The recent water crisis
CROSSROADS TOWARD PHILIPPINE ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL PROGRESS - Gerardo P. Sicat (The Philippine Star) - May 8, 2019 - 12:00am

Not long ago – in a drama that unfolded in March and continued until April, the hottest and driest months of the year – the Metro Manila area suffered a major trauma: the availability and quality of water services became erratic and water rationed in a time of heavy need.

Then the companies that generate electric power undertook maintenance shutdowns that were apparently not well coordinated, thus causing unwelcome area brownouts.

“No water, no electricity, no internet! Calvary even before Lent!” so tweeted Senator Grace Poe before the Lent period in colorful local language. Other politicians and almost everyone lamented in refrain.

Capacity crisis. Lack of volume of impounded water in existing reservoirs has highlighted the deficiency in investment in water resources in the country.

Since the 1970s, a sizable bulk of the area’s water needs had been supplied by the Angat Dam in Bulacan, and little expansion of that capacity has been made despite the growth in needs of the economy and the expanded population.

The recent water crisis became so obvious it affected households, commercial establishments, and industries. It laid bare the larger threat to the water supply of factories that produce for the national economy.

The privatization of the management of the water service delivery some 20 years ago has successfully achieved its objectives based on the reliance on inadequate water resources capacity.

In recognition of this problem, business groups and the general public have clamored for quick corrective action. The foreign chambers of commerce in the country have added their voice to this clamor. They account for a major part of the economy’s productive base.

In particular, they support quick administrative action through executive order to strengthen the National Water Resources Board to coordinate various agencies and programs and to develop and execute, pronto, a “water security master plan for the Metro Manila region and the entire country.”

The recent water crisis by itself is good reason to fast track the development of capacity- improving investments to address the water needs of Metro Manila as well as that of the nation.

The lag in our water investments. As a country, we should not have lagged behind in water investments.

During the 1970s, some of the major economic development projects were in the water sector. They were for water impounding for irrigation, power, and water supply. Such investments include the Upper Pampanga River Project, the Magat River, and the Angat Dam. There were other projects in various parts of the country, including those along the Agus River in Mindanao.

The economic crisis of the 1980s and changes in priorities after that has led to a neglect of what was once a very vibrant sector of public investment. This explains the lag in investments that has deterred the expansion of water investments in the past.

There were then a number of important river basin development projects. Until today, these projects have not been fully carried out. Local and national political conflicts, lack of attention, and poor leadership in the sector have played a role in this sad outcome.

There are also other factors that impact on the value and efficiency of existing water resources investments. The degradation of the environment, especially in the watershed areas, have contributed to the reduction of the investment life of existing facilities. These have to be corrected within the water resources sector.

What makes an emerging and maturing economy. Many countries in our part of the world have outstanding investments in the water sector.

Hong Kong, with little land, has ample and efficient catchment and water impounding structures for water supply. Similarly, Singapore, with little land and no mountains, recovers and holds water better than we are doing.

The investments for water resources development of South Korea and Taiwan are far more extensive and provide use of water for multiple purposes. They also tap groundwater.

In all cases, these countries have a much higher degree of water security compared to us. A major part of the story is that they hold, impound and reuse water much more than we do. They have larger investments in holding water in the mountains, in hills, and in river systems before the water joins the sea.

Often, the problem of government is poor leadership within the sector, inertia (or what we call ningas cogon), or conflicting agenda.

Mature economies have sufficient safety nets and strong decision-making so that they maintain their supplies and expand their systems in systematic fashion. Developing economies learn how to mature when their planning of such safety nets is sufficiently tackled and executed properly.

Economies that fail in supplying their needs consistently are often crisis-prone precisely because of imbalances in capacities against constantly growing needs.

This, incidentally, applies not only to infrastructure in the water sector. It seems to mark the characteristics of economies over a wider range of physical infrastructure investments.

* * *

Placido L. Mapa Jr., Philippine economic technocrat

Dr. Placido L. Mapa Jr., who just recently passed on at the age of 86, is from a generation of economic officials who has served our country over a long period of time. He started his service in the government during the time of former president Diosdado Macapagal, as deputy head of the Program Implementation Agency. When Ferdinand Marcos became president, he asked Mapa to stay on. He held important positions during the Marcos years, as director general of the Presidential Economic Staff, as chairman of the Development Bank of the Philippines and as president of the Philippine National Bank.

My career intertwined with Cidito’s in many unique ways. I joined government to replace him as chairman of the National Economic Council when he was sent to the World Bank to represent the government’s interest. When then president Marcos reorganized his Cabinet in 1981, he took over my job as NEDA director-general.

My email is: gpsicat@gmail.com. For archives of previous Crossroads essays, go to: https://www.philstar.com/authors/1336383/gerardo-p-sicat. Visit this site for more information, feedback and commentary: http://econ.upd.edu.ph/gpsicat/

WATER CRISIS
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