The reeling water problem currently facing cities in the Philippines is an outcome of at least three factors, mostly ignored in policy fora. These are poor planning, fragmented and multiple institutions governing the water sector, and a lack of coherence in water property rights and responsibilities.
The Philippines’ water resources are abundant given the volume of actual renewable surface and groundwater resources. Despite this seeming abundance, both the surface and groundwater resources of the Philippines are under threat. The 2010 land use and land cover map of the country reflects the critical condition of the country’s major river basins, which endangers its surface water potential.
What’s more, the supply of groundwater (based on 2004 data from the National Statistical Coordination Board) has been declining over time. This is likely due to unregulated groundwater extraction in many parts of the country. The 2003 Philippine Environmental Monitor published by the World Bank reported the absence of water rights permits in about 60 per cent of groundwater extraction activities.
This endangers the future supply of 86 per cent of the country’s piped water systems that use groundwater as a source. More importantly, it threatens the well-being of about 50 per cent of the people in the Philippines who depend on groundwater for drinking.
Considering the insufficient water availability against the increasing demand for water, as well as the degenerating quality of both surface and underground water, these resources are approaching their critical limit. Worse still, the regulatory authorities do not have up-to-date data to adapt their water allocation decisions for more intelligent planning.
There are about 30 different national and local government unit (LGU) agencies managing water resources. Among these agencies are water apex bodies with regulatory functions and line agencies with legal mandates over water quality, claims on water resources, water-risk mitigation and investment.
LGU agencies also have legal mandates over water and sanitation services under the Local Government Code and are presumably deputised by national line agencies as the implementer of program-based intervention initiatives. The fragmented nature of these institutions significantly contributes to the water crisis.
There is also a disparity of rights between water permit holders who exercise the authority to access and withdraw water resources and other institutions with only shared responsibility over watershed management. This inhibits effective water-related decision making, resulting in conflicts that may lead to unsustainable water supply.
In the Philippines, state-assigned water rights are administered by the National Water Resource Board. But there are also water rights customs which can be more dominant, and are practiced especially in rural upland areas. Downstream, the right to access and withdraw water for the purposes of irrigation is awarded by the National Irrigation Administration (NIA). Domestic water providers (water districts) are given the rights to water geared for household use.
While these institutions are responsible for allocating water rights, their responsibilities are not clearly stipulated. For instance, although the NIA has the right to water flowing downstream, it is not assigned to protect its water source upstream. Those assigned to do so also do not have the mandate to work with water rights holders downstream. So any mismanagement of the upstream water source may result in scarcity of irrigation water downstream. The solution to this water scarcity problem is beyond the control of the irrigation sector.
The water sector in the Philippines has been plagued by issues because of the weakness of institutions charged with overseeing water rights and unclear delineations of duties and responsibilities. Water rights, in the form of permits and franchises, are contested and poorly understood at the community level, where informal mechanisms and rules pertaining to water access, withdrawal and management are more readily observed.
The existing regulations also do not support collective management of water resources. Those to whom management measures are applied such as upstream swidden farmers are separate from those who consume the water such as rice farmers midstream, and downstream urban city dwellers such as in Metro Manila.
The current discussions about the Manila water crisis have centred on the investment plans to supply more water to the city. But before any investment can take place, regulations such as environmental clearances, right of way issues and social impacts on the indigenous peoples residing along or near water sources will have to be met. These are some of the causes of the delays in the implementation of additional water supply infrastructure for city households.
Those in hot water because of the crisis have emphasised that their responsibility is only the delivery of water and that it is the government’s duty to ensure that water is actually available. Regardless of with whom the responsibility lies, amidst increasing demand for water, the Duterte government urgently needs to achieve sustainable water supply.
Agnes C. Rola is an adjunct professor at the College of Public Affairs and Development, University of the Philippines Los Baños, and member, National Academy of Science and Technology Philippines. This commentary first appeared in East Asia Forum.