EXPLAINER: Why is there a water shortage in Metro Manila?

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 12 2019 08:36 PM | Updated as of Mar 21 2019 04:09 PM

EXPLAINER: Why is there a water shortage in Metro Manila? 1
Residents line up for water rationed by Manila Water in Barangay Highway Hills, Mandaluyong City on March 11, 2019. The Manila Water Company has limited the supply of water, believed to last through out the summer season, to residents in some places in Metro Manila owing to the critically low level of the La Mesa Dam reservoir. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

MANILA -- Long lines of residents carrying pails and basins. Empty water containers piled outside water stations. Firetrucks inside condominium complexes with half-filled pools and waterless faucets. This has become the new norm in 200 or so barangays in Metro Manila in the last six days. 

According to Manila Water, which serves the East Zone of Metro Manila, around 52,000 households relying on their supply currently do not have water. This number does not include those experiencing low water pressure. 

For a while, the problem was lumped with the effects of El Niño. But Manila Water officials on Tuesday clarified that the dry season is not solely to blame for the water shortage.

“It is correct to say El Niño aggravated it. Because there is so little rain nowadays,” Manila Water Chief Operating Officer Geodino Carpio said, explaining that rainfall could have filled up La Mesa Dam which serves as their emergency water source.

But Carpio explained that it is more of a supply and demand problem.

High demand, low supply

Most of Metro Manila’s water comes from Angat Dam, as distributed by Manila Water (east zone) and Maynilad (west zone). 

With 1.4 million service connections (9.5 million people), Maynilad gets 60 percent of the raw water allocation or around 2.4 billion liters of water a day. Meanwhile, Manila Water, with 990,080 service connections (6.8 million people) gets 40 percent or 1.6 billion liters a day based on their concession agreement.

Currently, Angat Dam’s water level, according to Maynilad, is at a manageable level. This is why Maynilad is not expecting any immediate water shortage on their part. Also, besides Angat Dam, Maynilad gets 7 percent of its water supply from Laguna Lake and deep wells.

Manila Water, on the other hand, has an average deficit of 140 million liters a day because of their increasing service connections.

Service connections of Manila Water
1997 325,000
2019 990,080


Since 2016, Manila Water has relied on the buffer supply from La Mesa Dam to augment the deficit.

However, Manila Water’s La Mesa Dam reached its lowest level in 12 years recently. This means the company can no longer rely on their emergency supply of rain water collected from the La Mesa Watershed. And it is highly likely that the situation will improve until summer ends and the dam is refilled by rainwater. 

EXPLAINER: Why is there a water shortage in Metro Manila? 2
The water level at La Mesa Dam in Quezon City reached near critical level at 69.35 meters above sea level (masl) compared to 80.15 masl Normal High Water level, on March 7, 2019. ABS-CBN News

Manila Water has also denied that they have a leakage problem since their non-revenue water or water loss percentage has been around 11 percent since 2010. This is a big improvement compared to the pre-privatization, non-revenue water percentage of 63 percent. Its non-revenue water level is better than the global recommended percentage of between 20 to 25 percent and Maynilad’s current water loss percentage of around 30 percent, the Ayala-owned company said. 

Non revenue water/ water loss
Manila Water
1997 (before privatization) 63%
2018 11.42%
2007 (before re-privatization) 67%
2017 31.7%

Delayed projects

The root of the problem lies in the delay of water infrastructure projects.

“Yes, it (increased demand) has been projected. Unfortunately, the projected solutions were delayed,” Carpio said.

He said this was why they were constructing a treatment plant in Cardona, Rizal, which is supposed to draw up to 100 million liters of water a day from Laguna Lake. It would have been enough to cover some of their deficit. 

“I will admit that if Cardona [treatment plant] was energized on time, then we would not be facing the same problem right now,” Carpio said. “However, our contractor had a number of technical issues.”

He said one of these was the inadequate design of the plant’s discharge pipe. “There were unexpected rock formations,” Carpio added, explaining that they can never be sure what is beneath the ground before they start constructing a treatment plant. 

Nevertheless, he said some of the problems have already been fixed and the plant will be able to partially operate and supply them with 50 million liters a day.

Another project that both Manila Water and Maynilad have been waiting for is the controversial Kaliwa Dam, which could provide an additional 600 million liters a day for Metro Manila. Local and environmental groups have opposed the project because of its alleged negative effects on the residents and the environment. 

It has been in the pipeline for decades and is now in the final stage of engineering design, according to Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) Administrator Reynaldo Velasco. 

Where water comes from

While Angat Dam’s current water level is still manageable, Manila Water is unable to draw additional supply from the dam because of technical limitations. 

Carpio said the tunnels and aqueducts drawing water from Angat can only draw 4 billion liters a day.

He said the only way to fix this is to create additional aqueducts. MWSS is already working on this but it would take years to finish. 

EXPLAINER: Why is there a water shortage in Metro Manila? 3

The water from La Mesa dam comes from the Angat Reservoir and Dam, which serves domestic and industrial requirements of Metro Manila, as well as irrigation requirements of Pampanga and Bulacan. Angat Dam also generates hydroelectric power for the Luzon Grid. 

The water from Angat River, which originates from the Sierra Madre Mountains, is diverted from Angat Dam through two tunnels going to Ipo Dam. 

From Ipo Dam, the water flows through three tunnels, which separates into aqueducts leading to the La Mesa Portal. It is here that the water is separated between Maynilad and Manila Water. Manila Water’s supply goes to the La Mesa Dam before heading to their treatment plants.

Panic water storing caused shortage

According to Manila Water, certain areas like those in Mandaluyong completely lost water because they were not able to refill their San Juan reservoir.

Manila Water spokesperson Jeric Sevilla pointed out that they first announced that there will be no water or low pressure in several areas in Metro Manila on March 4. The list did not include Mandaluyong. 

While they expected people to store water in anticipation of the water outage, they did not expect those from areas outside the listed cities to do the same.

Because of the unexpected behavior of the residents in Mandaluyong and other areas, some of Manila Water’s reservoirs almost got depleted.

Right now, it is still a challenge for them to return the San Juan reservoir to its normal level because of the continued demand for water in the area.

This is aggravated by lower volume of water coming from La Mesa Dam. Because of the dam’s very low level, the water can no longer pass through many of the water intake gates. The water can only pass through the last level of the gates. Manila Water has also resorted to alternative measures such as using portable pumps. 

Carpio cannot say when water will be restored in the affected areas, especially those in the hilly areas of Mandaluyong and San Juan. He explained that gravity is a factor in their water supply system so those in higher areas may not be able to receive water because of the low supply and the low pressure. 

“Throughout summer, we would have below normal conditions,” Carpio added.

For now, the only hope is for Maynilad to share some of their surplus water to Manila Water.

Carpio said that while they would want to have it by tomorrow, negotiations are still ongoing. If an accord is reached, Manila Water could get 32 million liters a day from Maynilad. 

However, he explained that they would still need to study the technical aspect of “cross border flows” or how Maynilad would be able to transfer their water to Manila Water’s pipes.

MWSS' Velasco told radio DZMM on Monday night that a deal has already been reached with Maynilad, but the additional water won't be available soon. 

In the end, Carpio called on the public to conserve water until the rainy season starts.