"When crisis comes, nobody is to blame."
The worst water shortage to hit Metro Manila in 500 years began on March 6, 2019 when the water level at the La Mesa Dam in leafy Quezon City hit the critical level of 69 meters (it was 68.62m on March 18, 2019).
At that level, the Ayala-owned Manila Water, the concessionaire for the East Zone or the towns and cities east of EDSA, could no longer draw water from La Mesa, at the rate of 150 million liters per day. That meant water supply for the East Zone would be short by 150 MLD. It could supply only 1,600 MLD, the volume it was getting daily from Angat Dam which has plenty of water.
Initially, Manila Water blamed El Niño weather phenomenon for the drop in water level at La Mesa. It was a lie. Angat Dam, which should also be affected by El Niño, is brimming with water. Water demand in the East Zone is 1,750 MLD. Manila Water gets 1,600 MLD from Angat and 150 MLD from La Mesa. But then La Mesa seems to be drying up, probably from too much extraction.
Manila Water has been rationing water to the East Zone for two weeks since March 6. The rationing meant no water for thousands of households, from six hours to 20 hours. In some places like Mandaluyong and Pasig, households did not have a drop of water for several days, from four days to eight days. Affected people: At least 1.2 million. The severe rationing will last most of summer (June 21, 2019 to Sept. 23, 2019).
Tropical humans die without water for three days. You can live without food for three weeks, and probably forever, without electricity, money, and politicians. But not water. It is 60 percent of your body. There is no substitute for drinking water.
So you could imagine what happened to humans during those days, since March 6, when Manila Water could not render what it is bound to do, under its concession agreement with the government since 1997—water pressure of 21 pounds per square inch, 24/7.
So what is causing the water shortage in the East Zone?
“The Heavens [or El Niño] cannot be blamed for it,” asserts Marikina Rep. Bayani Fernando, a civil engineer and himself a former chair of the Manila Waterworks and Sewerage System in concurrent capacity as former secretary of public works.
Fernando thinks the problem is technical and Manila Water is to blame. “The company does not have pressure-regulated valves that can regulate the flow of water from its pipes, say from La Mesa to Marikina, La Mesa to Pasig, La Mesa to Quezon City and so forth,” he explains.
Such pressure-regulated valves are installed in LPG tanks with which one can regulate the flow of gas. Fernando uses a radio metaphor. Manila Water only has an on-and-off button but not a button to control the sound volume.
Such lack is crucial. Fernando says that with pressure valves, Manila Water could have reduced water psi from 20 to 17 or even 16. “Every one-point drop in psi is equivalent to 3 percent cut in water consumption; so a drop of three points (from 20 to 17) is 9 percent—exactly the amount of water shortage,” the Marikina solon says. At 16 psi, water can flow only up to the second floor, but not to the third floor “but everybody will still have water.”
The issue then becomes one of incompetence and or mismanagement. As early as August 2018, Manila Water foresaw a water shortage, by 2020, at the earliest.
But the company was delayed in constructing the Cardona reverse osmosis water treatment plant which would have produced 100 MLD of treated water coming from Laguna Lake (whose water is very difficult to clean).
Manila Water began charging its subscribers for the Cardona plant in May 2016 even though it became operational, and only partly at that (at 24 MLD capacity) only in December 2018. Consumers were charged for a service that was not being delivered. “It’s highway robbery!” exclaimed Sen. Panfilo Lacson at the Senate hearing on water Tuesday (yesterday). He demanded that Manila Water refund the money.
Manila Water also wanted to revive 1,000 ancient wells to produce 100 MLD and secure 50 MLD of cross border water from Maynilad—a total of 150 MLD. Those efforts have yet to deliver water.
At the House hearing on Monday (March 18), congressmen took turns demanding that Manila Water refund consumers for undelivered water. The MW contract is for water, at 20 psi, 24/7. In many places, no such water was available.
Manila Water makes about P400 million a month in profits. The crisis has lasted for two weeks. So at least P200 million must be refunded consumers. This is just for undelivered water.
What about for man hours lost while queuing up for non-existent water, for not coming to work for failure to take a bath, and for businesses shut down for lack of water? Or the precious spent on overpriced pails and plastic drums (their prices rose 50 percent)? Or treatment like dialysis for patients for whom such service is a matter of life and death?
There is supposed to be a Kaliwa Dam to deliver 500 MLD, after five years. But the Chinese and the Japanese are still fighting over it and the government cannot make up its mind.
To his credit, Manila Water president Ferdinand dela Cruz, a veteran marketing man, apologized for the “supply deficit.” He offered to resign but his priority, he said, is solve the water deficit.
He may never resign. Over the next five years, according to World Bank studies, the water shortage is not only in Metro Manila, but nationwide—unless $838 million (P43.5 billion) is invested annually in water supply. So far, nobody knows, where and how to get the money.
Why? There are too many water bodies or agencies with no single agency in charge of anything integrated. So when crisis comes, nobody is to blame.