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Water under the bridge

The water crisis in Manila is sizzling hot and making people perspire. It is so hot that it warranted a congressional hearing and condemnation from various sectors. The area affected was the eastern zone of Metro Manila and portions of Rizal. Manila Water is the service provider for that zone.

The sight of long queue of blue water containers snaked towards a spigot was indeed bothersome that government officials (and pundits) started a blame game that may well be water under the bridge. Sen. Grace Poe apportioned the blame more to the government officials (MWSS) and less to Manila Water. Still, she wants them all to resign for their hosed up jobs.

She was joined by the Makabayan block partylist representatives and demanded for the MWSS officials’ head and also for refunds. Caloocan Rep. Edgar Erice blamed the service provider – Manila Water – and wanted them penalized or at the least, for the company to give discounts to their Metro Manila/part Rizal customers in their March billing.

The president did not fire anyone but gave a stern warning that dismissal may come sooner for others than later, if the water situation does not improve. He then gave the marching orders to his officials to deal with it.

VP Leni Robredo, on the other hand, questioned the government’s decision to build the Kaliwa Dam through Chinese loans instead of a least costly public-private partnership (PPP) project. She cited a Japanese company who had offered to build and operate said dam in 2009 that was well in consideration until 2014. Robredo was referring to Global Utility Development Co. Ltd. (GUDC) who submitted an unsolicited offering over a decade ago and again more recently. She was also concerned on the possible displacement of indigenous people in the area.

There are also others hyperventilating and pontificating about government incompetence and some even hinted of corruption. Bottom line, there is a lot to unpack here to get to the truth. But first, the questions. Is there really a water crisis or are people just plain incompetent – or both, or better yet, just plain negligent? The BLUF (bottom line up front) here is that a lot of these finger pointing is Monday morning quarterbacking but the simple truth is that there is no water crisis in the real sense of the word. There is a temporary shortage not because of inadequate supply but because of significant leakage in the plumbing system, and well, MWSS officials’ incompetence for not staying on top of the water situation. MWSS and other government officials have read the writings on the wall that eventually water supply will have to be increased to meet the higher demands but relied instead on the concessionaires to make the move.

That’s not to say that this situation will not worsen. Factors that can worsen the shortage are further delays in the infrastructure projects, increasing consumer demands, and of course, Mother Nature. Summer is hotter and El Niño is already underway.

In reality, the so-called water crisis has been years in the making that goes back several administrations before Duterte. The El Nino phenomenon has been around for decades. But Duterte being the big honcho now faces this legacy problem. One of the things that Duterte has done to his credit, was to order the water concessionaires to release about 600,000 million liters to boost supply for about 150 days. The problem is that limited infrastructure limits the service providers to 4,000 million liters per day (MLD) and that amount is shared by Maynilad and Manila Water. Manila Water’s share is smaller at 1,600 MLD.

Meaning, there’s lots of water in the dam but the water infra is limited and crumbling and could not deliver the amount of water needed to satisfy everyone’s requirements. And according to Sen. Poe, government officials and service providers admitted that the plumbing system is so antiquated that it leaks like a sieve and that 40% of the water is lost through the leakage. MWSS officials knew this but were oblivious to the fact until Duterte’s volcanic dressing down.

When provision of water to the consumers was privatized in 1997 during President Fidel Ramos time, the contracts were awarded to two providers: Manila Water (Ayala) for the eastern zone, and Maynilad (Lopez) for the western zone. The eastern zone only had 3 million plus consumers then and covered only few cities. Now, the eastern zone has 9 million plus consumers plus more cities covered. This brings us to the infra projects.

Then President Ferdinand Marcos recognized the problem early on and proposed the building of the Kaliwa and the Laiban Dams. All the approvals were there and on his last month in office in January 1986, Marcos signed Proclamation 2480 reserving 4,424 hectares of the Marikina Watershed Reservation for the dams and accessory structures, that included 1,507 hectares of titled properties of MWSS in Rizal for resettling but the proposals were met with opposition from indigenous peoples and from leftist groups and obviously dragged on. President Cory Aquino deferred the project but President Joseph Estrada resurrected it. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had it funded through Chinese loans but later cancelled it when the ZTE Broadband project scandal broke open.

President Benigno Aquino III repackaged the deal and wanted it funded through Public-Private Partnership (PPP) but later rescinded it when the Investment Coordination Committee-Cabinet Committee (chaired by Aquino) met in 2014 and decided to shift funding of the project from the PPP mode to official development assistance, and completing the project in stages.

These are the same dams being proposed now. Duterte picked up from where Aquino left off, shelved the Laiban Dam project for now and pursuing the construction of the P18.75 billion pesos Kaliwa Dam project as part of his Build, Build project being financed by the Chinese.

The project has become controversial with the entry of a Japanese company (GUDC) who is trying to undercut the Chinese. GUDC’s resurrected proposal was to build a smaller dam and therefore technically would cost less. The Japanese proposes to build a seven meter weir versus a dam the Chinese wants to build. Critics are comparing the two proposals as if they are both apples and not apples versus oranges.

A weir allows water to go over it – its water over the dam, and then is funneled to a holding/treatment tank somewhere in Rizal. The dams themselves are located in Infanta, Quezon. The weir does not hold a significant amount of water, thus the potential for displacement of indigenous peoples is low. Whereas, a fifty-plus meter dam holds 600 million liters and release of such amount say during a strong earthquake or excessively heavy rainfall will inundate the indigenous peoples downstream.

But the problem with the weir approach is that it assumes Mother Nature will be cooperative every day to maintain a happy community. In reality, that is not always the case. During drought situation, the water level at the Kaliwa River may not even reach the top of the weir because of low water supply. When that happens, people will be shit of luck because drought sucks. A dam, however, saves during the rainy days for the dry season when demands are much higher. Besides, no such thing as free lunch. The Japanese might build it for free but the cost will be passed on to consumers in the form of higher rates.

The issue with indigenous peoples are more than just relocation or being threatened with severe flooding. Even if they are relocated, a common problem for them is lack of provision of government services because of their remote locations. So, government cannot just water down these concerns and start giving a damn for these people.

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