The water shortage in Metro Manila has been conveniently blamed by the private water concessionaires and authorities on everything else but themselves. They blamed it on El Niño for drying up the Angat Dam. They blamed it on “Basyang” for not pouring enough rains on Norzagaray, Bulacan to replenish the dam’s water (read news report here).
But how much of the current shortage can be blamed on natural phenomenon and how much should be attributed to policy errors like water privatization? True, the prolonged dry spell depleted water to precarious levels not only in Angat but in several major dams around the country. The impact on domestic water supply in Metro Manila, however, could have been tolerable or at least not as bad as it is now if not for structural issues related to the privatization of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) almost 13 years ago.
According to the latest report, Angat Dam’s water, which supplies 97 percent of the domestic water needs of some 14 million people in Metro Manila and parts of Cavite and Rizal, has already dropped to an alarming 157.59 meters as of Sunday (July 18). This is an all-time low, with the previous record pegged at 158.15 meters recorded during the 1998 El Niño episode. The critical level of Angat Dam is 180 meters.
One of the private companies that took over the water distribution function of MWSS, Maynilad Water Services Inc., has already resorted to rationing water to some areas in its concession area. (Maynilad serves the West Zone of the old MWSS service area, while Manila Water Co. Inc. serves the East Zone) Maynilad said that its water allocation has declined by 30 percent, causing supply disruptions since last week.
But many of these areas in Maynilad’s west zone have long been experiencing water supply problems even before the current El Niño. “Unfortunately, the reduction in our water allocation has forced us to ration water in elevated areas, in areas with a lot of water loss usually due to illegal connections, and in areas that need further service upgrade,” a Maynilad official said, describing the areas currently experiencing water supply disruption.
A failed policy
Among the many promises made by the private water concessionaires and hyped by the then Ramos administration 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 (read here). More than half (53 percent) of water allocated to Maynilad continues to get wasted because of leaks and pilferage (read here). 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.
There is no available data that break down NRW into leaks and pilferage. But the continued pervasiveness of illegal connections may be explained by skyrocketing water bills due to full-cost recovery under water privatization. Since MWSS was privatized, Maynilad’s basic charge has already soared by 449 percent and Manila Water, by 845 percent. Put that in a situation of worsening job scarcity, stagnant wages and income, and rapid increases in the overall cost of living and you will get the picture. (See Chart)
Maynilad and Manila Water must be held accountable for failing to provide, after more than a decade of privatization, reliable and universal access to water for the people – a situation that has just been aggravated today by the El Niño.
Certainly, there is a need to reverse water privatization, a neoliberal policy that has already been discredited worldwide. Public control must be asserted especially over water which is not a simple commodity or service that we can afford to leave in the hands of profit-seeking companies.
The Aquino administration can start this by suspending the sale of the Angat Dam itself, which has been auctioned to a Korean power company last April. The further privatization of water through the sale of Angat Dam will mean worse water shortages in the coming months and years, with or without an El Niño.
These issues must be included in the medium-term policy agenda of the new administration.
But in the meantime, as a stopgap measure, Malacañang, the private concessionaires, MWSS, National Water Resources Board (NWRB) and other concerned government agencies must come out with a detailed plan on how they will ensure that water for domestic use will be available. Due focus must be given to vulnerable communities as they tend to be displaced under a privatized water system by well-off customers and commercial establishments even during times of abundant water supply.
Authorities must also strictly monitor and regulate the wasteful use of water by golf courses, malls, hotels, private parks, car wash shops, and other commercial establishments. An 18-hole golf course, for instance, consumes an average of 2.3 million liters of water per day, according to the United Nations (UN), causing an enormous impact on water withdrawals, and competing with the basic water needs of as much as 115,000 people.