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Saturday, March 2, 2024

Age-old issues still clogging up Metro’s water distribution

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The Philippines’ growing urban population will remain mired in a Third World setting if the water infrastructure remains in the post World War II era.

For decades, Metro Manila and its adjacent provinces have solely relied on the water provided by the 50-year-old Angat Dam. The dependence on a single source of water is untenable—the Philippine population has increased exponentially since the establishment of the dam.

Every dry season season, concerned government agencies such as the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System and the National Water Resources Board have routinely raised alarms over the critical level of water in the reservoir, resulting in rotational cuts across Metro Manila.

Fortunately, the island of Luzon was blessed with a series of rainy days in the last two months but the considerable amount of rainfall does not always land over the watersheds.

So while some parts of Metro Manila get flooded because of strong rains, faucets still run the risk of going dry because Angat Dam water levels have not been going up. This begs the question: Why are Metro Manila water consumers still relying on Angat Dam alone? When the Angat Dam was built in the 1960s, the population in Metro Manila was just a little over 2 million people.

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Now, the population in Metro Manila has increased to around 15 million. All these consumers still get their water supply mainly from Angat Dam. And the pie is getting smaller. Angat Dam also supplies water to Bulacan residents.

The dwindling water resource is compounded by climate change. Drought periods are longer, typhoons are more severe and El Niño and La Niña cycles are more frequent.

Simply put, we need another dam to meet the supply needs of Metro Manila and adjacent provinces. We needed it years ago. The MWSS is working to speed up the construction of Kaliwa Dam, but by the time it is up and running, they should have already completed a third one—the Kanan Dam, which is still under review by the National Economic and Development Authority. These dams are not being built fast enough to quench the thirst of the growing population.

As a stop-gap measure, the private water concessionaires have been trying to look for alternate sources. Maynilad Water Services Inc. began tapping Laguna Lake in 2010 and Manila Water Co. Inc. followed suit in 2019.

The alternative sources, however, do not produce a significant volume of water. We need another dam similar in scale to Angat Dam, which currently provides 90 percent of Metro Manila’s water supply.

The Angat Dam is just part of one system that conveys water to Metro Manila. The MWSS calls this the Angat-Ipo-La Mesa system. The water from Angat Dam flows down to the Ipo Dam (which is a mere diversionary dam), and then down to La Mesa Dam. Since all three dams belong to one system, all three should benefit the customers of both MWSS concessionaires, Maynilad (West Zone) and Manila Water (East Zone).

Yet, only Manila Water enjoys exclusive use of La Mesa Dam—a major infrastructure advantage over Maynilad. Even with lower allocations from Angat Dam, Manila Water still has around a month’s worth of water stored in La Mesa Dam, so it is unaffected even as Maynilad already has service interruptions.

The rains thankfully have arrived and La Mesa Dam is now back to healthy levels.While the water elevation in Angat Dam continues to go down, the water elevation in La Mesa Dam has been going up because it also gets refilled with water from its surrounding tributaries.

So even if allocations from Angat Dam are reduced, Manila Water is insulated from the impact. This is not the case for Maynilad, which does not have the luxury of having its own dam.

The MWSS perhaps should intervene in the situation. All water resources should be shared by all. By stretching available supplies, we are considering the welfare of all consumers and mitigating a water crisis while MWSS is still building Kaliwa Dam.

Another means being employed to generate more supply is the reduction of losses in the pipe network, or what is called the Non-Revenue Water or NRW. As far as NRW reduction is concerned, Manila Water is ahead in the game. The average NRW of Manila Water is already at 12.69 percent as of 2022, which is way below the 25 percent standard set by the World Bank. Maynilad has a lot of catching up to do, as the average NRW in the West Zone is still at 43 percent by 2022.

Maynilad inherited the older section of the pipe network when MWSS operations were privatized in 1997. The previous owners of Maynilad, moreover, could not invest in the water infrastructure for 10 whole years after its debts sky-rocketed following the Asian financial crisis in 1998.

The early sins of privatization dealt a severe blow to Maynilad and, consequently, its customers. The West Zone concession essentially lost 10 years that could have been spent on improving the pipe network to reduce losses.

Maynilad hopefully will step up efforts to upgrade the pipe network. MWSS, in the meantime, should complete Kaliwa Dam to improve the water services in both the East and West Zones.

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