OUTSIDE THE BOX

By Ismael D. Tabije

IN the national papers lately was the news that President Rodrigo Duterte has signed an administrative order that will expedite the review and approval of infrastructure flagship projects on water security in the country. It directed all agencies to prioritize and complete review and approval of infrastructure flagship projects on water security.

Over the decades we have all been witnesses to the worsening water shortages every now and then – for drinking water of households, commercial and industrial use, and irrigation of agricultural lands. At the present trajectory, it will gradually and continually get worse.

Is there an end in sight to this dire prognosis? Is this what we want to leave behind to the next generations after us?

Broadly, water supply can have two components: (1) the water supply source, and (2) the infrastructure to deliver the water where they are needed

The President’s AO addresses the second component. But the bigger problem is component (1): is there enough water supply? Sadly, the answer is no, for the most part. Building huge dams and other water infra will be for naught if there is not enough water supply to feed into those.

Decades of scientific research have undoubtedly proven that trees are the biggest contributors to the water supply ecosystem. However, notwithstanding those studies, our forest covers nationwide have continuously dwindled over the centuries due to massive logging operations, both legal and illegal.

The state of Philippine forests

In 1900, the country’s forests cover about 21 million hectares or 70% of the total land area of 30 million hectares

  • By 2003, it is down to 7.2 million hectares
  • By 2010, it is further down to 6.8 million hectares
  • Currently, the Philippines is losing its forest cover at a rate of 40,000-120,000 hectares per year (different studies available online show different results)
  • Unless the government acts decisively, at the rate we are losing our forests, we will practically wipe out our remaining forests in a few decades. And with it goes our only dependable water supply source.

 Facts about water

  • 71% of the earth’s surface is water
  • Less than 3% of the earth’s water is freshwater
  • Over 68% of the freshwater on earth is found in ice caps and glaciers and just over 30% is groundwater.
  • Only about 0.3% of fresh water is found in the surface water of lakes, rivers, and swamps.
  • More than 99% of the earth’s waters are not consumable by man and other living things.
  • With this realization, we need to utilize this resource very wisely.

 The significance of trees and forests in water supply

 Among all factors contributing to water supply usable to man, trees are arguably the most important.

  • Trees extract water from the soil (groundwater), store it in their barks, branches, and leaves, and then gradually release it back into the atmosphere in a process called Transpiration. When large areas of forests are cut down, this eliminates the water released back into the atmosphere, thus resulting in reduced cloud formation, consequently resulting in reduced rainfall.
  • Further, with fewer trees, whatever reduced rain that falls is largely wasted because of faster surface runoff due to lack of vegetation. Such runoff goes fast to the rivers and then off to the sea—wasted freshwater.
  • Trees improve water quality by slowing the velocity of falling rain and helping more water to soak into the soil into the underground reservoir.
  • Roots of trees help break up compacted soil and open up space so that water can be absorbed even deeper into the soil (groundwater storage) and in bigger quantities.
  • The groundwater becomes available for pumping to the surface and/or slowly flow to the rivers via sub-surface flow; thus maintaining higher levels of dependable surface water supply, especially during the dry season.

Conclusions

  • If the forests continue to diminish at the present rate, our water supply for domestic, commercial, and industrial use, irrigation and power will continually get worse.
  • Given that WATER IS LIFE, the government should wake up to the undesirable realities described above and use its vaunted political will to do a massive reforestation program nationwide, with priority in the watersheds of the dams made for water supply, irrigation and 
  • Widespread reforestation could be undertaken with the participation of all government personnel, military personnel, policemen, high school and university students, and all other volunteers.
  • Planting is just the start of a massive reforestation program. It’s the easy part. What is more important and the bigger job is nurturing those trees until they can grow on their own. This is where we need the participation of the LGUs, mainly the barangay people. People in the barangays will need to be hired as maintenance personnel and the national government must be willing to pour in national funds for this endeavor.
  • Widespread nationwide hiring of barangay people to do maintenance work has multi-pronged benefits: (a) it ensures the success of the reforestation program, (b) the salaries paid to tens or hundreds of thousands of people contribute to rural development that results in the uplifting of the lives of the rural people; in other words, poverty alleviation, (c) and with better economic conditions in the countryside, the rebellion will surely reduce.

 Let me close this via a modified version of a saying by North American natives:

“When the last tree is cut, and the lakes and rivers have dried up, you will finally realize that you cannot drink money”

The time to act was YESTERDAY. But you can’t bring that time. Let’s act NOW!!!

(Comments may be sent to [email protected])

About the Columnist

Columnist Image

Ismael “Maeng” Tabije is a Civil Engineer with an MBA from AIM. He also did advanced studies and training in Germany in the fields of Hydrology and Water Resources. Over the decades he has worked as International Development Consultant with such organizations as the UN, WB, EU, JICA and ADB.