By FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JEJOMAR C. BINAY
Metro Manila is facing a water crisis. That is something that cannot be denied or glossed over by the authorities. A crisis demands quick response but here we are almost at the end of the year and we do not glimpse even a hint of urgency on the part of authorities.
Congress has deemed it wise to propose the creation of a Department of Water in lieu of some 32 government agencies managing our water resources. While hindsight is always 20/20, we must laud our solons for realizing the need for a central authority for water. But whether such an agency needs to be elevated to department level, obviously to be headed by a Cabinet-rank secretary, is subject to debate. I am sure no one in Congress believes that by adding another layer of bureaucracy, water will appear miraculously from dry taps.
Several years back, the private water concessionaires warned about a looming water crisis in Metro Manila unless new water sources are developed. One also sensed some frustration with government regulators who appeared to be in no hurry to act on their proposals.
The warning, obviously, was not heeded. Early this year, Mandaluyong and several cities were hit by a severe water shortage. It was only then — when media aired images of irate residents lining up in the ungodly hours of the morning just to get rationed water — that the authorities realized the gravity of the water problem. The knee-jerk response, however, was to threaten a government takeover of the water concessions.
We learned from media reports that even the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS), the government’s chief water regulator, had proposed the drafting of a comprehensive water security plan in July, 2011. That was around the time the concessionaires were already raising the alarm over the dwindling water supply and the need for additional sources. And just last week, the MWSS repeated its proposal during a Cabinet meeting. It was not clear if the Cabinet agreed to the proposal.
Undeniably, the water crisis can be traced to government inaction. And this not solely the present administration’s fault. Blame must be shared with previous administrations which failed to see the necessity of Metro Manila’s long-term water security.
When the present administration rolled out the list of major infrastructure projects under its “Build, Build, Build” program, several observers noticed the omission of water supply project from the list. This is perplexing, since under the concession agreement terms, producing raw water is a government obligation. The metropolis has been expanding and groaning every year from the rapid rise in economic activity and population. Ensuring adequate water supply — a basic human need — should have been first and foremost in its list of priorities.
With the crisis now in our midst, authorities are rushing the Kaliwa Dam project. But it will not be ready for the next few years, even if the government invokes emergency powers, so the search continues for stop-gap measures to augment Metro Manila’s water volume.There are proposals to treat the water from Laguna Lake, although the cost would be higher, considering the lake’s pollution levels. Some quarters are asking government to consider imposing measures to curb wastage. In the past, proposals have been made to limit or regulate the use of water by car wash establishments and golf clubs. Water rationing is already being resorted to by the concessionaires whenever the supply volume goes down.
The last thing we need, however, is for government to make good on its threat to take over the operations of the concessionaires. Let the private sector lead, with government providing what it needs. Government may use emergency powers to cut through the red tape that has been the main cause of delays. But do not invoke it to control water distribution.
Compared to the private sector, government has not been really recognized for efficiency. That is a painful fact. Government also lacks the core expertise needed for water management. More importantly, the problem is not the management of the concessionaires. The problem is water supply which government is obligated to provide.
A government takeover will not produce a single drop of water.