The water-supply crisis being experienced in the east zone of Metro Manila is expected throughout summer, or at least until the onset of the rainy season in June, according to the country’s weather bureau.
While the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS), along with its water concessionaires, the Ayala-led Manila Water Co. Inc., the Pangilinan-led Maynilad Water Services Inc. and Ramon Ang-led Bulacan Bulk Water are now working together promising better days ahead, the country’s climate outlook is not as promising.
Incidentally, the water-supply shortage happened as the country observed the World Water Day on March 22. The World Water Day is an annual United Nations event that highlights the importance of freshwater.
Based on the Climate Outlook released by the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Authority (Pagasa) for March to August 2019, below normal rainfall conditions are expected in Luzon in the next three months, and the situation will only improve as it begins to receive above-normal rainfall in July.
The Philippines, a country of 7,641 islands and islets, is blessed with abundant water supply. It has 142 critical watersheds, 18 major river basins and 421 principal river basins.
On top of these potential surface freshwater sources, the country also has an abundant supply of groundwater, which, however, needs replenishment during the rainy season.
Without rain, many of these water sources are depleted as they are also used for irrigation.
Demand and supply
The MWSS, led by Administrator Reynaldo V. Velasco, and Manila Water through its President Ferdinand de la Cruz, explained the reasons behind the severe service interruptions to the public. They were quick to blame the source of supply shortage to a combination factors. These include the increase in population and unusually huge demand for water from its growing number of customers.
They added that it is aggravated by the weak El Niño, the depleted water supply in the La Mesa Water Reservoir and the limited supply and allocation from Angat Dam, the single major water source for Metro Manila’s more than 12 million population, and other water consumers in nearby provinces.
The 4,000-million-liters-per day (MLD) water-supply allocations for Maynilad and Manila Water for their customers in Metro Manila and nearby provinces is the maximum capacity of the installed aqueducts and conveyance pipes from Angat to Ipo to La Mesa dams.
Receiving 1,600 MLD, or 40 percent of the total raw water supply allocated for Metro Manila, Manila Water said it has been drawing water from La Mesa Dam since 2016, to cover for the supply shortage of at least 140 MLD as total demand by its approximately 6.8 million customers continues to increase over the years.
In February, the demand peaked to 1,740 MLD. Unfortunately, it happened during a time when water in La Mesa Dam has reached a critical level because of rainless days since December last year.
The water-supply shortage would have been cushioned by the on time commissioning of Manila Water’s Cardona Water Treatment Plant Project.
It was supposed to be completed and working as early as December last year.Once fully operated, the treatment plant could produce at least an additional 100 MLD, with the supply coming from Laguna de Bay.
Maynilad, which already has the Putatan Treatment Facility in Muntinlupa, has been producing 150 MLD of water from Laguna de Bay. This augments the company’s water allocation of 2,400 MLD, or 60 percent, of total water allocation coming from Angat Dam.
However, due to engineering design flaws, the project’s implementation was delayed, hence, the facility’s commissioning did not materialize as planned.
El Niño, climate change
As residents in areas of Metro Manila grapple with water scarcity for several days now, the Manila-based Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC), a climate and energy policy group, believes that climate change would only exacerbate existing risks and development issues.
Renato Redentor Constantino, executive director of ICSC said in a recent statement that climate change would only intensify existing challenges in securing water supply, particularly in urban and agricultural areas.
“Pagasa has already projected large variabilities in rainfall and dry seasons, which would be amplified by climate impacts,” he said.
A perennial problem
According to Constantino, water scarcity is an annual concern, especially during the summer season, which is why it is alarming that residents in areas of Metro Manila have not had water for several days.
The predicament of Manila Water customers started on March 6, when the company finally had very little water both from Angat and La Mesa dams to distribute to its customers.
“It is high time that the government takes a deeper look into how salinization, land and forest degradation, and other creeping impacts of climate change are baked into the government plans and budgets. More coordination and foresight is required among government, suppliers and regulators, but there is still time to address the challenges we face and stave off a full-blown water crisis,” he said.
Not too fast…
Other environmental groups, however, were quick to point out that while El Niño and climate change may have something to do with the water-supply scarcity in general, in this particular episode, mismanagement of the water service provisioning is the culprit.
Sought for comment, they said it is unfair to blame El Niño and climate change for the current predicament of Manila Water’s customers.
Paolo B. Pagaduan, focal point person for water of World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-Philippines, said the weak El Niño has just started and the Angat and Ipo dams are still practically full.
“The problem is with the rate of consumption or demand from Metro Manila,” Pagaduan said via messenger on March 15.
He said if the demand exceeds the maximum capacity of the conveyance of raw water from Angat to Ipo and eventually to La Mesa Dam, which is 4,000 MLD, Manila Water will naturally start to eat up the reserves at La Mesa.
“I think this is more of an issue on the demand side and not on the supply side,” Pagaduan said.
According to Pagaduan, it is likely that the current predicament of Manila Water customers will continue until the onset of the rainy season because we are not expecting rain until then because of El Niño unless the demand side of the problem is addressed.
“Similar to what they did in Capetown, South Africa, last year… because their reservoir dried up due to a three-year drought, they had to set limits to the use of water to 105 liters per capita per day [l/c/d]. Metro Manila middle-class families use about 200 l/c/d. Industry and commercial sectors use a lot of water, too, but Metro Manila is mainly domestic. If we can reduce our demand, then maybe the water will be enough,” he said.
According to Pagaduan, MWSS focuses on the supply or distribution side of the equation as it is “part of their mandate.”
“What they don’t discuss is how we can make do with the waters that we do have now because selling water is also their business. Reducing sales is not in their interest. We will need new water sources to accommodate increased demand from population growth and/or decrease the demand side,” he pointed out.
This is why the twin goals of WWF as an environmental solution provider, he added, is to increase biodiversity, which will cover the supply side, and decrease our footprint, which covers the demand side.
WWF has long been coming up with ways to reduce the consumption of clean water. Practical tips on water recycling, if observed, could go a long way in boosting water security, he said.
“Water-resources management should cover both the supply and demand side,” he said.
Overconsumption, lack of water source
Rodne Galicha, country director of the Climate Reality Project-Philippines agreed with Pagaduan’s observation.
“Right now, I don’t think climate change has had a significant impact on the water crisis in Metro Manila. Only the La Mesa Dam has approached critical water levels, while the Angat and Ipo dams have not. Given that a weak El Niño has only begun, it is unlikely the ‘crisis’ is due to climate change,” he said.
According to Galicha, overconsumption, lack of other water sources for the dam, and poor planning are the primary reasons for the current situation.
“I would like to emphasize that we are in danger of using climate change as an excuse for our problems when a closer look tells a different story,” he pointed out.
Dams: A false solution?
Galicha said building large dams would not address the water-security problems facing the Philippines.
“The Kaliwa Dam is a false solution, in my opinion. Overconsumption is not fixed by giving us another potential water source because it won’t change our behavior regarding our environment. And it needs to change this time,” he said.
He added that the Kaliwa Dam would also displace indigenous peoples and endanger our biodiversity.
“History keeps repeating itself. We, as a nation, never seem to learn. It is our very neglect of our environment and even our fellow Filipinos that keep leading us to messes like this. And yet we end up resorting to these same moves that we think improve the life of everyone, but in truth only benefits a select few and make it worse for the many,” he lamented.
Efficient water use
So how do we ensure water security without large dams? Through “efficient water use, proper planning for routing water sources,” he quipped.
Galicha said if there is one important lesson that can be drawn from the current episode of the water-supply crisis, it is the need for more environmental awareness, as always, especially about just how big the impacts of climate change can be at specific cases, and the need for better integrated water resource management (IWRM), the need for behavioral change.
Leon Dulce, national coordinator of Kalikasan-People’s Network for the Environment, said the Philippines is objectively facing drier conditions from an El Niño cycle that scientists have ascertained is amplified by climate change compared to 50 years ago.
“In normal conditions, we should still have sufficient water supply to cover the increasing demand. But the recent problem with Manila Water’s water supply is more of a mismanagement problem, where the private water utility overextended its coverage without making the necessary infrastructure upgrades,” he said.
According to Dulce, water utilities in the hands of private companies have been proven to be a bad deal once again.
“A public utility must be run by the State as a public service, not as a profit-driven scheme that is constantly prone to market failures. The management of our water resources should also have long-term climate projections in full consideration,” he said.
Moreover, Dulce said the country’s forests must be protected and enhanced to improve the water-retention capacity of our watersheds.
He also believes that building dams like the Kaliwa Dam, or any other dam for that matter, is yet another quick-fix solution that will do more harm than good.
The Kaliwa Dam, he said, will have adverse long-term consequences on our water supply.
“The dam will destroy over 2,300 hectares of protected forest areas, thereby, eroding the capacity of our watersheds to sustain water and prevent siltation. Mega-dams also have other consequences, such as the disruption of forest and river biodiversity, contribute to climate change through the degradation of biomass that it will submerge in its water reservoirs, and its subsequent release of greenhouse-gas emissions, and heightening of flood risks,” he said.
Water security sans dams
According to Dulce, there are other ways of improving water supply other than dams.
“We can develop alternative technologies, such as rainwater catchments and wastewater-recycling systems. Water utilities also have a long way to go insofar as improving water-efficiency rates through the repair of leaks is concerned,” he said.
He insisted that protecting and enhancing the country’s forests is a key long-term alternative to dams, as it will improve the watershed’s capacities over time.
“We do not need new dams to divert more water from other rivers if our watersheds supplying water to the existing dam facilities are buffered and enhanced. Rain catchments placed across the Metro Manila basin can also complement the existing water infrastructure,” he added.
According to Dulce, a healthy mix of alternative water technologies means that the country is more resilient to climate shocks that may affect one or two major sources.
Image credits: Bernard Testa