Water is life. This is an indubitable universal fact. For Filipinos water is almost everywhere as we are an archipelagic country. The Philippines is made up of 7,641 islands (no longer 7,107) scattered of the vast seas.
Don’t you know that 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is water but that 96.5 percent of this is of the oceans’ and only about 2.5 percent is fresh water?
Of that miniscule volume of fresh water, 68 percent is extremely inaccessible as this is frozen in icecaps and glaciers up in the Antarctica. Take note that the rest is found underground in aquifers (30%) while the rest in lakes, rivers and swamps.
Let’s give a look at the Philippine situational condition. While there is water everywhere, especially when rainfall is heavy and floods inundate rural areas and render urban centers inaccessible, we all suffer scarcity of water and many areas run the risk of losing what little fresh water they have underground. This is a sad reality which is hounding Cebu City, Zamboanga City and Metro Manila and looming problem to many growth centers in the country.
If water is life, and the scarcity of fresh water is threatening then how come the government is virtually ignoring this risk. I take hint from President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s counsel that should we find anything anomalous in the government bureaucracy then “be assertive!” Because very little, if none at all, is being done to address the looming unsustainability of potable water supply then let me expose the devil in the bureaucracy that hinders the vital and sustainable supply of water to our homes.
Water utilities are under the Local Water Utilities Administration (LWUA). Having served for a brief period as a member of the Davao City Water District, I found it infuriating why LWUA is placed under the Department of Public Works and Highways. Not that Secretary Mark Villar is not competent but DPWH is irrelevant when you look into the mandate of water districts. (As an aside, the Villars are into water business and had taken over operations of many water utilities, so the more that DPWH should abstain from its role as a super body on top of LWUA.) While the law gives water districts virtual authority to exploit resources, develop and then operate a sustainable supply of water there are layers upon layers of other regulatory bodies that castrate LWUA and the water districts rendering them inutile.
Let me now focus on the problem of DCWD as I more conversant with the problems that plague this water district.
DCWD for decades had been drawing its water supply from aquifers that are found in the southern district of Davao City. The vast forest east of Mt. Apo is the main recharge area of the city aquifers located mostly in Barangay Dumoy. In the late 1960’s one can benefit copious volume of artesian water which comes from confined, underground aquifers. Artesian water is naturally filtered and free of pollutants and in Dumoy it gushes out without the aid of a pump. With 58 pumping stations scattered in Dumoy, artesian water is gone which indicates that DCWD is over-extracting water from its main aquifers.
With the population growing by leaps and bounds and businesses, especially malls and high-rise condominiums, sprouting like mushrooms in the city, DCWD under the able stewardship of its Board Chairman Ed Bangayan, looked for alternative source of water. About 30 kilometers away from the urban center, DCWD discovered that the surface water of Tamugan River is of similar quality as that of the Dumoy water. Promptly it applied for water rights (from yet another regulatory authority) the National Water Regulatory Board.
The cost of tapping, treating and delivering the surface water of Tamogan River is however a financial nightmare. Then Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte already felt the exigency of looking for alternative source of water. Years back the Duterte family had a modest ice-making company located near Dumoy precisely because of the abundant free-flowing artesian water then. Even that outfit had later closed and I am certain that Mayor Duterte had developed this apprehension that Davao might eventually lose the Dumoy aquifers resources with the influx of business and migrants. When the DCWD board brought the prospects of tapping Tamogan River to the attention of Duterte in 2013 he was ecstatic about it. Because the project was estimated to cost P12-billion however, DCWD entered into a joint venture with Apo Agua Infrastructura, Inc. to undertake the costly infrastructure components that partake of a weir, gigantic conduit pipes, mini-hydropower plant, treatment plant and series of reservoirs. DCWD takes care of setting up the main pipe from the take up point in upper Calinan and again another series of reservoirs all over the un-served areas mainly in the city’s northern district and elsewhere in the city where population and economic activities are expected to increase. The signing of the joint venture was witnessed by no other than Mayor Duterte himself.
It looks like the signing would trigger the start of the DCWD Tamogan bulk water project but the usual devil in the government bureaucracy had yet to be hurdled. Series of meetings and presentations were made before the Committee level and in the plenary sessions of the City Council to merit approval of the project. I was the Chairman of the Environment and Community Relations Committees of DCWD then and I must confess that am not used to the government bureaucratic nuances. As a parallel move, DCWD held a number of project presentations to various business, professional and educational institutions together with Apo Agua. The purpose was to acquaint the public of what to expect and what prospects can be derived from the expanded coverage of sustainable water supply in the city. These information campaigns do not come free and DCWD has to fork out money for each of every forum. The Commission on Audit issued an alert on account of the unusual increase in information expenditures. DCWD has to explain every meticulous details.
Getting the City Council’s approval of the project does not stop there. DCWD has to obtain exemption for the conversion of a 6-hectare agricultural land where the treatment plant, main reservoir and uptake pipe will be located. This is a very critical aspect of the project since the delivery of water from the treatment plant to the distribution pipes will be by gravity. This design aspect eliminates energy cost and will positively impact on the water rates for DCWD consumers. DCWD has the lowest rates compared to other water utilities in the country. Despite the gargantuan cost of the Tamugan bulk water project, DCWD hopes to maintain the rates and may even reduce these within the next four years from operation.
Converting that small piece of agricultural land to industrial would go through an incredible, dubious and inexplicable processes. DCWD has gone back to the Davao City Council to get its go signal for the conversion of the area from agricultural to industrial. After which DCWD and Apo Agua have to go through the gamut of exempting that piece of land from the Executive Order on moratorium of agricultural land conversion. This means securing clearance from the Department of Agriculture, Department of Agrarian Reform, Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board and finally from President Duterte himself.
DCWD and Apo Agua had submitted position papers and pleadings to the concerned agencies. The waiting is like eternity. The order of President Duterte to process applications and other similar pleadings within 72 hours is blatantly ignored. And yet we are talking here of water which is life. And yet I am citing here the case of DCWD located in the home city of the President. I can just imagine what is happening with other water utilities in the country?
So how do we cure this anomaly in the bureaucracy? If I were President Duterte I will collapse all regulatory agencies that have something to do with water utilities –government and privately ran corporations. Create a Department of Water. All functions of LWUA, DPWH, NWRB and Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) will all be subsumed by DOW. And if I have one more say, appoint Mr. Ed Bangayan as the charter Secretary.
We have to do this Mr. President because as you said in your impromptu speech during the signing ceremony of the joint venture agreement between DCWD and Apo Agua: “Water is Life”.