FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - March 16, 2019 - 12:00am

If you live in the East Zone of this sprawling metropolis, you know what havoc this water crisis brings to our daily lives. All normal routines are suspended. This week, and maybe for many months ahead, we live according to the ebb and flow of our faucets.

Adding to the sense of chaos are the many uninitiated, or plainly stupid, interpretations about why this crisis is upon us. The usual suspects – those who oppose the construction of new dams, protest increase in water rates to allow for reinvestment and dispute the decision to privatize the utilities – are also the first to propagate disinformation. They do this to politicize the crisis and lay the groundwork for agitation.

These usual suspects have spread the usual insane conspiracy theories: such as that which claims this is a manufactured crisis to justify borrowing from China to finance the construction of the Kaliwa Dam and the Chico River irrigation project.

Sooner or later, the proper diagnosis of what happened and what could be done should surface and become the pervasive narrative by which our daily misery is explained. Until such time, the leftist groups will try to convince us against the evidence that the solution lies in not building new water impounding infra and re-nationalizing the water utilities.

First, to be clear, the problem is not privatization. The problem is water supply. The solution is not re-nationalization. The solution is to build new fresh water impoundment facilities for the growing and wealthier population of Mega Manila.

The privatization of the water concessions in 1997 was a success story. It opened the door for investments in the tens of billions for more efficient distribution. Today, there is better water pressure, less leakage, less non-revenue water and cleaner water supply.

Our privatization model, which puts a premium on the lowest water tariffs, has since been replicated all over the world. It is the textbook case for improving distribution efficiency, opening participation for private investments and keeping tariffs moderate. Inflation-adjusted, current water tariffs compare well with what we paid during the bad old days when water supply was scarce and quality doubtful.

Where then does the problem lie?

MWSS Chief Regulator Patrick Ty put the matter succinctly and accurately: “It is the fault of the government because it is the responsibility of government to source… the water.”

The concessionaires merely distribute in the most efficient manner possible the water government makes available. It is for government to look beyond the horizon and anticipate aggregate water needs.

In that, government failed. Kaliwa Dam was not built. Nearly the entire water supply for Mega Manila depends on the aging (and probably crumbling) Angat Dam.

Yet the agitators are demanding the dams not be built, the tariffs to the water concessionaires returned and the costs not be paid by the actual consumers but by way of subsidies that will be paid by all taxpayers. Perhaps they want us to squeeze water from thin air.


The other crisis affecting us is the absence of a national budget for this year. The Senate has refused to sign the enrolled copy of the budget bill, contriving all sorts of excuses not to do so.

Earlier this week, President Duterte “moderated” a meeting between leaders of the two chambers of Congress to break the impasse that keeps the 2019 budget from being enacted. The meeting ended without resolution.

Duterte, the raging bull of Filipino politics, appeared helpless before the games senators play.

While accusing the congressmen of hiding pork in the budget, the Senate realigned a humungous P74 billion lump sum to be used at their say-so.

Rep. Dante Marcoleta exposed the Senate’s realignment of funds. Consider where the funds came from and be duly scandalized:  P25 billion was taken from the National Greening Program; P3 billion from Tesda scholarships; P11 billion from funds originally designated for the DPWH to pay farmers for the right of way of major roadways; and P2.5 billion from funds originally designated as counterpart to foreign-assisted projects.

Having scraped together a sizeable fund, the senators refuse to itemize the money they realigned. Instead, they called the itemization of fund realigned by their House counterparts as “unconstitutional.”

If it were someone from the executive branch who attempted such brazen realignment, Duterte would have bashed his head in at first whiff. But before the senators, he seemed transformed into a kitten.

This has led some to surmise that a new axis of power has formed. It is not the self-designated “opposition” politicians of the Liberal Party that is the alternative axis. Their time in the limelight has passed and their own incompetence condemns them. It is the senators, specifically the tandem of Panfilo Lacson and Tito Sotto that has emerged as the alternative pole of power in the country.

Consider these: it was the senators who blocked any movement toward federalism and the grant of emergency powers to the President to address the infra crisis; the restoration of the death penalty died at the Senate; and, the remaining tranches of the comprehensive tax reform program are trapped in the bowels of the Upper House. All these are high in Duterte’s scheme of priorities.

Embedded in what has become the only alternative pole of power in the current arrangement, it should be easy for the senators to nurse larger ambitions for themselves. There is speculation, for instance, that a Lacson-Sotto tandem could emerge to contest the 2022 elections and the first steps toward making that a viable scenario are now being taken.

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