Water insecurity

DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco - The Philippine Star

Push is coming to shove. We knew we were living on a razor’s edge but we have done nothing to ensure security of our water supply through the decades. Now El Niño and climate change have arrived and I am not sure we have enough time to prevent disaster as our usual water reservoirs dry up.

The water level in Angat Dam, which supplies over 95 percent of Metro Manila’s water needs, has dropped below its minimum operating level. Those managing the dam are worried as they should be… as we all should be. The typhoon last weekend is not enough.

Angat Dam primarily supplies Metro Manila’s potable water needs. It also provides for the irrigation of 25,000 hectares of rice fields in Bulacan and parts of Pampanga. Aside from Angat Dam, the water level in other dams such as La Mesa, San Roque and Caliraya also dropped. We need more than one typhoon with its rains falling directly on our dams to fill the reservoirs up to a safe level.

We had over 30 years to develop another water source for Metro Manila but the politicians and the inept officials they appointed to MWSS have accomplished nothing much. During PNoy’s time, MWSS at least reinforced the structure of the over 50-year-old Angat Dam, especially because it is on top of an earthquake fault line.

The real new source of water for Metro Manila is up in the Sierra Madre mountains where the Kaliwa River wastefully discharges its water to the Pacific Ocean. The Kaliwa Dam project is seen to supplement around 1,400 MLD by 2028. We have talked a lot about tapping this resource but only talk, nothing ever happens. The IPs in the area, at the instance of leftist groups, are opposing it. But it is a solvable problem if there is political will, which many of our presidents apparently don’t have. Sen. Frank Drilon showed how to do it in Iloilo… tutukan lang!

The National Irrigation Authority organized a presentation for me on the progress of the construction of the Jalaur River Multipurpose Project up in the mountains further inland from Iloilo city. It was started in the 1960s but didn’t get anywhere until Sen. Drilon saw its value and pursued its completion. The PNoy administration provided counterpart funds to the $208-million official development assistance agreement with the Korean Exim Bank. The good news is that the construction of the series of high dams was finished in 2023 by Daewoo, the South Korean contractor. They are now working to complete the 81-kilometer canal that will deliver irrigation water to rice farms in Iloilo.

The Jalaur high dam project is essentially designed for irrigation with incidental production of power (6.6MW). It is the biggest irrigation project in Iloilo and the first large-scale water reservoir constructed outside Luzon. The P19.7-billion project will transform Iloilo’s economy, as it will irrigate 32,000 hectares of farmlands, double rice production to over 339,000 MT per year and enable Iloilo to export rice to other regions of the country.

Impressed by the relatively smooth implementation of the project, I asked the NIA officials if they had problems with the IPs. There was initial resistance, I was told, since the NPAs are also active in the area and have politicized the residents. But NIA overcame the resistance by working closely with the affected communities. They guaranteed jobs and other livelihood benefits like being able to fish in the dam waters. Best of all, they built houses for the IPs that had been turned over to them at no cost and the only restriction is they cannot sell or rent the houses as it is only for their family’s use.

As Sen. Frank explained, all it takes is to work closely with the affected community, talk to them, hear out their concerns and work with them on how their lives can be improved by addressing their basic needs.

The MWSS folks took a very long time in getting the Sierra Madre IPs to agree. The Kaliwa project that is funded by the Chinese government is only about 20 percent completed. One thing is sure, we needed the Kaliwa dam yesterday. It could have made a difference in our El Niño-related travails today.

Hopefully, our officials realize that time is running out. Water availability is an urgent need. BBM seems to realize that enough to ask Congress to pass a bill creating a Department of Water.

I am normally skeptical of this typical bureaucratic knee jerk approach to solving a crisis by creating another bureaucratic body. But in this case, it is a good idea to consolidate the jumble of agencies from NWRC, LUWUA, MWSS and the hundreds of water districts reporting to LGUs into one body that coordinates all policies and projects. Water is no less important than energy and it deserves a department too.

Our water problem was summed up by a World Bank report last year: “The impacts of climate change are mostly felt through water: too much, too little or too polluted. The Philippines already confronts these three challenges – floods, droughts and heightening poverty and inequality dynamics, notably through infrastructure and quality of service access gaps in the water supply and sanitation sector.”

Major cities can run out of water. Cape Town in South Africa almost did in 2018. Mexico City, a city of 22 million, is about to lose its water supply by June 26, 2024 according to the Washington Post.

We must realize that we are in a serious crisis ourselves and we are just ignoring the inconvenient reality.



Boo Chanco’s email address is [email protected]. Followhim on X @boochanco

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