Residents line up for water rationed by Manila Water in Barangay Highway Hills, Mandaluyong City on March 11, 2019. Photograph by George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News
Culture Spotlight

Here’s what can actually be done to help solve the water crisis

While endless debates about who’s to blame for the current shortage—and a more than a few conspiracy theories—abound, a former DENR secretary weighs in on what we can do about it. “Water stress is really increasing,” she points out, and time is of the essence. 
Bam Abellon | Mar 23 2019

In the past few weeks, the East Zone of Metro Manila turned into a real-life version of a post-apocalyptic movie: people towing empty plastic buckets and drums and lining the sidewalks as they wait for the fire trucks that ration out water. Sometimes the fire trucks come past midnight. Dwellers of residential buildings wait for their turn to fetch water from their building’s swimming pool that is already half-empty by the fifth day of the water interruption. The prices of water containers have gone up—as high as thrice the average price. Two days into the chaos, which started on the second week of March, people are angry and frustrated. They want answers.

Manila Water, the utility concessionaire in charge of providing water to the East Zone of Metro Manila, said on Tuesday that 93 percent of consumers now have “longer hours” of water flow, compared to the previous days. With the ongoing senate hearing—which was preceded by theories, commentaries, and allegations from different personalities on social media and other media outlets—there are now actually more questions than answers.

A delivery of drums sells out in under an hour in Pasig City amid an ongoing water shortage, March 14, 2019. Residents in affected areas have been rushing to purchase water containers to store water amid continuing service interruptions in areas covered by Manila Water. Photograph by Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

The traumatized citizens are now asking: Is it going to happen again? What can we actually do to conserve water? We tried to make sense of all of this by interviewing former Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) secretary Elisea “Bebet” Gozun. She also serves a consultant for the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) and Asian Development Bank (ADB).

 

What Can Be Done

“We are experiencing water-stress,” says Gozun. According to the United Nations (UN) Water, “Water stress is when annual water supplies drop below 1,700 m3 per person.” To explain, she reiterates, “Fresh water is finite.” And by finite, that means, the total fresh water resources in the Philippines is now only around 146 billion m3. If divided by the population of the Philippines, the number is way below 1,700. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), as of 2015, the Philippines has 100, 981, 437 people. “If you look at what’s needed, compared to our total water source, kulang na ang tubig to call it adequate.”

There have been public announcements scattered all over different media pertaining to conservation of water. But while these measures are effective, we wonder if there is a way to have a tighter hold of these practices, given that we have already come to a perturbing dilemma.

Residents of Barangay Barangka Drive in Mandaluyong City lineup for water rations, March 11, 2019. Photograph by Kevin Manalo, ABS-CBN News

Gozun says there are tested ways to alleviate the problem, but it must be done at the soonest possible time.  

First, “water conservation should be a way of life,” Gozun says. “We don’t only do it when there is shortage.”

Second, water efficiency should be priority. Remember those numbers on appliances that states the energy efficiency? Water fixtures should have a similar label, which will inform consumers of the water efficiency, or “ilan ang gamit na tubig, let’s say liters per second, of each appliance,” says Gozun. A toilet flush, for example, should be measured as to how much water it uses per flush. A faucet should be measured as to how much water it discharges every time users turn on the knob. She cites that in Australia, for example, their toilet fixtures now only use 3.5 liters per flush, compared to the 10 liters per flush in the previous years. “We didn’t need to have a law to have those energy efficiency ratings, maybe we can do the same for water fixtures,” Gozun hopes.

Third, rain water is a fresh water resource that we could use, she says. Since we are experiencing El Niño, we have time to prepare for the implementation of this solution. Gozun explains, “When we talk about water management, we are not just talking about ground water and surface water, like creeks. We consider tubig ulan and flood water.”

Water management is especially important in agriculture, which, according to the former DENR secretary uses 73 percent of our fresh water resources. “We can have rain water impounding system for agriculture, which can also minimize flooding,” Gozun says. “The flood waters, or runoff galing sa mga kalye, nasa flood control drainage. Bakit hindi natin i-capture and store so we could use it in the future?” Gozun says that before houses and buildings are constructed, double-piping must already be put in place, so that rainwater can be used for anything other than drinking or cooking. 

 

More ways to conserve:

 

This kind of storage system, she reveals, is already being implemented in Bonifacio Global City, Taguig, where they have a six-storey deep reservoir for surface runoff, or water that flows from land surface, such as rainwater or snowmelt. For this to be implemented in other areas, we have to allow water to enter the soil to recharge the aquifers, or water-bearing rocks. “We cannot do that if sinisemento natin lahat. Sinisimento because ayaw natin ng muddy, she says. To avoid that, Gozun suggest we use pavers or brick-like pavement, instead.

She adds, “Rainy season will start in June. DPWH [Department of Public Works and Highways] should start redesigning underground storage.”

Fourth, Gozun emphasizes that water recycling should be taken with utmost seriousness in times like these. For car wash businesses, for example, she suggests that owners find a way to use wasted water, “final wash lang ang kailangan fresh water for that.” Government should regulate businesses that currently waste too much water, she argues.

Marikina residents buy large plastic drums along Marcos Highway on March 14, 2019 at Php1,300 each for storing water for their daily needs. Photograph by Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Gozun says these initiatives will not only be good for the conservation of water, but will also be beneficial for the economy. “In terms of policy, we recognize that water is a human right,” she says. “Everybody should have access to clean water.” However, she suggests that beyond the basic needs and beyond what is needed, there should be additional cost to the users for the excess water consumed. “The biggest driver for water efficiency and conservation is really economic reasons.”

 

Who’s to Blame?

“Right now, we cannot blame climate change for the water shortage, per se,” Gozun tells us. “But if you think medium- and long-term, the level of water stress is really increasing.”

That means that in the bigger scheme of things, climate change is adversely affecting our water resource. With higher temperature comes higher evaporation rate. Also, the higher the temperature naturally calls for higher demand for water. There is also a reduction in the amount of rainfall. Mindanao, she says, has a rainfall reduction of 30 percent. She adds that “tumataas ang dagat,” which means that saline water can affect ground water—and this is already happening in different areas in Metro Manila, such as Malabon, Navotas, Caloocan, to name a few. “Fresh water is contaminated,” Gozun shares. “Saline plus fresh water, equals brackish water. Brackish water is not for drinking. You need to desalinate, and that’s additional cost.”

In 1997 and 1998, the Philippines experienced what Gozun calls, “the worst El Niño.” She recalls that at the time, specifically for Metro Manila, the level of water in Angat Dam, which supplies 96 percent of water in Metro Manila, was too low. To solve the crisis, since the agriculture industry is the biggest consumer of water, the famers were given compensation and we asked not to plant for a while. “It addressed the loss of income for farmers, but what about our food?”

We are not there now—at least not yet.

Several barangays in Mandaluyong are set to recommend the declaration of a state of calamity due to the water shortage that has affected thousands of residents. Photograph by Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

“It’s correct to fault Manila Water for not informing the people earlier,” says Gozun, agreeing with the seemingly unending castigation of the Ayala Corporation subsidiary. “The problem is, when you tell people that there could be water interruption, it could be that people were storing more water than they actually use.” However, this problem, she says, has been raised last year by many government, private, and non-government agencies, and the Manila Water is not solely to blame for the current mess. It should have been—and still should be—a collective responsibility: “Alam na natin El Niño year tayo, last year pa. Yung efficiency, wala pa rin talaga, wala sa building code, planning code.”

 

The Controversial Dams

A widely debated topic nowadays is the China-funded Kaliwa Dam, which can provide a total of 2,400 million liters per day, according to report by ABS-CBN News, published on March 21. However, the project has met protests from environmentalists and locals, who are against its use of ancestral land.

Gozun says the project has been discussed for the past two years. “That has been identified as a needed measure so we can have alternative sources,” she says. She is hoping that they will carefully use existing approaches “na hindi gano’n kalaki ang impact sa environment.” It will take, however, years to finish the project, if it were to be carried out.

“We shouldn’t be complacent,” she warns the people. “In 2003, we only got 55 percent of the average rainfall. We need to conserve! We are now very conscious about energy efficiency, when we can live without power, but not without water.”

There may be a lot of fake news surrounding this recent catastrophe, but Gozun says, what she knows for sure is that water shortage is happening, and we will keep feeling its dreadful impact, unless all of us—yes, all—do something about it. Gozun concludes, “It’s a real problem, which people should wake up to.”