Will the creation of a department solve our water woes?

April 17, 2023

by Xandra Liza C. Bisenio

President Bongbong Marcos recently signed an executive order (EO) creating a Water Resource Management Office (WRMO) attached to the Office of the President and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). The WRMO, a prelude to the administration creating a water resources department, is said to be a step towards more decisively addressing the country’s “unacceptable” water crisis. The president cited lack of water access in rural and urban poor areas and impending water shortages due to El Niño. He attributed these to the absence of water governance.

The proposed water resources department aims to “ensure the comprehensive and integrated management of the water resources in the Philippines, and their optimal allocation among competing uses”. But how far can the creation of a water department genuinely address our age-old water troubles?

Water Department

A copy of the EO is yet to be publicized. The WRMO supposedly coordinates the country’s water resource agencies allegedly for more cohesive management. The agencies addressing water issues at different levels include the National Water Resources Board (NWRB), Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS), Local Water Utilities Administration (LWUA) connected to local water districts in cities and municipalities, National Irrigation Administration (NIA), Laguna Lake Development Authority (LLDA), and the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission. The WRMO shall coordinate these until the water department is established.

Senate Bill (SB) 102, the proposed National Water Resource Management Act, introduced by public services committee chair Senator Grace Poe, establishes the national framework for water resource management creating the Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the Water Regulatory Commission (WRC). House Bill (HB) 35 authored by Congressman Joey Salceda is the counterpart of the Lower House.

According to SB 102, the water department will absorb the offices, functions and personnel of the NWRB, DENR’s River Basin Control Office, Manila Bay Task Force, and the Biodiversity Management Bureau. Additionally, the Flood Control Management Cluster of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), the Water Supply and Sanitation Unit of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), and the Water Quality Management Section of the DENR will also be transferred to the water department.

The water department will also take over water-related functions of other agencies, bureaus and units, along with their personnel and records, funds and appropriations, and equipment and property.

The proposed WRC will exercise the economic regulatory functions that the LWUA, MWSS, LLDA, and NIA currently perform. Water Resources Regional Offices and a National Water Sector Policy Council composed of representatives from various national government agencies will also be established. Furthermore, a Local Water Resource Management Council composed of sectoral offices from local governments will be created.

Distorting the concept of commons

SB102 distorts the concept of water resources belonging to the commons or cultural and natural resources that are accessible to all members of a society by allowing water to be handled by the profit- and business- oriented private sector.

The bill’s Declaration of Policy (Chapter 1, Section 2) stipulates the following: (a) The State’s recognition that water is fundamental to individual life, health, and dignity, and every person has a right to access water for personal and domestic use; (b) The State’s affirmation that every Filipino has a right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation, hence affordable water supply and sanitation nationwide must be pursued; (c) The State’s emphasis that it is necessary to carefully regulate water as a scarce resource as it is an essential public good subject to conflicting forms of economic, agricultural and industrial activities; (d) That the State maintains that water is indispensable to the existence and sustainability of natural ecosystems and its use must neither imperil nor disrupt the environment; and (e) That the State also maintains that water resources are interconnected with all natural resources, thus water management will require inter-sectoral and inter-agency collaboration and harmonization of laws, policies, institutions and stakeholders.

While most of the declaration speaks of the State recognizing water as everyone’s right that must be systematically ensured, its final policy statement (f) dilutes the concept of people’s or community rights that water is a common or a public good: While all water resources are under the State’s full ownership, control and supervision, the government may enter into arrangements with the private sector and other non-government actors to ensure water supply, sanitation and septage services.

The Declaration of Policy jives with how the Philippine government has managed the commons and public goods, which is by allowing the participation of the private sector such as in the energy, telecommunications, and transport sectors. The government has also been adding structures to the bureaucracy such as, for instance, creating departments of transport, housing, migrant workers, and communications, unfortunately not to genuinely solve problems but to facilitate private business.

State policy according to the Bill is to provide for the integrated management of all of the country’s water resources to ensure universal access to safe, adequate, and affordable water supply, sanitation and septage services. How to achieve that, however, will be “through a policy and regulatory regime that encourages innovation and responsible private sector participation”. The emphasis on entering arrangements with the private sector and other non-government actors, including foreign entities, only reaffirms government’s neoliberal thrust.

Unchanged free market bias

SB 102 is consistent with the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) infrastructure division’s endorsement of the creation of an apex body for water resource management within the framework of the Philippine Development Plan (PDP 2022-2028). The PDP paradigm remains within the old notion that a free market economy, open and unencumbered, is the key to development. Unfortunately, this peddles Philippine resources to the control and exploitation of local economic oligarchs and foreign investors. The PDP also opens up public services and utilities to privatization. It is an old, grossly debunked notion, since the Philippine economy has remained a laggard, and poverty has worsened. The shares of production sectors in the economy have shrunk to their smallest.

Consistent with the PDP, the DWR may enter into contracts, joint venture agreements, public private partnerships (PPP), and other similar plans with domestic as well as foreign entities for investing in and financing water-related projects. It will also promote and enable more PPPs in the sector. Furthermore, agents, public or private, may assist in the performance of any of the powers and functions of the water department, tantamount to giving the private sector the same crucial role as State agents in carrying out the DWR’s job.

The creation of a water department is problematic because it is not targeted to address the underlying cause of water’s inaccessibility. SB 102 lists what needs to be managed and allocated (Chapter II Section 6 part III): water resources for domestic and municipal water supply, irrigation, sanitation, hydropower, navigation, fisheries, livestock raising, industrial, recreational, and other purposes. But it does not recognize that subjecting these to open market regime and private profiteering is the root of our water troubles.

Privatization has increased rates, yet supply and sanitation gaps have remained. In Metro Manila, Manila Water Company Inc. rates have increased from Php39.26 per cubic meter in the pre-pandemic first quarter of 2020 to Php45.93 this January. Maynilad Water Systems Inc. rates meanwhile remained slightly steady but high at Php48.53 and Php48.83 within the said period.

In some urban poor communities in the National Capital Region (NCR), where so-called mother meters serve hundreds of households without direct water connection, individual monthly bills range between Php700 and Php1,100 due to the additional cost of water system losses. This already eats up around 10% of mostly vendors’ and contractual workers’  precarious monthly incomes ranging from Php6,000 to Php11,000.

It can also be recalled that the Supreme Court (SC) slapped Maynilad and Manila Water with a Php1.8-million fine in 2019 for non-compliance with the Clean Water Act and for underinvesting in sanitation services. For more than two decades under privatization, water bills have been including an environmental charge, yet as per the SC case only 14% of the firms’ total service area has been covered by sewerage services. 

In local water districts (LWD), joint venture agreements (JVAs) between the local government and private firms have resulted in poorer services . For example, in areas with JVAs involving oligarch Manuel Villar’s Prime Water, which now covers 124 cities and municipalities nationwide, consumers complain about dirty water and pressure coming out of the faucet.  This is the case of some 60,000 households under the Bacolod City Water District (BACIWA) and over 120,000 households served by the San Jose Del Monte City Water District. The JVAs are anomalous because government is supposed to allow them to aid bankrupt LWDs, yet the LGUs allowed the two well-performing LWDs to enter a JVA. In addition to poorer services, the JVA caused the retrenchment of scores of LWD employees.

Opening up water resources to private control and management has also affected farmers’ access to irrigation. For rice farmers, despite supposedly having free irrigation services starting 2018, the 60% increase in average irrigation fees paid from Php253.90 per hectare (2002-2011) to Php406.40 (2012-2021) shows that farmers still shell out, and even more than before, for irrigation.

The creation of a DWR will also not solve fisherfolk’s diminishing access to fishing grounds, if it does not address the policy of liberalizing fisheries to different players. Fishing grounds have gradually become degraded or inaccessible due to profit-oriented activities such as reclamation projects, coastal conversion to commercial and tourism uses, and allowing equipped fishing vessels in municipal waters.

The country’s experience with large dams is also not comforting. Communities and indigenous people have been constantly under threat due to government’s thrust to build megadams under PPP. The Kaliwa Dam and Chico Pump Irrigation Project are stark examples of foreign-funded projects that are controversial for lacking community consent and environmental clearance, and for subjecting the country to lopsided terms in favor of foreign firms and governments.

SB 102 and HB 35 provide for several levels of people’s representation in water resource management tasked to participate in reviewing, crafting and recommending measures towards ensuring good water resource management and water and sanitation for all. This, at best, is tokenistic. It will be a tough challenge for such mechanisms to counter what is already in place and being made more efficient, meaning, neoliberal policies applied on water resources, with government and the private sector cooperating to increase private profits. A DWR only allows the flow of public funds to private pockets.

The proposals for a DWR and WRC aim to welcome water privatization and liberalization to take off to new levels. This can mean more private and foreign water companies, more commercial ventures on water resources, and more profit for the proponents.

Water for all

“People need water to physically survive. People need water for a better quality of life – for sanitation, for food production, for the production of basic needs, for leisure, and more,” said IBON and Water for the People Network (WPN) in the booklet “Water for the People”. Water belongs to the public domain, thus it is inalienable and should not be disposed. 

However, SB 102 and HB 35 proposing the creation of a national-level water department and regulatory commission treat water resources as a good that may actually be harnessed by individuals or private entities. The proposals uphold the concept of existing laws such as PD 1067 or the  Philippine Water Code that water is appropriable through ‘water rights’ to government owned and controlled corporations (GOCCs) and other government bodies, private corporations 100% or at least 60% owned by Filipinos, and individual Filipino citizens, for domestic, municipal, irrigation, power generation, fisheries, livestock raising, industrial, and recreational purposes.

Water governance has indeed so far leaned on privatizing and liberalizing water resources, from the biggest privatization in Metro Manila in the 1990s to the accelerating privatization of local water districts nationwide, to the increasing role of private and foreign entities in harnessing water for various profit-oriented purposes. There is meanwhile generally insufficient, inefficient and expensive water for households, and decreasing resources for production, for livelihoods, services, and other needs of the people and the country.

While opposing the creation of a department that will only further marginalize water resources, advocates can push for immediate doables in asserting the right to water. All water-related policies or guidelines should be reviewed. Advocates can also call for decisive action against private companies involved in erroneous JVAs in the local water districts; ensuring direct piped water for all urban and rural households; targeting 100% irrigation of all agricultural lands; arresting corporate takeover of fishing waters; and preventing water and electricity-generating projects and activities, as well as other plunderous acts such as mining and logging, that threaten communities, livelihoods and the environment. Watershed management can also be a long-term solution to the low water yield being cited during water shortages: no less than the DENR in 2021 said that more than 130 out of 142 are in critical condition and need to be rehabilitated.

Relatedly, the Filipino People’s Water Code in the “Water for the People” booklet is being proposed to be the basis of legislation on water resources The Code invokes the principles of water being a basic human right; water being part of national patrimony that should not be subject to exploitation for foreign or private interests; water as a people’s resource  allocated mainly for the people’s survival and livelihood needs and with preferential treatment for the poor and marginalized sectors; water as a public good that should remain in the public domain; giving precedence to ancestral domains in the conservation of water resources; and the promotion of community management in the conservation and development of water resources.

As the Philippine government continues to tread the pro-big-business, profit-oriented approach towards the commons, communities and advocates are challenged to continue asserting what is collectively theirs until people’s control over people’s resources is truly realized. ###