Fight for water(3)
BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa (The Philippine Star) - March 12, 2019 - 12:00am

Michael A. Bengwayan, currently a fellow of Echoing Green Foundation in New York, recently wrote about an ongoing tribal war in Mountain Province north of the Philippines over water.

It is not an isolated story, he says, with the Philippine National Police reporting of incidences of shooting and killing in 34 areas in four regions last year over water rights, boundaries, use, and sharing.

To date, we may think of these as isolated cases as, far too few to affect a nation that is populated by over 100 million inhabitants and growing faster than many other countries in the world.

On the other hand, we could reflect on this “skirmishes” as warning signs that a crisis over water is imminent, perhaps not as alarming as the droughts being experienced in many parts of the world that have severely affected food production and drinking water supply.’s Jon Sheldon says, “Drought is turning many areas of the globe into arid wastelands. Excessive heat has cost lives, ruined crops and created water shortages. The effects are being felt from South America to the Arctic Circle.”

Among the affected areas he reported are New South Wales in Australia, Ethiopia, South Africa’s Cape Town, Greece, Sweden, the UK, Bangalore in India, and Kansas in the US.

In Europe, Sheldon writes, “Europe’s sweltering heat has been compounded by a lack of rain. Not only have citizens been suffering the health consequences, which affect health care systems and labor productivity, crops have also been hit hard.”

He adds that the EU Joint Research Center has warned of “an increase in drought frequency and intensity in the future.”

Conflicting water laws

We could say that the Philippines, in particular, is still blessed with abundant water supply. But this may not be the case soon, especially in high economic growth areas like Metro Manila and other key cities in the country where water demand will draw on water sources from nearby regions.

While the lack of water may not be a fight-to-the-death scenario as with our indigenous brothers from up north, it could spell life and death for people who will experience the lack of clean water for drinking and sanitation.

Sadly, this would happen not because there is a severe drought, but because water governance is lacking.

The Philippines is governed by the 1976 Water Code, which defines the ownership, appropriation, utilization, development, and protection of Philippine water resources.

While its underlying principles define that all waters belong to the state, there are at least seven other laws that also deal with governance of water resources in the Philippines, and which can sometimes be in conflict with others.

The Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA), for example, protects the rights alone of indigenous peoples to water resources that are in their ancestral domain. This is in conflict with the National Integrated Protected Area System, which provides watershed protection so that water supply can be shared with others.

IPRA also conflicts with local governments’ mandates to develop water supplies for their constituents’ needs. A good example of this is the New Centennial Water Project that Metro Manila needs, but is being challenged by the Dumagats and Remontados.

The same is true for the Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Act, which has jurisdiction of all watersheds as well as major aquifers that can be tapped for existing and future farmlands.

Then there is the territorial conflict between the national government policies and local governments. A watershed, for example, may be staked by both the national government through the Protected Area Management Board and by the local government through its Watershed Management Board.

Other conflicts on water use are manifested in the priority allocation of this resource. The Water Code follows the “first in time, first in right” doctrine, but local communities – especially those that reside right at the fount of water supply – have been known to be hostile to either or both national and local governments’ unilateral decisions to tap into the source for other communities’ needs.

Strong water resource overseer needed

Clearly, there is a need to resolve these conflicting interpretations and overlapping jurisdictions of multiple laws through a strong central body that will have the appropriate mandate.

The National Water Resources Board currently is the main state body that supposedly has the chief responsibility to implement the Water Code. However, its functions through the decades have been devolved to other government agencies.

The NWRB is just a shadow today of its predecessor, the National Water Resources Council, which was created by a Presidential Decree in 1974 before the Water Code of the Philippines was passed into law.

Since then, the NWRB has been stripped of most of its vital roles. Its technical functions were transferred to the Department of Public Works and Highways in 1987 through an Executive Order (EO).

In 2002, the NWRB was subsumed to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and although it initially gained the regulatory functions of the Local Water Utilities Administration (LWUA), these were transferred back to LWUA in 2010.

As a central agency, the NWRB operates on a lean human resource lineup and budget, thus severely affecting its capability. With some 30 other government agencies at the national and local levels mandated to manage the country’s water resources, it’s not surprising how messed up water governance in the country has evolved.

The responsibilities of those managing water are far-reaching. A stronger and more powerful water resource overseer that will be able to implement a well-defined delineation of roles and responsibilities among conflicting agencies is definitely needed.

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