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[OPINION] Three days

By: Peter Wallace – @inquirerdotnet
Philippine Daily Inquirer / 04:25 AM August 22, 2022


Humans can last three weeks without food, but only three days without water. It’s essential to life. So creating a government department to ensure we all have enough to drink and our plants have enough to grow makes eminent sense. Water needs department-level attention.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge said it well. “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.�? The Philippines gets more than enough rainfall scattered throughout our islands to satisfy all our needs (correct). In this, we are a very fortunate country. But too much of it goes uncaptured for our needs, or wasted in profligate use. And with climate change creating havoc in the world’s atmosphere, and consequent rainfall patterns, who knows what we’ll next experience. But we’d better be thinking about it, and planning contingencies now.

Our rivers need to be tapped, with dams and catchment areas, to provide water for our daily needs, for irrigation, and for clean power to our electric grid. Individual storage systems need to be promoted. And conservative use of water is encouraged. Fresh water is a scarce resource, and we should be treating it conservatively.

Only 42 percent of households nationwide have water piped into their homes. People without homes, and that’s way too many, have to scrounge for water. When I was young in Australia, you could wander into the city square or park (yes, we had real parks everywhere, not monstrous cement blocks of high-rise buildings) and drink from a tap. Bottled water didn’t exist. And as environmentalists will tell you shouldn’t now, with their plastic pollution of our environment. In a well-designed city, we’d revert to the past and have taps in public places and malls to fill your own bottle to drink from. Any good reason we can’t do it now?

But I’m getting away from the story. The story is about adequate water for everything that needs it, everywhere that needs it. It’s a mammoth task so President Marcos Jr. has made a wise decision, a department to attempt to do just that. Mind you that flies in the face of his rightsizing of the government. So something else should go. I’m sure plenty more are of less importance. I’d suggest a major agency that has done more harm than good, the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR). Removal of the DAR and merging it into the Department of Agriculture as part of a push to “rightsize�? the bureaucracy makes good sense to me since the workable functions of DAR can be performed by the DA. The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) revealed that the amount of distributed water increased from 1.8 billion cubic meters (bcm) in 2010 to 2.75 bcm in 2020. During that 11-year period, more than half of the distributed water was used by households (51 percent), followed by the services sector (36.7 percent), then mining and quarrying, manufacturing, and construction (11.1 percent). Surprisingly, the smallest amount of distributed water was used by the sectors of agriculture, forestry and fishing (1.02 percent), and power (0.18 percent).

According to the World Health Organization, around one in 10 Filipinos still do not have access to safe water sources. In 2016, one of the top 10 leading causes of death in the Philippines was as a result of unsafe drinking water, claiming over 139,000 lives.

Turning over the supply of water to our homes to the private sector, as former president Fidel V. Ramos did, was a great success in so far as it went. There’s still far more area to cover, and it’s the private sector that is best suited to do it. Our disastrous experience with the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System showed when people had no water and had to line up for hours to fill a couple of pails from water trucks that were used to deliver water because MWSS hadn’t put in the pipes.

But if we’re to bring in the private sector, the government must honor its contracts. What happened to Manila Water and Maynilad should never have happened. A contract is carved in stone, not written in the sand.

Mr. Marcos mentioned that the water department would adopt integrated water resource management (IWRM) as the strategic framework for national water management, policymaking, and planning. The UN Environment Programme describes IWRM as a process that “promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land, and related resources in order to maximize economic and social welfare in an equitable manner, without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems.�? To do that, national IWRM plans and strategies should have programs of implementation with timeframes and milestones (i.e. a roadmap) to do it.

In doing this, Mr. Marcos has said, given the government’s precarious financial situation (created by COVID, not government mismanagement), he’ll welcome the private sector joining him in national development through public-private partnership—PPP. Supplying water needs is a perfect place for PPP, whilst ensuring everyone gets all the water they need. This well justifies the top-level concentration a department can provide.

It’s a sensible direction to take. I see no reason Congress won’t agree to the creation of this new department. Water on tap is the goal.