Harvesting rain
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - June 28, 2019 - 12:00am

In a house where my family used to live in Sta. Cruz, Manila, there was a concrete structure about 10 feet long, four feet wide and five feet high, which I first thought was a backyard swimming pool of some sort.

Of course the tank wasn’t big enough to paddle around, and the water was too deep for young children. And unlike pool water, it was not treated with chlorine.

But the water came from the sky and was good enough for doing the laundry, watering plants as well as cleaning dishes, the ground and the car. During water service interruptions from what was then called NAWASA, the water from the tank was also useful for toilet flushing.

The house was built after World War II. Like many houses during the Spanish colonial and Commonwealth periods, it was designed with that large cistern equipped with a faucet for drawing out the trapped rainwater, and was built near the area for hanging clothes out to dry.

A single downpour could fill that cistern, and it meant significant savings in water expenses.

Some old structures in Intramuros still have such cisterns of varying sizes and shapes, usually on the balcony.

Today we have metal or plastic drums, but we’ve lost the mindset of catching rainwater for our daily needs. People worry that storing rainwater might provide breeding grounds for mosquito larvae or kiti-kiti, with all the diseases such as dengue and malaria that mosquitoes bring.

Also, we’ve been spoiled by the idea that if we need water, all we have to do is twirl a handle or push the toilet flush and out comes all the water we need. Sometimes we don’t even need to touch any gadget; automatic water dispensers and toilet flushes have become ubiquitous.

But what’s the good of automatic dispensers if there’s no water running through the pipes?

*      *      *

These days in Metro Manila it seems there’s water everywhere – except in the taps where it’s needed. Yesterday we had no water in The STAR office.

PAGASA has declared the official start of the rainy season. And sure enough it’s been pouring for the past days, flooding many areas in the National Capital Region. But not where the rain is much awaited: over Angat Dam, principal source of water for the NCR, and the rice fields of Bulacan.

The National Water Resources Board (NWRB), which allocates water from Angat, has stopped providing water for farm irrigation, and has reduced supply to the two NCR water concessionaires, Maynilad and Manila Water.

NWRB legal unit head Archie Asuncion and engineer Susan Abaño say there is enough water in Angat for the 15 million consumers in Metro Manila and nearby areas, and rationing is just to ensure that the supply will last until the dam is sufficiently replenished.

But despite the recent heavy thunderstorms, replenishment is still about two months away, and Angat has already hit the critical water level, Abaño and Asuncion told “The Chiefs” last Tuesday on Cignal TV’s One News channel.

The NWRB has implemented several measures to mitigate the water lack. Apart from reducing the water allocations, cloud-seeding operations are being conducted. The NWRB has also allowed the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) to use existing ground water extracting facilities or deep wells to augment the supply.

*      *      *

In southern Metro Manila, many households have their own deep wells, installed in the days when there was no water concessionaire or the supply was available only for two to three hours every other day. During power outages, the water pumps didn’t work.

Maynilad arrived just in time, as geologists were warning that over-extraction of ground water was weakening the foundations of houses, buildings and public works infrastructure. But the first Maynilad owners failed to meet their timeline for reaching all the consumers in their concession area, so the deep wells continued to be used.

Today amid the water rationing, the NWRB says the geologists’ warning must be heeded, and only the MWSS is allowed to extract ground water.

*      *      *

For long-term measures, what are the possibilities? Metro Manila needs new sources of water. The NWRB says Kaliwa Dam in the Sierra Madre range is finally being developed and is expected to come on stream in about three years. That is if it is not snagged by what several industry players have described as the exorbitant demands for royalties by a greedy local politician. Is the water supply of millions of Metro Manila residents being held hostage by one man? Where is Tokhang when we need it?

There are fixtures that allow for more economical water consumption. Water recycling can also be encouraged. Singapore does not have its own freshwater source, so it has developed both a legal framework and physical infrastructure to promote water recycling throughout the city-state.

And harvesting rainwater need not be consigned to the dustbin of history. Even the NWRB says cisterns can be a component of a modern water supply system. Asuncion and Abuña said Republic Act 9275, the Water Quality Management Act of 2004, provides for the construction of underground water catchments by the national government, in spots to be identified by local government units.

Abuña said such catchments can be built under road networks, parks and government buildings. This is already being done in several countries. But the law has never been implemented.

Such catchments can be useful in flood-prone areas such as España Boulevard in Manila. The catchments will be built underground and ordinary folks may never even know that such facilities exist. But they may notice less flooding and the water subsiding faster.

They need not even worry about kiti-kiti and dengue.

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