Another crisis looms
THE CORNER ORACLE - Andrew J. Masigan (The Philippine Star) - January 22, 2020 - 12:00am

Just as the residents of Metro Manila and the Southern Tagalog regions cope with the impending eruption of Taal Volcano, another crisis is looming in the air. This time, it is water crisis. With water volume at the Angat Dam below minimum manageable levels, acute water disruption is imminent for the entire NCR region, Rizal, Laguna, Cavite and Bulacan.

The disruption of water service has nothing to do with the ongoing negotiation of contract terms between government and the two water concessionaires, Maynilad and Manila Water Co. (MWC). Rather, it has everything to do with government’s failure to build an alternative water source that meets the needs of the Greater Capital Region and its 16.5 million inhabitants. The 60-year-old Angat dam is the lone water source of the region and its maximum supply capacity of 4,000 million liters per day is no longer sufficient.

Contrary to the common notion that the water concessionaires control the amount of water supply, it is in fact the National Water Resource Board (NWRB) who determines how much water is released from Angat and channeled to the Metro Manila Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS). The MWSS, in turn, appropriates the water to both Maynilad and the MWC, who distribute it to consumers.

Last Jan. 8, the MWSS admitted that Angat’s maximum capacity can no longer meet the needs of the Greater Capital Region. In fact, we already felt the shortage in May and October last year when water rationing was imposed in some districts.

Despite two typhoons last December, Angat’s water level peaked at only 201.71 meters, far below the ideal yearend level of 212 meters. Due to this lower-than-expected water volume, the NWRB is hard-pressed to choke water release from Angat.

This month, the NWRB released a mere 40 cubic meters per second (cms) or 3,450 million liters per day of raw water from Angat, 20 percent below the ideal allocation of 48 cms. The shortfall of supply is seen to become more acute during the summer months.

The specter of water shortage will persist until 2025 or until the Kaliwa Dam comes online. Meantime, life for all those who live in the Greater Capital Region will become increasingly difficult, much like it was in the early 90’s.

How did we get here?

Truth is, past administrations knew very well that a water crisis was imminent given Metro Manila’s ever-growing population.

Plans to build the New Centennial Water Source project, which involves the construction of the Kaliwa Dam in Quezon and the Laiban Dam in Rizal, existed since the Marcos era. However, no administration, until the current one, had the political will to press forward with the project. For decades, the construction of the Kaliwa Dam faced fierce opposition from indigenous folk, informal settlers, the church, leftist groups and opportunistic politicians who consigned the project to limbo by filing one temporary restraining order (TRO) after another. Neither President dared to face-off with them.

It was only President Duterte who did. In a statement last Dec. 30, the President “warned” the courts to be “sparing” in the issuances of TROs on the Kaliwa Dam project. He reminded the courts that by virtue of Republic Act 8975, only the Supreme Court has the power to grant TROs for infrastructure projects.

As a compromise, government decided that only the Kaliwa Dam will be built (without the Laiban Dam). This will make the social and environmental impacts of the project minimal. In addition, consultations with the indigenous peoples and cultural communities reached a positive outcome last month and a resolution of consent for the project has been reached. This satisfies the “Free Prior and Informed Consent,” the most contentious requirement of the project.

With this, the construction of the P12.2 billion Kaliwa Dam was given a notice to proceed. It is being built by China Energy Engineering Co. Ltd under an official development assistance loan. Preparatory work for construction is already in full swing. When completed in 2025, the Kaliwa Dam will ensure Metro Manila with ample supply of water, even with low levels of rainfall, for decades to come.

So what can we do between now and 2025 to minimize the impact of the water shortage?

For one, conserve water usage. Two, government will have no choice but to limit the amount of water appropriated for agricultural irrigation (which will result to higher prices of fruits and vegetables – but that’s another story).

Third, the water concessionaires must eke out extra supply of water wherever they can.

As for Maynilad, they completed the upgrades of Putatan 1 & 2 Water Treatment Plants and activated various deep wells. These initiatives will add 154 million liters of water per day for the Western sector of Manila. This February, its leakage reduction program will be competed and this will add another 94 million liters of water per day.

In total, Maynilad’s leakage reduction program has managed to recover 979 million liters of water per day, enough to supply potable water to 1.7-M households. Mind you, this refers to leaked water which Maynilad cannot derive revenues from.

On the part of MWC, they invested P1.35 billion to retrofit their Balara Treatment Plants 1 and 2. This will result in the recovery of 20 million liters per day of water loss. At the Balara Pump Station, new variable frequency drives are being installed to ensure stable water pressure.

The mitigation efforts of the two concessionaires will minimize the water deficit but not eliminate water shortage and rationing.

So all these spells good and bad news for the residents of the Greater Capital Region. The good news is – our second water source, the Kaliwa Dam, is finally under construction and this should solve our water woes by 2025. The bad news is – water rationing will persist for five more years.

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