Dry taps on a rainy day

Heavy rains submerged a large swath of Metro Manila on Monday with most homes having to endure a knee-deep flood intrusion into their living rooms.

The sad part is that many of these households have been experiencing interrupted water supply for weeks. If only the unwelcome floodwater flowing into their living spaces could be turned freely and immediately into potable water!

Such is the sorry state that Metro Manila residents have to face daily, aside from the stress of being late for work or school because of heavy traffic, combating inflation, and a host of other worries.

Now, the country’s water managers could only wish for a timely intervention from nature. They are hoping for massive storms to fill up Angat Dam, the country’s main water reservoir. Perhaps, they should all consider doing a rain dance, a ritual to invoke rain performed by many North American tribes to induce rain, or copy Thailand’s “Cat Parade.”

But such desire could have disastrous consequences. The storms could wreak havoc on the agricultural sector; not to mention deaths and untold devastation on properties, which could displace thousands of communities directly on the path of the tropical storm.

As expected, the most our “distinguished” elected officials could do is to conduct another legislative investigation which, as previous experience has shown, oftentimes prove futile beyond giving them the opportunity to showcase their grandstanding skills for gut-wrenching soundbites.

Is there no win-win solution to this problem? Water levels at Angat Dam, which supplies water to Metro Manila and Central Luzon, could dive to the 160-meter critical level at any time. If and when that happens, Metro Manilans should expect the worst. Their allocation would be further reduced to 36 cms.

Manila Water Co. says it was “constrained to implement this new rotational scheme…. The additional reduction of 4 cms translates to a deficiency of 350 million liters per day, equivalent to the consumption of almost 700,000 population per day.”

The water provider, a subsidiary of Ayala Corp. in partnership with British and Japanese investors, adds that it needed to interrupt service “to almost all of our customers” to distribute “more equitably” the limited supply.

Maynilad Water Services, for its part, explains that it was forced yet again to interrupt services throughout its concession area to maximize the limited stock and ensure that all customers will have some daily water allocation. Maynilad is owned by Metro Pacific Investments Corp. and DMCI Homes.

It’s disheartening, to say the least. The country has abundant water resources from lakes, river systems and groundwater. It is estimated that we have fresh-water availability at 149.5 billion cubic meters per year. Despite this, millions of us still lack access to safe, clean and affordable water because of corporate greed.

Water distribution is being increasingly privatized, but access to affordable and uninterrupted water supply remains unresolved. Water privatization started in 1995 due to such issues as government inefficiency and corruption. Manila Water and Maynilad vowed to provide uninterrupted, cheap, safe and secure water supply.  But what happened is that water supply has become erratic and overpriced for corporate profit.  

Government records show that water rates have increased since 1995 by almost 900 percent for Manila Water and 600 percent for Maynilad. Net profits by the two companies have steadily increased through the years, reaching P3.3 billion for Manila Water and P5.6 billion for Maynilad as of 2018. The country’s water distribution system continues to suffer from supply problems and infrastructure defects, even as Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewarage System (MWSS) continues to fail in properly supervising and controlling water and sanitation services. 

The Local Water Utilities Administration is, likewise, powerless to regulate privatization because the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) has limited LWUA’s role to a mere observer during the so-called negotiations for joint-venture agreements between target water districts and the private proponent. 

My sources are saying that a “private proponent resorts to bribing local government units to influence, force or coerce resisting local water districts to agree to a joint-venture agreement.” As allowed by the Build Operate Transfer (BOT) law, JVA is just one of the many—but intriguingly the most commonly used —modes by private proponents under the private-public partnership scheme, despite the fact that other modes do not require private takeover of water system management and operation. 

According to my sources, water district consumers are not informed or consulted, and are generally unaware that their water district has already been privatized.

Note that before a water district can be established, the agreement of the affected people should firstly be secured and confirmed by Local Legislative Resolution through a series of public hearings. It is LWUA that confers the water districts a sort of franchise through a conditional certificate of conformance. By what legal authority is the privatized water district operating now? That is the big question because, as private entities, they are no longer under LWUA.

The bottom line is that the government is not only defaulting on its responsibilities to provide water in major urban areas, but also failing to regulate and hold accountable the private-sector players who have been raking in billions in profits, despite and even if they may not actually and fully fulfill their part of the agreement to provide customers with excellent water and sanitation services. Real big losers here are the consumers, particularly the poor and middle-income earners who have to bear the ever-increasing water bills to satiate the profit-making orientation of private business. 

For comments and suggestions, e-mail me at mvala.v@gmail.com

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