Scarce
FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - March 21, 2019 - 12:00am

By Sal Panelo’s account, President Duterte’s meeting with the officers of the MWSS, Manila Water and Maynilad was not a meeting at all.

The President was seething. He was not even interested in whatever explanation the officers present had to give. He condemned the water concessionaires for caring only about their profits. He did not even look at the water officials as he went through his rant.

Then the “meeting,” I imagine, ended as uncomfortably as it began. The President asked his guests to shape up or ship out.

Unfortunately, no policy issues were settled in that “meeting.”

The most important of those issues is who really is responsible for ensuring an adequate supply of raw water. That is a matter that was not explicit in the concession agreements signed by the two water companies with the government regulator. 

It has always been assumed that government will be responsible for providing the raw water that the concessionaires will distribute. The spokesman for the MWSS said as much last week when he redirected blame from the private concessionaires.

We all knew water from existing sources would not suffice. It was always a bad idea to rely on the aging Angat Dam for 97 percent of the metropolitan area’s water needs. If something (heaven forbid!) happens to that dam, the entire national capital region will suffer an unspeakable calamity.

If it was government’s responsibility to ensure an adequate supply of raw water, it has done a terrible job. When the water utilities were privatized in the late nineties, one expert study pointed out that by 2019 more than 40 percent of the water supply ought to come from sources other than the Angat Dam.

Well, it is 2019 and water sourced from facilities other than Angat Dam remains at three percent. To put it bluntly: government and the concessionaires have added virtually nothing to the available supply of raw water.

If work finally commences on the Kaliwa Dam this year, financed largely by Chinese ODA, no new supply will be available until 2023 at the earliest. Until then, water for Mega Manila will be scarce.

One global study puts a larger perspective on the water problem. Sometime over the next decade, as the world’s population grows and becomes more affluent, water demand will exceed water supply. That is dire. The world’s governments should act now to encourage reuse and recycling of water before our cities become deserts, forcing the largest wave of migration ever.

So many of the ancient cities archeologists have dug up over the years, such as the magnificent Angkor Wat, appear to have been abandoned because of water shortages. Oriental despotism and the rise of large empires, such as in China, are explained by need to manage water systems. Water supply is the single most important determinant of whether entire civilizations rise or fall.

NRW

The leftist groups who are trying to build support by opposing the construction of new dams to supply the metropolis, are deflecting public understanding about the long-term nature of the water problem.  They say there is no supply problem if only the water concessionaires bring down the rate of non-revenue water (NRW).

They do not know whereof they speak.

NRW is the equivalent of “systems losses” in the case of the power industry. If I remember correctly, NRW before privatization was as high as 60 percent. Manila Water brought their NRW to 11 percent. Maynilad, because they serve the older part of a metropolis whose water engineering plans were destroyed during the Second World War, has more than double the NRW.

The law on diminishing returns governs the effort to bring down NRW. At some point, it is intolerably more expensive to bring down NRW another percentage point.

Also, not all NRW are due to leaking pipes we could not find because of lost engineering plans. A lot of it is pilfered.

Water pilferage is a crime. But the return on enforcement is low. It is difficult to imagine if the cost of prosecuting entire urban poor communities will be worth the effort.

Let us keep our focus as we muddle through this crisis. The problem is raw water supply. The first solution is water impoundment. Everything else – prudential use, reuse and recycling – is secondary.

Generous

If the water crisis seems a bit more bearable the past few days, it is because of two things: Maynilad’s decision to divert some of its supply to Manila Water and San Miguel Corp.’s generous decision to donate 140 million liters a day from its Bulacan Bulk Water project to communities severely affected by scarcity.

Once again, it is the responsibly governed corporations that have come to the rescue.

The San Miguel “donation” is not cheap. It will cost the corporation about P1.66 million per day to bring water relief to the distressed communities.

Of all the business leaders, SMC’s Ramon S. Ang appears most concerned about the strategic consequences of current water use. The conglomerate instituted a program to reduce their water use by 50 percent over the next couple of years through careful management, improved reuse and recycling. That requires a ton of new investments in modern technologies.

In addition, SMS extended a P1 billion grant to the DENR to clean up Tullahan River that feeds into Manila Bay. Tullahan is among the dirtiest rivers in the world.

Ang is a businessman cut from a different cloth. He espoused corporate involvement in improving the nation’s infra long before others found it profitable aside from patriotic.

WATER CRISIS
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