Fight for water (2)
BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa (The Philippine Star) - March 7, 2019 - 12:00am

The world is seeing the early stages of a water crisis, one that has raised a multitude of alarm bells, and is prodding humankind to act before it becomes too late.

Globally, if we rely on data provided by the US’s National Aeronautics and Space Agency, 13 of the world’s 37 most important groundwater basins are being depleted faster than can be replenished.

This is evidenced by droughts in countries where these basins are found. In India, home to one of the world’s most populated countries, over-extraction of groundwater is already affecting the nation’s drinking water security.

In the US, the world’s most advanced economy, the impact of groundwater scarcity is impinging on its agricultural productivity, putting in peril not just export earnings, but even the country’s food security.

In the Philippines, we are told that the Angat water reservoir is reaching its limit, which has prompted our government to prioritize the development of new water sources that will quench the thirst of a rapidly urbanizing Metro Manila and its surrounding provinces.

That should put to immediate rest any fears of water shortages in the metro, something that has been lost in memory for many of those living in central districts now served by the Metropolitan Water and Sewerage Authority’s two main concessionaires, Manila Water and Maynilad.

Real threats

Although most Filipinos contend a water crisis is much too far ahead of their time, having been spoilt by abundant flows in surface waterways, not to mention the many typhoons that swamp our lands yearly, there’s growing evidence that point to real threats.

Urban encroachment and population growth, industrialization, and an expected resurgence in the country’s agriculture are perhaps on top of the list. If global warming is to bring about significant flooding of our coasts in the distant future, saltwater intrusion would rank next.

We have a population that has been expanding at a rate many economists consider unsustainable vis-à-vis the country’s economic growth, and if scientific data were to be considered, the amount of water needed to sustain daily living diminishing.

The manufacture of food and goods for an urbanizing nation demands water – tons of it, in fact. Companies usually draw water from aquifers, and this puts stress on groundwater sources that households not connected to the water district’s services rely on.

Farms demand water, this time from irrigation canals that are linked to impounding dams, to be able to grow their produce. Oftentimes, irrigation conflicts with the demand for drinking and sanitation water, especially in areas that are close to towns and cities.

Saltwater intrusion is a growing problem. In Bicol, many rice fields have been battling increasingly rising levels of salinity by planting rice varieties that can adapt to salt water, although this has met limited success only.

Big business interests

A peculiar, but expected, result of a tightening in water supply is the growing number of companies interested in its business side. Two of the countries biggest conglomerates were the earliest to stake an investment: Ayala’s Manila Water and Pangilinan’s Maynilad.

Armed with a license to operate from MWSS, the two companies have the divided responsibility to supply clean reliable water to Metro Manila as well as manage the sewerage network. For their services, the two companies have managed to operate profitably.

Of the two, Manila Water is regarded as more aggressive in the water business. Through its subsidiaries, Manila Water Philippine Ventures, Laguna AAA Water Corp., Boracay Island Water, and Clark Water Corp., the Ayala-led company is now operating in Bulacan, Pampanga, Pangasinan, Laguna, Cebu, Boracay, Davao, and Zamboanga.

Recently, it inked a contract with the Tanauan Water District in Batangas to expand the city’s bulk water supply and sanitation services to all 48 barangays. The P1.5-billion contract is good for 25 years.

San Miguel Corp. (SMC), through Luzon Clean Water, had also recently joined the fray with its Bulacan bulk water project, co-owned with Korea Water Resources Corp.

A few years back, SMC showed interest in building the Kaliwa dam project to augment Angat’s water supply, but this was overtaken by the current administration’s decision to secure China financing instead.

The P24.4-billion Bulacan water project is divided into three phases, to eventually replace more than two dozens local water utilities operating in the whole province. Water supply comes from Bustos Dam, to be augmented in future, especially if SMC’s pitched international airport breaks ground, from the Bayabas Dam project.

The Aboitizes, too, have seriously committed to the bulk water supply and sanitation service business. Through the restructuring of its water investments under Aboitiz InfraCapital Inc. in 2017, the Aboitiz conglomerate now has interests in LiMA Water Corp. in Batangas and Balibago Waterworks System Inc. in Pampanga.

Recently, it started construction (through Apo Agua Infrastructura Inc., a joint venture between Aboitiz Energy Ventures and J.V. Angeles Construction Corp.) Davao City’s P12.6-billion bulk water supply project from the Tamugan River instead of groundwater wells.

Villar’s Prime Water Infrastructure Corp. has a different model, and one that bears watching especially with Secretary Mark Villar as head of the Department of Public Works and Highways. Prime Water is known to clinch contracts with local water districts in areas where the Villar family, through Vista Land, has real estate interests.

Prime Water and SMC’s Bulacan Bulk Water have supposedly ironed out its “territorial” dispute in Bulacan, thanks to the interference of the local government.

Big business’ increasing interest in water, however, is just starting – and we can expect the fight to intensify in the future.

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