Needed: A sustainable and inclusive water management plan
BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - March 24, 2019 - 12:00am

Many areas in Metro Manila are in the midst of a mini water crisis. This is the first time, and if you think this is the last time then all I can say is that based on the proposals being advanced – this will not be the last time. I call the crisis “mini” – because if you think this is a crisis, then as the saying goes – “you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

The idea that homes cannot access water and households have to buy or line up for water is not new to urban poor and rural households where lining up or buying potable water is a daily chore. I suspect that this has become a “crisis” because the people complaining are the lower middle, middle and even upper classes whose faucets are dry. It would be significant and praiseworthy for me if a proposal is made that would make clean potable water available in every Filipino household. 

Water is critical to every human being because about 70 percent of the human body – rich or poor – is made up of water. NASA has a much quoted mission statement that in looking for signs of extraterrestrial life: “Follow the water.” This is because “...water creates an environment that sustains and nurtures plants, animals, and humans making Earth a perfect match for life in general.” 

The idea of a scorched, arid future Earth where there are violent struggles for control of the few remaining sources of water has been a theme in many movies including the Mad Max series. This nightmarish scenario may not be that farfetched if we review certain statistics. Around 70 percent of the Earth is covered with water. However, 97.5 percent of the Earth’s water is sea water which is extremely salty. Another 1.75 percent is frozen either in glaciers or permafrost. Only 0.75 percent of the Earth’s water is available for usable water. However, most of this is underground or subterranean water. Only 0.3 percent of the Earth’s water is on the surface and this supplies 59 percent of the world’s needs right now. 

This should lead one to conclude that simply tapping additional sources of water on the surface is at best a short term solution. Already some major metropolitan areas like Capetown and Sao Paulo have been warned that their present sources of water will run dry in the next decade or sooner if they have a major drought. In the latest United Nations Annual World Water Development Report, it notes that more than one-fourth of the Earth’s population – 1.9 billion people with 73 percent of them living in Asia – live in areas where water is already scarce. The number increases to almost 50 percent of the world’s population if you include those who risk having scarce water one month every year.

The report states also that the volume of water used – around 4,600 cubic kilometers per year – is near the maximum that can be sustained without supplies shrinking dangerously. In the meantime, the global use of water is expected to increase by 25 percent by 2050 which means 70 percent to 75 percent of the population will live with partial or year round potable water shortages.

The main factors that will lead to water shortages are the increase in demand for potable water; and, the reduction in supply. The increase in water demand is due to population growth and agriculture especially food production. Even now, agriculture accounts for 70 percent of water withdrawals, mostly for irrigation. In developing countries the percentage is even higher. I do not have the specific figures for the Philippines; but, as an agricultural country the percentage here should be similar to Egypt where 84 percent is used for irrigation. In India the figure is at 90 percent. 

Much of the water for irrigation is wasted. The irrigation systems where water is released to flood fields or furrows (common practice in the Philippines)  lose much of the water to evaporation or percolation – losing water to the soil itself before it can be absorbed by the crop’s roots. An estimate is that by using the “flood-irrigation” system, more than 50 percent of the water is wasted. 

According to Ari Schweitzer, chief technology officer of an Israeli company, the “drip” irrigation systems are more effective. By minimizing both evaporation and percolation, it manages to achieve 95-97 percent efficiency in delivering the water directly to the crop’s roots.  This not only saves a lot of water; but, also increases yields. 

Another common sense method of reducing water demand is by intelligent use of water in agriculture. Certain crops use more water than others. Perhaps people can change eating habits and favor these products. For example, meat needs more water than vegetables. Also, chicken takes 4,325 liters per kg., mutton 110,412 liters, beef takes 15,4115 and chocolate almost 17,000 liters per kg. 

Another way in which water is used inefficiently in agriculture is in waste or loss of food. In rich countries, food shops and consumers throw away lots of uneaten foods. However, in countries like the Philippines lots of food is thrown away because of inadequate distribution and logistics facilities. In rich households, there are also lots of food that are simply thrown away. 

Most of the world’s freshwater in rivers and lakes is already being used for irrigation, domestic and industrial water, boat transportation corridors, fisheries and recreation. But even these sources are declining as rivers and lakes become heavily polluted so that the water there becomes unusable even for irrigation. A major threat is also climate change. In the short term, there will be typhoons and floods. In the long run, the bigger problem from climate change will be too little water. A World Bank report states: “The impacts of water scarcity and drought may even be greater causing long term harm in ways that are poorly understood and inadequately documented.”

In the long run, the solution to our water crisis is to find ways to use less water; and, to stop the reduction of freshwater sources that are being lost due to pollution, deforestation and poor distribution.

The major issue in water management is not just looking for a sustainable solution but also providing equal access to the hundreds of millions who do not have equal access to safe and adequate drinking water and sanitation. These are the people who do not have powerful interests lobbying for them nor associations representing their interests. These are the powerless that any sustainable water management plan should include. 

Creative writing classes for kids and teens

Adult series session on creative nonfiction on March 30 (1:30-4:30 pm)  with Susan Lara at Fully Booked BGC. For details and registration,  email

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