Water arbitration: issues and implications

It's not enough that there are well-meaning regulators who will monitor the water companies. The long-term solution is to reverse MWSS privatization. (Photo from the Water for the People Network)

Arbitration shows that it’s not enough that there are well-meaning regulators who will monitor the water companies. The long-term solution is to reverse MWSS privatization. (Photo from the Water for the People Network)

Updated, first published as IBON Features

Last 24 September, Manila Water Co. Inc. officially filed a dispute notice before the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) questioning the decision of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) – Regulatory Office (RO) to reduce water rates. Maynilad Water Services Inc., meanwhile, will also file soon its own dispute notice that shall set off arbitration proceedings.

(Download a PowerPoint presentation on the arbitration process here)

What does this mean and what are the implications?

One is that aside from paying the costs of arbitration, consumers may have to wait as much as three months (90 days) or possibly even longer to enjoy the lower water rates ordered by regulators. That, of course, optimistically assumes that the lower rates will be implemented at all. There is the possibility that the lower rates could even be reversed after arbitration.

Another is that even when the lower rates are finally upheld, there is no guarantee that the money amassed by the water firms during the delay in its implementation and charging more than what they should have will still be returned to the consumers. The new rates are supposed to have taken effect beginning January 1, 2013 but there is still no mechanism for how to treat the overcharging at current higher rates by water firms since the start of the year.

Consider further that arbitration of a Rate Rebasing dispute should be decided by not later than September 30 of the year in which the dispute is referred to the panel per the Concession Agreements (CA) between the private concessionaires and the MWSS. A decision in so short a time is unlikely to happen though.

(Download a copy of the Concession Agreement and related documents here)

Already greatly exposed as being contrary to public interest, the privatization of Metro Manila’s water system is further being bared as exceedingly anti-people with the concessionaires’ push for arbitration.

It also belies claims that privatization can benefit the public if only strict regulation is applied. In contrast, the current controversy shows that there can be no effective regulation under privatization. In the case of MWSS, the privatization contract or CA was designed to undermine government regulation as decisions are ultimately made by an Appeals Panel where the concessionaire and a representative of foreign business interests have a say.

Appeals Panel

Arbitration is a dispute resolution mechanism provided under Section 12.2 of the CA. It is the last resort for concessionaires and the MWSS to settle disagreements, which could no longer be resolved through negotiation, on the interpretation and implementation of the CA. Arbitration proceedings under the CA are in accordance with the United Nations (UN) Commission on International Trade Law.

An Appeals Panel handles the arbitration proceedings. According to Section 12.3 of the CA, its members include one representative each designated by the concessionaire and the MWSS-RO. A third member acts as the Chairman of the Appeals Panel and his or her appointment depends on the nature of the dispute.

For major disputes such as the ongoing controversy arising from the Rate Rebasing exercise, the President of the ICC will appoint the Chairman. For minor disputes, the representative of the concessionaire and the RO in the Appeals Panel will designate the Chairman. Foreigners can be appointed as members of the Appeals Panel, including as Chairman.

Among those being eyed to represent the RO in the Appeals Panel are former Supreme Court (SC) Chief Justice Reynato Puno, former SC Associate Justice Jose Vitug, and University of the Philippines (UP) College of Law Dean Danilo Concepcion.

But the RO representative is easily outnumbered by the two representatives from the private sector, i.e. the concessionaire and the Chairman appointed by the ICC. Being from the business sector, the ICC representative could be presumed to be more partial to the interest of the concessionaires than of the public. Decisions by the Appeals Panel need not be through consensus but by a simple majority vote.

Moreover, consumers are not represented in the Appeals Panel. They also do not have access to the proceedings which are done behind closed doors.

Also, under Section 12.5 of the CA, government regulators and the concessionaires agreed to waive their right to appeal the decision of the Appeals Panel through any court, judicial or regulatory body. This illustrates how, under MWSS privatization, government has abdicated its sovereign power to regulate and set policies to protect the public interest.

RO resolution

To recall, the RO denied the rate hike applications of Maynilad (Php8.58 per cubic meter) and Manila Water (Php5.83 per cu. m.). Instead, the regulators ordered the concessionaires to reduce their basic charge by Php0.29 (Maynilad) to Php1.45 (Manila Water) per cu. m. every year until 2017.

(Download a copy of the RO resolutions: Maynilad, Manila Water)

The concessionaires’ rate hike proposals and the subsequent RO decision form part of Rate Rebasing. It is an exercise to determine water rates that will allow the concessionaires to recover their expenses and assures them of a profit rate. Rate Rebasing is done every five years throughout the 40-year lifespan of the CA.

While still falling short of correcting and reversing the 16 years of abuse and oppression of consumers under MWSS privatization, the RO’s decision is still a welcome development and would not have been possible without strong public pressure. It affirmed many of the issues long being raised by anti-MWSS privatization advocates. Aside from the highly controversial income taxes (additional data and discussion here), the RO resolution also covered other questionable items being charged to consumers such as the cost of unimplemented projects, donations and advertising, and bloated costs of projects, among others.

On top of these disallowed items, the RO also ordered the concessionaires to stop charging the Php1 per cu. m. Currency Exchange Rate Adjustment (CERA). Thus, the immediate impact of the RO resolution on water bills by October should be a reduction of Php1.29 per cu. m. for Maynilad customers and Php2.45 for Manila Water’s.

Derailing the rate cuts

But such rate cuts will only become effective if the RO resolutions are not derailed by the arbitration proceedings. The concessionaires argue that arbitration means that the lower rates will not be implemented yet. And worse, it may even be reversed in case the Appeals Panel decides in favor of Maynilad and Manila Water.

In a paid ad (see image below), Maynilad cited Section 7.1 of the CA. This section pertains to MWSS’s obligation to “cooperate with the concessionaire” on, among others, the implementation of changes to standard rates as instructed by the RO or by the Appeals Panel. According to Maynilad, the said provision means that the Appeals Panel will have the final say on the new rate in case the RO-determined rate is brought to arbitration. Thus, current rates will continue to apply until the Appeals Panel has made a decision.

maynilad paid ad - 16 sep

Regulators are questioning such interpretation of the CA. But if the concessionaires were right, consumers will continue to pay water bills bloated by the income taxes of and other onerous charges imposed by the water firms. Section 12.4 (vi) of the CA says that unless stated otherwise the Appeals Panel has 90 days to make a decision from receipt of a dispute notice. But it can also opt to extend the proceedings if mutually agreed by the disputing parties although a decision should be made not later than September 30 of the year in which the rebasing dispute is referred to.

On top of all these is the issue of arbitration costs which under Section 12.6 of the CA shall be all shouldered by the public sector – i.e. government through the MWSS and the consumers through the pass-on charges that can be imposed by the concessionaires. Arbitration costs include the fees and expenses of panel members and legal, economic or technical consultants retained by the Appeals Panel. In its 16-year history, arbitration proceedings have been conducted thrice with the total cost reaching P140.04 million.

Clearly, it is not enough that there are well-meaning regulators who will monitor the water companies. By design, MWSS privatization was meant to protect the interests of the private investors, making effective regulation practically impossible. As water advocacy groups like the Water for the People Network (WPN) assert, lower water rates can only be realized through effective state control. IBON Features

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