Cebu Daily News
“Water is life,” the old proverb insists. Not in the Philippines as 2008 begins. “Heavy inorganic pollutants have made water increasingly a threat to life” here, says the Asian Water Development Outlook.
The Asian Development Bank publishes “Outlook,” a new study series focused on neglected aspects of water. It “aims to stimulate informed debate…on how best to manage Asia’s water future,” writes ADB vice president Ursula Schafer-Preuss.
“Many developing countries risk mortgaging their water security, in a decade or two” if business-as-usual mindsets persist.
Unlike Burma or Malaysia, we’re not water rich. In 2000, we had only 6,332 cubic meters of "total actual renewable water" resources per capita. "TARWR" dipped to 5,880 cubic meters five years later. It is still falling today.
The Philippines used 28.5 billion cubic meters of water in 2000. A third of that flowed into farms. Continued denudation and spreading pollution sap productivity of water bodies, notes Geoff Bridges in one of Outlook’s 12 country papers.
"More than half (58 percent) of groundwater today is contaminated… Of 457 water bodies classified by DENR, only half (51%) meet 1996 water standards."
Water remains clear upstream. But it morphs into a murky lethal brew as it flows through littered rivers and chemical tainted creeks. "Depletion of groundwater resources is an increasing problem in Metro Manila and Metro Cebu," Outlook adds. There are only 95 small poorly regulated hazardous waste treatment facilities…" Untreated wastewater is merely dumped somewhere else.
Today, "only a third of rivers can serve as ‘public water supply’ All of Cebu City’s rivers are biologically dead. The rest are cesspools.
But the mother of them all is Pasig. "Some 10 million people discharge untreated waste into the Pasig. That doesn’t count 35 tons of solid waste dumped annually by riverside squatters. This makes Pasig "one of the world’s most polluted rivers."
The ecological decay spawns a Jekyll-and-Hyde brute: from life giver, water turns into serial killer. Children are specially vulnerable to water-borne diseases. Annual infant deaths, from diarrhea alone, exceed the toll of Mindanao armed clashes.
This is an obscenity. "It is a grave moral shortcoming if people can not drink water without courting disease or death," Worldwatch Institute’s Sandra Postel writes. Indeed, no nation can survive with poisoned wells.
Yet, none of those who proclaim themselves fit to lead this troubled nation lift an eyebrow. But this is a widespread threat. "Philippine Human Development Report" reveals that in 24 provinces, over a quarter of residents lack improved water sources.
Among these are: Benguet, Nueva Vizcaya, Ilocos Norte, plus all three Davaos, Bukidnon, Cebu, Capiz, Occidental and Oriental wings of Negros and Misamis, plus North Cotabato, Bohol, Quezon, Apayao, Cagayan, Camarines Norte, Palawan, Guimaras, Masbate, Zamboanga del Norte and the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.
"Water resources would be at a critical stage, by 2025," unless decisive reforms were adopted, Japan International Cooperation Agency warned in 1998. By 2025, most major cities, plus eight of 19 major river basins, will be parched.
This warning slipped between the cracks. Cebu City siphons twice as much water than what its crumbling aquifers recharge. Mayor Tomas Osmeña and council, however, are locked in denial, even as taps turn brackish. “A sneer won’t squeeze more bang from a drop," Cebu Daily News said. "Conservation remains the orphan of water policy."
Within a fragmented water and sanitation sector, poor management exacerbates shortages. Theft of water, in some water firms, can run up to 30 percent. There are four Filipinos today where there was one in 1940. So, more buckets draw from the same tainted well.
Congress always filled pork barrels. In contrast, underfunding cripples water services. Dagupan Water District, for example, can only cover half (54 percent) of its area. The country needs to jack up annual water sector investments tenfold (P40 billion). But it’d pay handsomely. "One dollar invested in the water sector brings benefits worth six dollars," Outlook notes.
The water problem is solvable, ADB says. Delay, however, whittles down chances of success. ADB’s Schafer-Preuss believes "if present unsatisfactory trends continue, in one or two decades, Asian developing countries (may) face a crisis on water quality management unprecedented in human history."
Climate change, meanwhile, is "creating a new level of uncertainty," adds Prof. Aswit Biswas. "Altered rainfall and temperatures complicate planning…" In the future water issues in Asian developing countries are likely to be quite different than those in the past. Future water management will be far more complex."
The country must focus on tariff reforms, increased wastewater treatment capacity, increase coverage, conservation and implement the Clean Water Act. It has enough success stories in private initiatives.
The Lupang Area Muslim-Christian cooperative in Metro Manila, for example, brought clean water 24 hours to its poor members. And Manila Water turned a modest profit by expanding its consumer base from three to five million. Half are low-income customers.
"Water is the driver of nature," Leonardo da Vinci wrote in the 16th century. Translation for 21st century politicians: Check for toxic water jugs.
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