First published by the Philippine Online Chronicles
President Benigno Aquino III will hold his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday, July 26 amid a water shortage engulfing a substantial portion of Metro Manila, with long queues for rationed water becoming a common sight.
Meanwhile, about two weeks ago, around the same time when the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) announced another rate hike, a brownout hit the President’s residence at Times Street in Quezon City which he blamed for arriving late for an appointment. Rotating brownouts have been just as frequent as power rate hikes in the past couple of months.
“Wala nang kuryente, wala pang tubig, ang taas pa ng singil” is the common man’s complaint.
The double whammy of water and power crises, of supply disruptions and skyrocketing rates is being felt not only in the metropolis but nationwide. Government officials and private utilities have pinned the blame squarely on force ma jeure like the prolonged dry spell and slow dam replenishment due to lack of enough rains.
However, there are obvious policy issues that the latest episodes in water and power supply insecurity have brought to the fore. Considering their immediate and long-term effects on the people’s welfare and overall economic development, Aquino is expected by the public and policy makers to outline in his SONA how the administration plans to address these recurring problems.
Magnitude of the water shortage
According to the latest update from the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), 344 barangays (villages) with close to 3 million people in the service area of Maynilad Water Services Inc. are already affected by the water shortage. The number is almost half (49 percent) of the entire West Zone concession area of Maynilad, which together with its East Zone counterpart Manila Water Co. Inc., took over the water distribution function of the privatized Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) in 1997.
Maynilad chief operating officer Herbert Consunji disclosed that as of July 20, at least 18 percent (equivalent to some 450,000 people) of those affected by the water shortage in the West Zone can be considered as “severely affected”. This means that these areas have available water supply for only up to six hours at most or none at all.
In an earlier advisory posted on its website, Maynilad said that among those severely affected are 22 barangays in Quezon City, 13 barangays in Caloocan City, 4 barangays in Malabon, 4 barangays in Valenzuela City, 2 barangays in Las Pinas City, and 1 barangay in Navotas. The Pangilinan-Consunji-controlled water utility has already deployed 28 tankers to ration water in these areas. Reports say that residents are forced to line up as early as 5 AM and wait for Maynilad’s tankers.
In the service area of Manila Water, a smaller 21 percent is being affected by the water shortage, according to DPWH Secretary Rogelio Singson as quoted in a news report. The Ayala-led water firm in a separate report admitted that there is already a gradual reduction in water pressure in elevated within its concession area such as in parts of Pasig, Marikina, Cainta, Rodriguez, Taguig, and San Mateo in Rizal province. Manila Water may also have to resort to water rationing if the water level in Angat Dam – where they and Maynilad get 97 percent of their water supply for the domestic needs of Metro Manila and parts of Cavite and Rizal – will not improve in the coming months.
Blame it on the (lack of) rain
Due to a depleted water level because of the El Niño phenomenon, the private water concessionaires said that their water allocation from Angat Dam has substantially declined. DPWH reported that at present, Maynilad is actually receiving 1,800 million liters per day from Angat Dam, down from its normal level of 2,400 million liters per day (a 33.3 percent reduction). Manila Water, on the other hand, has seen its allocation dwindle to 1,245 million liters per day from 1,600 million liters per day, or a 28.5 percent reduction.
Latest update from the MWSS on the water level in Angat Dam pegged it at
158.2 meters above sea level (masl) as of July 21. A day before that, it dropped to 157.56 masl, lower than its historic low of 158.15 masl in September 1998 which was also an El Niño year. Authorities said that recent typhoons “Basyang” and “Caloy” did not substantially replenish Angat Dam, adding up a combined 27 centimeters only. The critical level of Angat Dam is pegged at 180 masl, which was breached in April during the height of the latest El Niño. Without heavy rains, the dam’s water is expected to further recede to 147 masl by September. At 120 masl, the dam could no longer provide water for Metro Manila’s domestic consumption.
Rotating brownouts, power rate hikes
The lack of rains and depleting water level in the country’s major dams because of the El Niño have also been blamed for the power crisis – characterized by rotating brownouts and spikes in electricity rates – that has hit the country this year. In March, the power supply deficits reached record highs with Luzon experiencing a shortfall of 641 megawatts (MW) and Mindanao, 700 MW, according to the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP).
Meralco had to implement a 90-minute power supply disruption throughout the day because of the supposed deficiency in available electricity. In Mindanao, blackouts have lasted by up to 12 hours a day, a situation that began as early as February. The southern island heavily depends on hydro power for its electricity needs, with hydropower plants accounting for 53.1 percent of Mindanao’s generating capacity, according to data from the Mindanao Economic Development Council (MEDCO).
But low water levels derailed the operation of these power plants. The 727-MW Agus and 255-MW Pulangi hydroelectric power plants, for instance, experienced an 80 and 90 percent reduction in capacity, respectively because of the prolonged drought. The water level in Lake Lanao, source for most of the hydropower plants in Mindanao, has breached its critical level of 699.15 meters in early March and dropped to 699.08 meters.
In addition, reduced power supply due to depleted dams amid high electricity consumption because of the hot temperature brought about by El Niño has also pushed up power rates throughout the country. Meralco, for example, has increased its rates several times in the past six months, with the latest rate hike of 5.8 centavos per kilowatt-hour (kWh) announced in the first week of July, supposedly because of high generation charges at the Wholesale Electricity Spot Market (WESM). Overall, Meralco’s generation charge has already jumped by P1.84 per kWh between January and July.
The double whammy of water and power crises – major issues that require urgent response and actions from President Benigno Aquino III
While the private companies and government agencies concerned have conveniently blamed natural phenomenon for the water and power crises, a deeper look will show that the conditions for the crises have been laid out and at the same time aggravated by wrong policies.
Both the water and power sectors have been deeply privatized, a process that was set off by Aquino’s mother, the late President Corazon Aquino in the late 1980s, accelerated by the Ramos and Estrada administrations in the 1990s, then continued and intensified by former President and now Pampanga Representative Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Among the many promises made by the private water concessionaires and hyped by the then Ramos administration to justify the privatization of the MWSS was upgrading the decrepit water system infrastructure. Such upgrade intends to substantially reduce non-revenue water (NRW, or water lost due to leaks and pilferage) and help achieve universal and 24/7 water supply for an increasing number of households. In their original concession agreement with MWSS, the private water firms promised to provide universal access by 2001.
But until today, less than 60 percent of 790,000 households in Maynilad’s service area have 24-hour water service while only 74 percent receive water at 7-pound per square inch (PSI) or stronger pressure. More than half (53 percent) of water allocated to Maynilad continues to get wasted because of leaks and pilferage. Meanwhile, Manila Water, claims 99 percent water supply coverage in its service area but will not say how big the portion is with individual and direct household connection and those serviced by private water suppliers or “middlemen”. These areas served by a third party private contractor are often poor communities and most vulnerable to water supply disruption.
Amid water supply problems, Maynilad and Manila Water jacked up their rates tremendously, taking advantage of full-cost recovery mechanisms offered by privatization. Since MWSS was privatized, Maynilad’s basic charge has already soared by 449 percent and Manila Water, by 845 percent.
Private monopolies and manipulation
The power crisis that the country has been facing is also more man-made than natural. Plant shutdowns and supposed fuel constraints have combined with the impact of depleted dams on hydropower generation to substantially constrict available capacity throughout the islands. The implementation of Republic Act (RA) 9136 or the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira) of 2001, which facilitated the privatization of power generation and transmission as well as deregulated the setting of power rates, has not addressed the country’s energy security issues.
Epira merely transferred the state monopoly on power to private companies, which has set the stage for various forms of possible abuses and manipulation. Cross-ownership, for instance, between distributors like Meralco and power producers made electricity rates more blurred than transparent.
Take the case of the WESM, which Epira created to supposedly allow freer competition among industry players but in fact has become a venue for speculation and rigging of prices. Among the so-called independent power producers (IPPs) trading in the WESM is First Gen Power Corp. that runs two natural gas-fired power plants (1,000-MW Sta. Rita and 500-MW San Lorenzo) and two hydropower plants (100-MW Pantabangan and 12-MW Masiway). The Lopez family, which controls 13.4 percent of Meralco, owns First Gen which aside from the WESM transactions also supplies 35.7 percent of Meralco’s power requirements.
Furthermore, another Meralco owner, San Miguel Energy Corp. (SMEC) which has a 34-percent stake in the utility giant, also operates the biggest power plants in the country like the 620-MW Limay Combined Cycle Power Plant, the 1,000-MW Sual Coal-Fired Power Plant, and the 1,200-MW Ilijan Combined Cycle Power Plant. During the height of the El Niño, SMEC shut down, along with other privately operated plants, one unit of its Sual plant (with a capacity of 540 MW) due to “coal supply problems”. Its Limay plant also went offline for about three weeks early this year for “inspection purposes”.
The unscheduled outages in its power plants fueled talks that SMEC may have intentionally decommissioned the Sual and Limay to constrict power supply and jack up rates. After the SMEC plant shutdowns, First Gen followed suit with its own maintenance shutdown of its natural gas-fired Sta. Rita and San Lorenzo power plants in mid-February to early March.
The cost of generation has gone sky-high because of these plant shutdowns that artificially reduced available capacity. Meanwhile, power retailers like Meralco have been able to easily pass on the charges to unfortunate end-consumers. Under Epira, they are allowed to automatically adjust generation charges on a monthly basis through a cost recovery mechanism called Automatic Adjustment of Generation Rates (AGRA).
Is Noynoy up to the challenge?
Despite the recurring problems caused by its flawed policies on water and power, the previous Arroyo administration has continued the relentless march towards the neoliberal restructuring of these sectors. In fact, among what can be considered a midnight deal, is the April 28 bidding of the Angat Dam which was won by a South Korean power company. If this deal will be completed, consumers fear of more water supply woes even as the country’s energy needs are not necessarily guaranteed.
To be sure, President Aquino just inherited from previous administrations these problems besetting the country’s water and power security. The challenge, however, is will he overhaul the existing policy framework that has allowed the privatization and deregulation of the country’s utility sectors and created the mess we are in right now?
He will have the chance to do this in his first SONA on Monday when he outlines his vision for the country in the next six years. People who have been abused long enough by private water and power utilities, who suffered endless brownouts and lack of water amid skyrocketing monthly bills, will certainly be interested to listen.