El Niño and water use | Inquirer Opinion
At Large

El Niño and water use

Believe it or not, there are ways to cope with El Niño, even at the individual, family or household level. Or should I say especially at this level, where water usage is still manageable and measurable.

There is little we can do about the escalating heat, except perhaps if we cocoon ourselves in air-conditioned comfort 24/7. The absence of rain is also a problem beyond our reach, save perhaps for storming the heavens for timely precipitation or performing a rain dance. And even then, there are no guarantees that these will work. And beyond sympathizing with beleaguered farmers and farming families who can do nothing but watch their crops dry up for lack of water, we, too are helpless and can only wait for rain.


But, says Dr. Stuart White, a water demand management expert for USAID’s “Be Secure” Project, we can adopt measures at our own levels of comfort that, if wide-reaching enough, can redound to significant and long-lasting change, including conserving our water resources.

White should know, being Australian and having lived through 10 years of drought that, ironically, were capped by massive floods.


It was while coping with drought conditions even as its population was increasing during this “dry decade” that Australia found policies, measures and technologies to save on water use and mitigate the worst effects of this weather phenomenon.

For instance, it was Australians who invented the “dual flush” toilets, reducing the amount of water needed to get rid of toilet waste. White particularly rues the “wastage” involved in using clean, potable water to flush toilets, advocating instead the use of “double piping,” one providing the household with potable water, the other recycling used, albeit treated, water (such as for laundry) for toilet flushing and other uses. In fact, said Bebet Gozun, former environment secretary and climate resilience team leader of the “Be Secure” project, some malls here have already begun to use recycled water in their restrooms.

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Water demand management, say the “Be Secure” proponents, is a “short-term response to El Niño and a long term response to climate impacts on water.” It means “getting the most from the water we have,” including “any action that reduces the amount of fresh water we use, or that keeps water cleaner in the course of a particular use than it otherwise would be.”

In Sydney, says White, water use even during the drought did not increase despite a rise in population numbers. This was due, he said, to a combination of “improved efficiency that resulted in water savings” and new rules on water usage for all new construction, including the installation of the dual flush toilets, the requirement for the construction of rainwater storage facilities like cisterns, and labeling (or rating) of appliances according to their water consumption. (Front-loading washing machines, says White, consume far less water than top-loading ones.)

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El Niño here, says Gozun, affects different areas of the country in varying measures of severity.


Joining our media roundtable was the manager of the Zamboanga City Water District, which he said was particularly hard hit by this year’s El Niño. Unless mitigation measures are adopted early and massively, he said, the city will soon run out of water.

Public hospitals in the city, he said, are increasingly being filled with children suffering from diarrhea and other water-borne diseases, mainly because of poor sanitation at home and less-than-ideal measures to ensure the safety of drinking water.

“Be Secure” (it stands for Water Security for Resilient Economic Growth and Stability) materials point out several ironies in the water situation in the country, put into stark highlight because of the existing El Niño.

For instance, research says that on average, a person needs only 54 liters of water a day for drinking, hygiene, sanitation, food preparation and laundry. But the actual water use by Filipinos in 2014 was pegged at 98 liters per person per day. This, despite the reality that the Philippines has one of the lowest rates of freshwater availability per person in Southeast Asia.

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Here are ways to reduce water consumption and wastage at the household level:

Know your usage: Read your water meter, record the amount you use and try to reduce it.

Stop water leaks: Repair leaking faucets, showers and toilets. Put food coloring in your toilet tank and wait for five minutes. If it colors your bowl, your toilet tank has a leak; fix it.

Reuse existing water: Collect rainwater from roof gutters and reuse bath, dishwashing and laundry water to flush the toilet, wash floors and cars.

Minimize water usage: Your children and housekeepers may be the biggest water users in your home. Ask them to conserve water. Remove leftover food from dishes before washing them in a large plastic container. Wash cars infrequently. When washing, use a dipper (tabo) and a pail of reused water. Water plants in the early morning or late afternoon to minimize evaporation.

The clincher? “Wasted water down the drain is money down the drain.” You wouldn’t flush cash and coins down your toilet, would you? But that’s what we’re doing when we don’t watch our water usage and proceed as if we had all the clean and potable water at our disposal.

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TAGS: Climate, El Niño, wate conservation, water
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