Water, taken in moderation, cannot hurt anybody.—Mark Twain (1835 - 1910)
Irrigation of the land with seawater desalinated by fusion power is ancient. It’s called 'rain.' —Michael McClary, as quoted by Megan Anderson, USGS
IT’S funny that the government is thinking about having “emergency powers” to address the water-supply shortage in Metro Manila. It’s as if the government could force the rains to come by fiat or presidential signature.
Government bureaucrats could probably do the rain dance, but these actions are more likely to attract lightning than the rains that we sorely need to fall over La Mesa dam.
The fact is that the availability of water is first and foremost a question of supply: the coming of the rains, infrastructure, and the ecology that supports the entire water-generation and -distribution system. Not any amount of legislation, especially shortsighted ones, or executive fiat could change that fact.
The government, however, could manage demand through economic instruments to change people’s behavior on how they use water, thereby alleviating our water-supply concern. The structure of the country’s water-supply system lends well to the use of economic instruments, say, a variable charge.
Metro Manila’s water supply is taken largely from Angat dam, where our capacity to store water depends on the weather pattern. We usually have distinct wet and dry seasons, and we take advantage of this by storing significant volumes of water during the rainy season, especially July and August until December, to make sure we have enough to cover for the low rainfall months from March to June. We are practically saving water during the rainy days for the sunny days.
Smart move, right? Yes, but it's not as simple as that. The sad fact is that while we are trying to store water in those dams, public policy allows us to freely use water from the tap to bathe our cars, fill our swimming pools, water the lawns and flush the toilet without serious consequences on our finances.
Why? It’s because water here is so cheap; we have the cheapest rates in Asia, and that’s because the pricing of water this side of the Pacific doesn’t take into account the cost of drawing raw water coming from Umiray River, and the dams in Angat, Ipo and La Mesa.
Water charges here cover only the actual consumption, currency adjustment, environmental charge, sewerage and the value-added tax. When water is so cheap, people feel it’s so abundant that they tend to waste it. No wonder many people don’t bother to fix their faucet or mend the leaks. Nor do they bother to report the leaks to Maynilad or Manila Water when they see a pipe leaking in the streets.
But generating and bringing that water to every household in Metro Manila is not cheap. In fact, we probably have among the most expensive ways of generating, storing, processing and distributing water compared with our neighbors like Thailand, Cambodia or Vietnam. In these countries, what they do is tap directly the mighty Mekong River, process the water and distribute it to city residents.
In contrast, the Philippines has to invest in a network of dams, tributaries, reservoirs, aqueducts and treatment facilities prior to bringing them to the cities through the pipes, mostly through loans from abroad. But we still have the cheapest water compared with these countries because we don’t reflect the true cost of generating and distributing potable water. And it’s such an inequitable arrangement because Filipinos at large are paying for those loans while the major beneficiary of those investments is urban Metro Manila.
Solution? Economic instruments, say, a variable charge, that reflect two considerations: first, the cost of raw water and, second, the cycle of abundance (the rainy season) and scarcity (summer months) throughout the year.
In simpler terms, instead of charging a fixed rate per cubic meter throughout the year, the government may consider a relatively low rate during the rainy season or when the dams are full or overflowing. And as the water level in the dams goes down, the rate per cubic meter should go higher, thus reflecting the true and increasing scarcity of water supply.
This way, people would start modifying their water-use behavior as they feel the increasing scarcity. To save water and cash, they are also going to make sure their faucets don’t leak. Knowing that “unaccounted water” is going to be reflected in everybody’s water bill, they are likely to be watchful about water pilferage and leaks in their communities. Many of them might even consider investing in cisterns for storing water collected from their roofs.
The government, however, may have to calibrate water charges carefully, as extremely high rates may also drive more people into digging deep wells that could wreak havoc on groundwater sources and the environment in general. Right now, environmental scientists are blaming excessive drawdown from groundwater sources, thus causing saltwater intrusion in many parts of Metro Manila.
It is important to reflect the true cost of water, for instance, to include the generation of raw water and the development of future water sources, because of the fact that the population of Metro Manila is growing. The extra money collected could be invested in new sources, infrastructure and water-resources research to meet the growing needs of the metropolis.
This is important because at the rate the services sector is growing, it’s likely that Metro Manila will continue to attract more migrants, thus the ever-rising demand for water. If policymakers won’t be creative in their policymaking, we will just keep on suffering water crises year in and year out. (Note: I originally drafted this as editorial for BusinessMirror, Aug 7 2007)