Ensure sufficient, safe and accessible water during COVID-19 crisis

April 8, 2020

by Water for the People Network

As more and more COVID-19 cases are discovered in the Philippines, especially in Metro Manila, and in over 200 countries around the globe, ensuring sufficient, safe and accessible water is more important than ever. The number of COVID-19 cases in the country has reached 3,870, with 182 deaths and counting. The number of detected COVID-19 cases spiked since the first local transmission, and the actual number could still be bigger, just unconfirmed.

In its technical brief “Water, Sanitation, Hygiene, and Waste Management for the COVID-19 Virus”, the World Health Organization (WHO) underscored that “frequent and proper hand hygiene is one of the most important measures that can be used to prevent infection with the COVID-19 virus”. WHO also said that drinking water and sanitation services must be managed safely during the virus outbreak.

Simply put – the public needs uninterrupted water supply to protect themselves. This, especially as the nation grapples with the COVID-19 crisis as the dry spell sets in.

Government guarantees

With water being essential in the anti-virus fight, government vouches that another water crisis is not in sight for Metro Manila and other Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) service areas. The assurance comes amid apprehensions of a repeat of the water shortage crisis in the summer of 2019 that affected over 6.8 million Manila Water consumers.

To ensure 24-hour water supply and reduce water service interruptions, the MWSS has requested the National Water Resources Board (NWRB) to increase the water for allocation by concessionaires Manila Water and Maynilad from 42 to 46 cubic meters per second (CMS). The MWSS added that its drinking water is compliant with Philippine National Standards for Drinking Water (PNSDW).

Yet water remains elusive for many. As it is, the people’s right to water as defined by the United Nations (UN) Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights General Comment No. 19 is under threat. The UN states that “the human right to water is indispensable for leading a healthy life in human dignity… a pre-requisite to the realization of all other human rights”.

But amid the COVID-19 crisis and the Luzon-wide lockdown to contain this, consumers continue to complain about their water service on the companies’ social media hotlines.

Manila Water consumers in some Quezon City and Taguig barangays complain of 12-hour water interruptions, and others in some Marikina, Montalban, Antipolo, Pasig and Cainta barangays of no connection or weak supply.

Maynilad, on the other hand, has forewarned its consumers – particularly those in elevated areas – that they will “still experience low pressure to no water supply daily” as the company allegedly fine-tunes its distribution network.

Quezon City, Valenzuela, Caloocan, Manila and Makati consumers report water not being able to reach higher floors of apartments, not having water to drink or for handwashing, and murky water. At worst, there is no water at all for several hours, days, or up to three weeks.

Worrisome water and sanitation status

Privatization is the plague on the country’s water service system that has caused consumers, especially in Metro Manila, so much trouble. It has led to expensive and poor supply and sanitation services while boosting the private concessionaires’ profits. Consumers, especially low-income families, have been disadvantaged, and this becomes glaring all the more in the time of COVID-19.

The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) reports that families in the National Capital Region (NCR) spent about Php668 monthly or almost 5% of their income on potable water and water services in 2015. This exceeds the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) recommendation that no more than 3% of household income should be spent on water.

The Water for the People Network (WPN) has also found that many families in urban poor communities still spend over Php1,000 per month on water or as high as 10% or more of their daily earnings. Since the start of water privatization, water rates have increased seven-fold in the West Zone under Maynilad (Php7.21 to Php48.53/ per cubic meter or cu. m.), and ten-fold in the East Zone under Manila Water (Php4.02 to Php39.26/cu. m.).

Philippine water security is worrisome. Water rights advocates and environmentalists note that 5,663 million liters per day can be sourced from existing water bodies and systems, but MWSS figures show that the country now falls below the international per capita “water stress” threshold of 1,700 cu. m. per year. It adds that the Philippines is fast approaching the “water scarcity” threshold of 1,000 cu. m. at 1,553 cu. m. per capita availability.

The 2017 National Demographic Health Survey reported that less than 95% of households have access to improved water sources in 10 of the country’s 17 regions. The UN defines “improved drinking water sources” as supposedly “protected by outside contamination, particularly fecal matter”. The international body however at the same time agrees that these sources – that may pertain to storage and pipes of varying qualities – are not always safe.

Access to water may also not always mean sustained availability. WPN points to the government’s poor management of water sourcing and turning over distribution to private companies as the culprit.

Moreover, sewerage services have been neglected. Manila Water committed 33% coverage of sewerage services and Maynilad 31% for 2017, but only 17% of the companies’ combined service areas have been covered as of 2018.

Sanitation coverage is also low at 20% as of 2018 despite consumers being billed environmental and sewerage charges for the past 21 years.

The concession agreements (CAs) between government and the water firms have allowed the companies to rake in over Php60 billion in profits in the past 15 years. In 2018, the water firms reaped Php6.6 billion each in profits.

The WPN has called for government to rescind the onerous CAs which have only undermined government’s regulatory authority and, indeed, sovereignty to act in favor of the consumers. The CAs: allow charging of excessive rates even for undone or unfinished infrastructure; give the firms similar powers as the State in allocating public property for business; create obligations for government to pay the concessionaires as they do foreign lenders; and let firms sue governments for uncollected charges. The Duterte administration recently threatened the water concessionaires that it would cancel the CAs, but this is proving to be just another of its empty anti-oligarch rhetoric. It has also been overtaken by the COVID-19 pandemic, to which the Duterte government has also responded with much inefficiency.

An urgent matter

Water is essential to realize the right to a healthy environment and, thus, the right to health. Reversing water privatization and eventually nationalizing it is both imperative and strategic.

In the time of COVID-19, the State must secure the people’s right to water and to health as among the most urgent socioeconomic measures. It is welcome that the Metro Manila concessionaires have agreed to allow delayed payment for water bills.

But beyond this, the government should regulate or directly manage water concessionaires in Metro Manila and the rest of Luzon to be able to ensure the following:

1. Efficient water supply. Immediately account for all areas that have no or problematic water connections and ensure that water is delivered.

2. Safe water supply. Potable water is essential.

3. Accessible water supply. Expedite the installation of free water connections to unconnected households. Also, write off water bills for the whole duration of the lockdown, especially for households consuming 30 cu. m. and lower. This is to lessen pressure on household budgets and allow greater room for recovery after the quarantine period.