Water crisis

- Boo Chanco - The Philippine Star

It is often said that the next big war will be over access to fresh water. A dam being built by Ethiopia that will limit the flow of Nile water to Sudan and Egypt is starting to heat up a conflict among those nations.

Down in South Africa, Capetown is in the midst of a very serious water shortage. In California, farmers fight for the right to have access to water from the Colorado River because it is a matter of life or death for them.

Back here, Maynilad and Manila Water are already quarreling over how much water the two concessionaires should be getting from Angat. Maynilad customers suffered water rationing for a few days.

We are now living in precarious times that make it foolish to take our water supply for granted. It probably makes sense to create a Department of Water Resources so that a national water policy and program can be properly defined and implemented.

In heavily populated Greater Metro Manila of more than 15 million people, we are almost totally dependent on Angat Dam for some 98 percent of our water supply. The almost 50-year-old dam is located in the same fault line that worries us most about a killer earthquake –the West Valley fault.

Angat Dam has been reinforced by the last administration. Hopefully, should that earthquake happen, water supply or catastrophic flooding will not result in additional major problems. Angat can now also take in more water than before.

Supply of water in Angat had been augmented by water from the Umiray River in Aurora province passing through a recently rehabilitated tunnel. But we still urgently need to develop new water sources and not risk a supply shortage should a severe El Nino happen.

Right now, Maynilad is using a very expensive process of osmosis to clean water from the rather polluted section of Laguna de Bay near Sucat. There had been times when pollution was so bad they had to stop drawing water from it altogether, causing a shortage in supply for residents in Parañaque, Muntinlupa, and Las Piñas. 

I heard Manila Water is set to draw water from a portion of Laguna de Bay further east that is still more or less clean. That will help them deliver water to the rest of Rizal province, which is part of their concession area.

But the big scandal is the long talked, about but never implemented project to develop the Kaliwa River and Laiban Dam in Rizal as additional water sources for Metro Manila. I have heard plans to do this over 30 years ago, but nothing has happened.

What did happen was that squatters, hearing of a big project, started populating the sites. That makes the job of development that much harder and more expensive.

The closest we have come to actually starting to develop Kaliwa river was during the Aquino watch. Cosette Canilao, who headed the PPP Center, told me that bidding for the Kaliwa Dam as a PPP project was approved almost four years ago. Pre-qualification was completed, but the project didn’t move at the MWSS.

I was in contact with Gerry Esquivel who headed MWSS during the Aquino years and he told me that just before Duterte took over, two pre-qualified bidders have been selected: SMC and Datem in a joint venture with a Spanish company.

Gerry e-mailed me to say that “should the new DPWH buy into project preparation that we’ve done, a 2016 award is doable, at the latest first quarter of 2017. It will take five years to build, as per feasibility study.” It is now 2018 and nada still.

In an even earlier e-mail to me, Gerry gave this progress report: “We are under procurement in Kaliwa. Submission will cross over June 30. July is target submission. Hopeful that the next administration will consider this project as a priority.

“Manila Water and Maynilad are with MWSS on this and signed off on payment mechanism. We likewise approved two Laguna Lake projects of the two concessionaires. 200 million liters per day…

“We are scheduled to award an ADB tunnel project very soon so that MWSS will be able to rehabilitate tunnels that date back in 1939. The strengthening of Angat Dam itself has commenced so we can accommodate a higher volume.”

Kaliwa Dam will provide a redundant source of water to Angat. It has been studied and re-studied since the 1980s. An unsolicited proposal to develop it at no cost to government was made by San Miguel and was rejected. Gerry commented “I really did not understand why after decades of study, it has never been started.”

After heading MWSS, Gerry explained in a speech before a Rotary Club why it is taking so long.

Ang hirap pala. You need to engage with indigenous people and their sovereign right to ancestral domain. You need to get clearances from the provinces and get provincial and regional endorsements. You need to discuss the effects of downstream to the very last affected barangay.

“You need to be mindful of this project’s effect on tariff. You need to get TWG (technical working groups) approvals from everyone. NEDA should endorse the project. You need the buy-in of practically all departments. You need full hydraulics and engineering, tunnel experts, and dam specialists from reputable transaction advisers and consultants. The list is endless.”

I understand the project was further delayed during the Aquino administration because DPWH didn’t act on it for almost a year. Now, the Chinese are supposed to lend us money to build it, in spite of the interest of the Philippine private sector to do it. But the Chinese assistance is just all talk for now.

Hopefully we get to build that Kaliwa water source before tragedy dries up Metro Manila’s sole water source. If that happens, blame Mark Villar who supervises MWSS operations for having no sense of urgency.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco


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