Fight for water (4)
BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa (The Philippine Star) - March 14, 2019 - 12:00am

It isn’t time to panic – yet. Rather, it is time to prepare for the coming of a crisis, a real one, which would affect not just our drinking and sanitation sources, but also our food security. Without enough water, irrigation lines will dry out, leaving farms unable to produce the sustenance we need.

All the signs are upon us. The growing commercialization of water, not just about water refilling stations and bottled water companies, but the increasing interest of the private sector to build and operate dams and also to buy water in bulk to supply households for a fee.

Population growth and the continued advancement of our economy are demanding more water, while more of the country’s water basins are being depleted at faster rates and are in danger of experiencing shortages within the next decade.

Watersheds have not been properly cared for, contributing to reduced water availability. Mismanaged watersheds, on the other hand, have increased siltation in rivers and lakes, further constricting water sources to communities.

More critically, freshwater supply is threatened by pollution. Many rivers and lakes are contaminated by pesticides and other harmful chemicals that leech from farm lands and mining operations, domestic sewage, and industrial wastes.

Management issue

The country has enough water sources that can last many generations, studies have shown, if only they are properly managed. This is why a comprehensive water governance structure is needed to define hierarchical needs and institutional relationships to iron out kinks in a civilized manner.

There are at least eight laws currently enforced in the country dealing with water, plus multiple local ordinances that govern local water utility boards. There is an attempt at establishing linkages among all, but it has not always resulted in clear directives.

We’ve expounded through examples in previous columns of the conflicts that have arisen and persist over the use of water. Jurisdiction rights over watershed have to be spelled out. More importantly, the voice of the community needs to be heard, and their views carefully regarded.

Over 30 national and local government agencies are involved in water management – from defining water quality, supply sourcing, distribution, and usage, to the actual stewardship of forests, watersheds, dams, lakes, rivers.

The National Water Resources Board, which is mandated to implement the country’s Water Code, does not have the teeth to tackle the growing issues that govern the water sector.

This alone needs to be resolved, either by strengthening the NWRB and making it a full-fledged Cabinet-level government agency, or forming a new one that will be able to resolve transactional differences among the many laws and ordinances, as well as stakeholder institutions and agencies.

More importantly, a strengthened national government water steward will be able to provide a dynamic vision that will be flexible enough to answer the changing needs of the times, as well as marshal the necessary resources to resolve arising issues more quickly.

Studies and summits

The problem with water is its “fluidity.” It is interrelated to air and land, to forests and watersheds, and used by plants, animals, and humans. Humans, in particular, have been abusing water, leading to a corruption of the ecosystem.

Multiple studies on water management have been conducted in the past, and even today, there are a few ongoing studies that seek to resolve part of the problem or provide a workable model that will bring all of the issues under one umbrella.

Data continues to be gathered about the state of the country’s forests, watersheds, rivers, riverbeds, lakes, shores – almost anything that can be, and is, linked to water supply and usage. Watersheds are being mismanaged, rivers are dying: these are what studies shout, yet nothing is being done.

Several legislative proposals in Congress on the formation of a Department of Water or a strengthened NWRB have been initiated, in the same way that multi-sector summits are being held to come up with palpable recommendations.

What is needed is a strong push by the national government to establish the rhyme and reason that will harmonize conflicting parts of laws, ambiguities in relationships between communities and government, and establish a national program to ensure a sustainable balance in water supply and usage.

Rights and responsibilities

In conclusion, let us underscore the statement about water being everyone’s right – and, more importantly, responsibility.

Crucial to the fight for water is a nation’s enlightened and empowered citizenry who will value the sanctity of this life resource. This also means having only companies operating in the country that will practice sustainability principles when dealing with water.

The protection of watersheds is everybody’s responsibility, and the preservation of existing forests and the continued propagation of new forests are integral in preserving watersheds and replenishing water sources.

Pollution of groundwater must be given priority attention. Not only is this about agricultural chemicals finding their way into our streams, but also about the growing volume of human sewage and garbage, the latter dominated by non-biodegradables.

Clean-ups serve a use, but there would be no need for these if everyone were to practice proper waste disposal and aim for zero pollution discharge to land, water, and air. Tree-planting brigades are to be lauded, but it would be better to stop cutting down trees.

Companies that operate in the country must do more than just supporting greening activities. They must come up with concrete investments that will ensure the sustainable utilization of water resources.

As the last installment in this four-part series, we endear our readers to give serious thought to how each one can contribute towards bringing back harmony in our use of water.

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