By Atty. Gilberto Lauengco, J.D.

Water shortage and desalination

“Thousands have lived without love but not one without water” – W.H. Auden
“There is an imminent risk of a global water crisis” - UN World Water Development Report 2023

Last July 4, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA), through its meteorologists, officially declared the onset of El Niño.

In a recent interview, a spokesperson for PAGASA stated that El Niño will intensify in the coming months with a high probability of dry spells or droughts affecting parts of the country. The spokesperson also stressed that the phenomenon will “hit us hardest during the last quarter of this year and last up to the first quarter of 2024”.

Across town on the same day, the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) raised the “possibility of water interruptions in Metro Manila that would affect 632,000 households amid the declining water level of Angat Dam”. Apparently, the water level of the said dam has dropped to 181.83 meters as of July 4. This is very near the 180 meter minimum operating level.

These news items all point to a high probability of water shortages plaguing our land. For Filipinos, water shortages seem to get a more visceral reaction than power interruptions. “Ay brownout” is the normal reaction for shortages. Cut the water though, and you can hear people screaming, “Tubeeeeeeeeg!” As such, news of water shortages will cause much trepidation to the average Pinoy.

Like food security, which we discussed in this space last week, water scarcity is also now one of the current existential problems facing us today. The UN World Water Development Report of 2023 has warned that the global water shortage crisis will worsen in the coming years. Scientists and government planners across the globe are currently intensifying studies on how to solve or alleviate the effects of this problem.

In response to the high probability of water shortages, the National Water Resources Board (NWRB) has implemented a two cubic meter per second (CMS) cut in the water allocation for both water concessionaires in Metro Manila. Water conservation is the primary water management tool in times of water shortage. Unfortunately, this is just a stop gap measure and one that does not fully satisfy the needs of the consumers.

Policy planners for our water resources are hoping that the Kaliwa Dam project can help alleviate the water problem. This project, however, will still take some time and will only be limited to the Metropolitan Manila area. There have been some other proposals for increasing water supply such as increased water reservoir or rainwater collection areas/facilities and even greywater (converting wastewater) solutions.

Given the massive problem we face, perhaps it is time to look at desalination again as a viable way to increase clean water supply. Desalination is a process by which dissolved mineral salts in water are removed. This process when applied to seawater can produce fresh water for human consumption and agricultural purposes. There are many countries, such as Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, already doing large scale desalination to produce potable water.

Desalination, however, as a viable solution to the water crisis face two major obstacles. First, the normal desalination process requires a great deal of energy which makes it expensive. Second, some desalination plants may have negative effects on the environment because of the amount of fuel it requires to produce the said energy requirement and the brine byproduct of many desalination process which is pumped back to the sea.

Fortunately, new technology has allowed many groups to use smaller less cost -intensive desalination projects often replacing fossil fuels with solar energy. Gulf countries in the Middle East and Independent Water and Power (IWP) companies are leading the charge in solar powered and renewable energy driven large scale desalination projects. Solar powered desalination plants are more cost effective and cheaper alternative to the fossil fuel driven plants and are less harmful to the environment. According to an Abu Dhabi based international renewable agency, even if we replace just 10 percent of current desalination plants with solar energy driven ones, it could reduce C02 emissions by 260 million tons annually.

In the Philippines, several local governments like Cebu City, Mandaue City, Marinduque province, among others, will be turning to desalination plants as an additional source of water. Many of these desalination projects will be spearheaded by private corporations. There is also a private company that is pioneering smaller solar powered desalination plants for smaller local government units and even remote islands. The said company has also developed a portable emergency water response system for emergency water supply situations.

Perhaps, more private companies or even individuals can jump in and help develop and propagate renewable energy desalination water projects. The water shortage is real.

This is my oblique observation.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the foregoing article are solely the author’s and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the Philippine News Agency (PNA) or any other office under the Presidential Communications Office.


About the Columnist

Image of Atty. Gilberto Lauengco, J.D.

ATTY. GILBERTO LAUENGCO, J.D. is a lawyer, educator, political strategist, government consultant, Lego enthusiast, and the director of CAER Think Tank. He is a Former Vice Chairman of MECO, Special Assistant of NFA and City Administrator among others. His broad experience has molded his unique approach to issues analysis which he calls the oblique observation.