Drinkable water is going down the drain; we need plans for Southeast Asia

September 04, 2015 News

The Philippines is one of 37 Asian countries cited by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) as “either suffering from low levels of water security or have barely begun to engage in the essential task of improving water security.” In 2013 the ADB said local public utilities responsible for providing water and sanitation services to local communities “were found to lack capacity in all aspects of sustainability, including effective functioning, financing and demand responsiveness.”

And that the United Nations (UN) estimates 780 million people lack access to safe drinking water worldwide. By 2030, the UN says some 47 percent of the world’s population will live in areas of “high water stress” or a scarcity of drinking water. Wars fought over water are now increasingly being viewed as an inevitable part of humankind’s future landscape.

What this tale of woe means is the Philippines is facing an imminent water crisis. This crisis will affect both freshwater sources (the source of drinkable water) and drinkable water sources.

The worst-case scenario predicts a water crisis in the Philippines by 2025. This prediction by the Japan International Cooperation Agency identified Metro Manila, Metro Cebu, Baguio, Angeles and Davao as among those to be worst hit by a severe water shortage by 2025.

Knowledge of this impending emergency prompted the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines to schedule for the fourth quarter of 2015 the Water Challenge Forum 2015, with the theme “Managing Water Strategically with Sectoral Stakeholders.”

The forum will be a multisectoral gathering involving the government, water utilities and private business firms that together will discuss issues, such as increasing sustainable access to water supply, water security, conservation, water management and the perspective of the leading water users, especially agriculture that accounts for up to 85 percent of the freshwater used in the Philippines every year.

What is needed is the creation of the “water super agency” that combines the key functions spread out over 37 government bodies. This super agency, given the name of the National Water Resources Management Office (NWRMO) back in 2011, would be under the Office of the President and will absorb all the economic regulation functions of agencies in the water- supply sector. It has always been known that far more effective interagency coordination for water-sector planning and monitoring is imperative for sustainable development to succeed.

The NWRMO is to be responsible for management and protection of water resources for domestic water supply; irrigation; fisheries; hydropower; sanitation; aquaculture; flood control; navigation and recreation and control of water pollution and environmental restoration. To be the hardest-hit by this life-threatening water crisis a scant decade away will be the poor, which are also the hardest-hit today. It remains a humiliating fact that the poor pay a whole lot more for water than any other social class.

A UN study in 2006 revealed that families in Manila slums “pay five to 10 times more for water” than those from wealthier areas. The Filipino poor also pay more for water than those in London and New York since middlemen sell potable water to them at atrociously high prices. Also, the Philippine Human Development Report reported that one in every five residents imbibes water from unsafe sources in 24 provinces.

By 2025, all of the following three goals must be accomplished: universal access coverage and sustained utility operations; continued coverage expansion of existing formal utilities at par with population growth and regulation of all water service providers.

But to comprehend the challenges facing the next administration, needs to know what is possible given restrictions posed by the country’s natural resources. Up to 85 percent of the Philippines’s water demand comes from agriculture. Industry and the domestic sector are the next largest water consumers. The Philippines’s freshwater supplies (the source of drinkable water) seem huge. Its total surface freshwater supply in dams, lakes, rivers and streams is placed at 146 billion cubic meters, while the total amount of groundwater (or water beneath the Earth’s surface in aquifers or rock formations) contributes another 20 billion cubic meters.

These water resources can ideally supply some 479 billion cubic meters annually, or 6,000 cubic meters per person, which is some 17 times the use per person today. Freshwater is water containing less than 1,000 milligrams per liter of dissolved solids. Globally, only 2.5 percent of the water that covers over 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is considered freshwater.

These freshwater sources are found in 1,830 square kilometers of rivers and lakes; 421 principal river basins; 79 natural lakes; over 100,000 hectares of freshwater swamps and 50,000 square kilometers of groundwater aquifers recharged by rain and seepage from rivers and lakes.

While the onus of protecting freshwater sources rests with the state that owns all water sources in this country, citizens can play a key role by conserving water.

In March 2015 the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) urged the public to conserve water in the face of El Niño that might cause water shortages. Among the water conservation measures for households being encouraged by the MWSS include using a pail and dipper instead of the shower; turning off the tap while washing, shaving or brushing teeth; not thawing frozen food under a running tap; watering plants or lawns during cooler parts of the day and regularly checking water pipes for leaks. Individuals can start their conservation efforts by realizing freshwater is a finite resource that will one day be in dangerously short supply if wasted on needless activities, such as watering house plants daily or washing cars with too much water.

In addition, the government and the private sector work more closely together to tackle the more pressing challenges to ensure future freshwater water supplies. Among these major challenges are privatizing other government-owned water utilities using improved versions of the Public-Private Partnership model adopted in the Manila Water and Maynilad privatizations. 

Source: Business Mirror