abroad—a drastic reversal of our role as the world’s lead exporter. That parallels the timber trade’s collapse. In the 1960s, the Philippines strutted as the “prima donna” of log exporters. Today, we’re wood paupers.

Consider water. “We drink it. We generate electricity with it. We soak our crops with it. Yet, we’re stretching supplies to the breaking point,” says the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development. Really?

Many still reel from last week’s floods in Cotabato to Sultan Kudarat. Water was hip-high in parts of Metro Manila. Torrents  from denuded hills overflowed plastic-clogged drains and swamped downtown Cebu City.

Who used rain catchments to prepare for summer’s drought, asked Magsaysay Awardee Antonio Oposa. Summers are now longer, and cloudbursts are more frequent as the equatorial band of rains shifts, University of  Washington  scientists caution.

Our “water abundance” is a shattered myth. Each Filipino has 4,476 liters of “internal renewable resources.” Malaysians have 21,259 liters. Cebu City, siphons twice what its aquifers can recharge. Then Mayor Tomas Osmeña hired an 80-year-old “water diviner,” Soledad Legaspi.

“Lola Choleng “ had her task cut out for her. In China, India and the Philippines, total availability of water, per person per year, slumped below 1,700 cubic meters, Asian Development Bank notes. That’s the global threshold for water stress.

There is no substitute for water. You can’t drink oil. Every man, woman and child needs  almost four liters of water daily.  Rice and staples need 500 times as much water.

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Look at the Middle East where over 2 million overseas Filipino workers are deployed. Families fret about safety as the “Arab Spring” turns bloody, notably in Syria’s massacres. But spreading water shortages can trigger deeper upheavals, says Earth Policy Institute’s Lester Brown.

Next year, Saudi Arabia will have pumped its  aquifers dry. Riyadh will harvest its last wheat crop. Some 30 million Saudis—the equivalent of a Canada—will totally depend on imported grain then.

Yemen is now  a “hydrological basket case.” Like Cebu, it pumps aquifers beyond the rate of recharge. In the capital Sana’a, tap water trickles once every four days. The grain harvest has shrunk by a third over the last 40 years.

Populous Syria and Iraq depend for irrigation water from the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. Now these flows are drastically reduced.

Governments failed to mesh population and water policies. Daily, there are 10,000 more mouths to feed, and less water with which to raise food. Thus, “the world is seeing the first collision between population growth and water supply at the regional level,”  Brown writes. “For the first time in history, grain production is dropping in a geographic region. (There is) nothing in sight to arrest the decline.”

In Asia, births and migrants swell city populations by the size of a Seattle every three days. Will residents be split between water-haves and have-nots? And what can be done?

Leaders must face the fact that the era of abundant resources is over. Deepening scarcities are here to stay. “The time when you torched a hectare of trees to harvest 600 kilos of palay is gone,” forester Sudhakhar Rao wrote.

Policies must address underlying causes, not  symptoms. Polluter-pay-rules, for example, must be adopted. Strip away subsidies. Price scarce resources, like water, at their real cost. This shifts policy away from top-down edicts to incentives for conservation management.

“Singapore and Israel do a great job of conserving water,” ADB’s Arjun Thapan says. They set realistic tariffs and ensure waste water is treated and reused.

Reforms don’t come cheap. Curbing ecological plunder affects the wallets of the “haves”—the politically-connected, like the loggers in Congress. Reforms postponed cost more over the long haul.

The “have-nots” are victims. Most  can’t afford illness from dirty water or thin harvests. They  inflict havoc. They poach, overfish or raze trees to secure the next meal. They have few options.

“Attention is shifting  away from physical limits to growth,” World Bank notes. It  focuses on “incentives for human behavior.” The divide between the “haves” and  “have-nots” can be bridged.

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