Facing a water crisis

DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - November 1, 2019 - 12:00am

The alarm bells have been sounded this early. The rains this year failed to fill up Metro Manila’s one main source of water supply: Angat Dam. Fearful of being blamed again, the water concessionaires are starting to ration water supply.

Actually, even before they started rationing, the volume of water released from Angat Dam was at 40 cms (cubic meters per second) vs. normal release of 48 cms. This is because dam level remained below normal.

Rains over Ipo Dam allowed the water companies to sustain services despite the reduced allocation from Angat. They were hopeful that the dam would fill up by year end so we can get through summer. 

But it hasn’t been raining enough lately. So, the water companies pulled the trigger and declared rationing. This simply means we have to be more sensible in using water.

Perhaps we don’t have to clean the cars daily. We can recycle water used in washing clothes and dishes to flush toilets. We can be more conscious of pipe leaks in our homes and even in public places.

Early this week, President Duterte threatened to use his extraordinary powers to get the construction of the Kaliwa Dam started. Given the opposition from indigenous tribes in the area supported by noisy leftist groups, breaking ground for the dam project will be a big test of Duterte’s so-called political will.

I agree with President Duterte on this one. That dam project has been talked about for decades, but no president had the balls to get it constructed. And that’s one big reason why we have a water crisis in Metro Manila today. Without the dam, we are just throwing away eight billion liters of water per day from the Sierra Madre mountains to the Pacific Ocean.

President Duterte is right to point out that the welfare of the 20 or so million people in Mega Manila supplants whatever rights a small group of people claim they have. But government must make sure the tribes are properly compensated and assisted to move to another nearby area.

Still, the Kaliwa Dam will not solve the expected severe water crisis by March 2020 or earlier. There are no immediate solutions that will deliver the volume of water Angat and Ipo dams cannot supply.

The closest near-term strategy for the water firms is to build additional water treatment capacity in their Cardona and Putatan facilities that draw water from Laguna de Bay.

Tapping Laguna lake had always been a logical option. It is the country’s largest lake and it is in a very convenient location. But people have used the lake as their toilet for years. It is quite expensive to clean lake water to potable quality.

The cost of treating Angat water is Php 0.45 per cubic meter versus Laguna water of P5.00 to P6.50. Maybe wider use of solar and wind energy can bring the cost down. Then again, too, additional Laguna lake treatment plants can go on line faster and capex shouldn’t be as forbidding as building something like the Kaliwa Dam.

The water companies invested in the Putatan and Cardona treatment plants because they had to expand their service areas. It was obvious MWSS will not be able to provide new water sources soon.

I understand that Maynilad plans to increase water treatment plant capacity in Putatan from 300 mld to 900 mld, equivalent to 600 mld, initial capacity of Kaliwa Dam. They will do this in modules of 150 mld. The first 150 mld is set for bidding.

As for the current crisis, Randolf Estrellado, COO of Maynilad said “upcoming mitigating measures are the increased production of our second Putatan plant from 100 mld (million liters per day) to 150 mld, activation of around 50 mld of deep wells, 20 mld of mobile treatment plants, and around 100 mld from continuing reduction of NRW (non-revenue water).”

Rene Almendras, who now runs Manila Water for the Ayalas told me that they were given permission by MWSS to put up an additional 250 mld in Cardona, on the eastern shore of Laguna lake. If things go smoothly with environmental regulators and the LGUs, Manila Water can have 50 mld by 2020 and the 200 in 2021.

Manila Water will also depend on the rehabilitation of Wawa Dam that was built during the colonial American occupation in early 1900s. For a time, Wawa was the only water source for Metro Manila. It was abandoned in the late 1960s when Angat Dam became operational.

I am told that Wawa is waiting for final documentation approval from MWSS and other government regulators. Wawa Dam can add about 500 mld of new water source.

Prime Water, the company Ricky Razon is using for the Wawa project, said it would accelerate water availability by delivering 80 mld by 2021. Still not soon enough to help us next year.

One last point. There seems to be an eagerness to wash away government’s fault in this crisis. The presidential spokesman is talking of taking over the private water distribution companies.

Of course, that delivers no new single drop of water. Worse, government management jeopardizes water distribution because government simply wouldn’t know how to run the operations that are otherwise efficiently managed by the two private water firms.

These private companies have the expert staff and capability to deliver water to all of us. There is no problem with the filtration, and distribution infrastructure. The problem is water supply, and government is supposed to be responsible for that.

Remember the days when government was responsible for delivering water to our homes? Those were horrible days we shouldn’t want to experience again.

The private companies made a big mistake when they agreed to tweak their agreements to allow MWSS to be responsible for water supply. Government has a record of miserably failing to keep up with our infrastructure needs. It was stupid to forget that.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco                    

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