Water privatization: Success or failure?
EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales (The Philippine Star) - March 18, 2019 - 12:00am

These days one shouldn’t argue with a resident of the east zone of Metro Manila.

She hasn’t taken a bath, is volatile and is sure to blow her top. To tweak the words of English author William Congreve, hell hath no fury like an (east zone resident) scorned.

I should know. I am one of the tens of thousands affected by the Manila Water(less) mess.

It’s been a crazy time to say the least, and the struggle is real. The laundry piled up last week and the plants which I lovingly nurtured for years, are in bad shape. Yet this is nothing compared to the situation in hospitals. Lives are affected because of the water shortage. I really hope this whole fiasco ends soon.

Thankfully, there’s been some improvement here at home as I write this. The supply has been unabated since this morning or for 12 hours now.

I actually had a nice rejuvenating shower. It felt like a visit to a Russian banya minus the vodka.

But I’m still extremely pissed at Manila Water and the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) for the hassle.

Irritated as I am over the situation, I strongly disagree with calls to reverse the privatization of MWSS. On the contrary, I believe water privatization has been one of the more successful public-private projects this country has seen.

The groups claiming to represent consumers’ interests should stop politicizing the issue. While it’s a good publicity stunt, it’s a stupid call.

Have they forgotten how inefficient MWSS and its predecessor Nawasa, or the National Waterworks and Sewerage Authority, were?

I haven’t. Water interruptions were very much part of my childhood. My brothers and I spent a lot of time fetching water from a deep-well in a corner of our labyrinthine family compound. We took turns pumping for water. No water, no bath.

And when the rains came, we dashed outdoors for a shower. We savoured the manna from heaven.

Decades later, after MWSS was privatized, things improved significantly. My father decided to close the deep-well.

Now, things are messed up again, but let’s not blame privatization. Sure, Manila Water messed up big time when it was unable to manage supply and demand, but there are other factors, too.

Policy failure

Past administrations did not develop new sources of water aside from Angat Dam.

The Aquino administration’s water boys say they’ve done a lot which was why there was no shortage during their time.

But at the end of the day, it’s not what an administration did, but it’s what it DID NOT DO that can trigger a crisis. The Duterte administration should keep this in mind.

The Aquino administration tried to develop new sources of water, but in the end it did not have enough time. Perhaps, it was too busy going after its enemies.

The lack of urban planning in the country – too many malls and condos – is also aggravating the problem. Of course, demand is a major culprit. We use water carelessly.

More importantly, we have a historically weak MWSS – which brings me back to my argument against reverse privatization.

The biggest water privatization in the world

In the Philippines, there are many arguments against privatization, including corporate greed.

Of course, corporations are greedy. They are capitalists, not social enterprises. But it’s the role of the regulator to make sure corporations do not bleed us dry.

Privatization is not perfect, but reverse privatization is not the solution. And let’s not forget, the most expensive kind of water is no water.

MWSS was privatized because it was inherently weak and inefficient by virtue of it being a government corporation. It is very difficult even today for any government corporation to procure materials and to get financing, things necessary to make a company work efficiently.

Before it was privatized, MWSS consumers had water for only 16 hours a day. Mark Dumol, the chief of staff of Gregorio Vigilar, the former public works secretary who led the privatization of MWSS, gave a glimpse of the MWSS at the time.

“There was a general attitude among (MWSS) employees of trying to extract as many benefits as possible from a company with as little effort as possible. In board meetings, the best prepared presentations were those that involved requests for increases in benefits. Other presentations, including those for critical projects were often poorly prepared,” Dumol said in his Diary of the World’s Largest Water Privatization.

So let’s not call for reverse privatization. We are a developing country with an inefficient government system. Let’s not have illusions on its abilities. State ownership can work, but only if the government is efficient.

Even a developed country like the United Kingdom privatized many of its services. Didn’t Margaret Thatcher show the world that privatization can succeed?

What we need is a strong regulator, one that will make sure we get what we pay for from concessionaires. We also need a concession agreement that is fair for everyone, one that allows for penalties when a concessionaire f*cks up.

Real solutions

In the end, we need real solutions, not palliatives. But let’s be wary of alternatives from wolves in sheep’s clothing. Present day cronies, for instance, may use the situation to get into the water business in Metro Manila and beyond. They will promise us the moon and the stars, and this time, water, too.

Iris Gonzales’ email address is eyesgonzales@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales.

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