The Long View: Water and wealth


Water and wealth

On Monday, Maynilad Water Services tried to reassure its customers by tweeting, “We source our raw water directly from Angat Dam, which is currently at a normal level, so Maynilad customers are not experiencing any water shortage at present.” Yesterday, it announced: “We are sharing our supply with Manila Water,” that company having shared its supply with Maynilad in 2010’s and 2015’s El Niño seasons.

Manila Water, in a press conference yesterday, said that even if it got an increased water allocation from Angat Dam, its systems would not be able to accommodate the supply. Things still have to be done, including the opening of a fourth tunnel to be completed by next year. (Raf Madrigal, who tweets on water and climate change content, helpfully tweeted a schematic of the water supply in Metro Manila, pointing out that “60% of Water Supply goes to Maynilad (West) while 40% goes to Manila Water (East).”)

Manila Water said infrastructure necessary to keep up with increasing demand has been delayed in the past. For example, Manila Water began trying, in March 2017, to get approval for a water treatment plant in Laguna de Bay which would have had a capacity of 250 million liters per day (MLD), but ran into objections from the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS), which said its less expensive Kaliwa Dam project could treat 600 MLD. At the time the spat was reported in the papers, Manila Water warned that a water shortage would result in Metro Manila in 2021.

Even ongoing quick fixes, such as drilling deep wells, still takes time (hopefully “30 MLD by April and 80 MLD by July”). To complicate things further, the question has become, why is the water level at La Mesa Dam Raf Madrigal at critical levels, when Pagasa opined that it shouldn’t be at critical levels because there’s been plenty of rain? MWSS chimed in and said El Niño isn’t to blame either.

Manila Water, in its press conference yesterday, added a curious note: “People outside affected areas saved water, resulting in unusual demand.” The usual measures have been announced: the dispatch of water tankers to communities, and appeals to local government units to coordinate with the company.

The only thing missing, because it would be really bad PR, probably, was to appeal to everyone in its franchise area to pray an Oratio Imperata for rain.

An interesting—and alarming—complaint being registered by some consumers online concerns whether Manila Water is treating its customers fairly. This started when, on March 9, Manila Water had to make announcements that while it couldn’t provide a definite time on when water interruptions would end, it hoped they would end the next day, March 10. The thing is, it also announced that consumers would have to expect pressure reduction and no water hours for the rest of the summer.

The response was skepticism and hostility from quite a few people online. Among the observations made by these consumers is that water schedules are not being observed in places such as Pasig and Mandaluyong. Worse, when Manila Water pledged it was seeking to react to the shortage by making water distribution more equitable, it became apparent that there is the belief that Manila Water cuts off water supplies only in areas that aren’t developments of the Ayala Corp. and its subsidiaries, or villages in which the wealthy live (places like Barangay Forbes Park and Barangay Bel-Air, went one observation, aren’t included in the list of shortage-affected areas).

Such sentiments immediately invalidate whatever goodwill the company hoped to generate from its corporate social responsibility schemes like its “Tubig Para Sa Barangay” program, which benefits 1.6 million urban poor. Press conferences might eventually clarify the circumstances that led to the ongoing shortage, but the signs of the times are an eagle-eyed sensitivity among the public to any signs that some are enjoying uninterrupted water supplies, while everyone else goes waterless for extended periods of time.

Manila Water can start by giving more lead time to communities in announcing water interruptions. The other is to purge its announcements of industry jargon: One irritated consumer pointed out that “peak demand hours” aren’t defined for consumers.

The other is the observation that commercial establishments have water while residential areas have their supplies cut off: As one person put it, the sight of mall maintenance personnel watering their grounds is proof of this.

In the meantime, it’s every home for itself.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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