Water woes

One of the first things we had to face after my wife and I decided in 1973 to live with her grandaunt, music professor Jovita Fuentes, inside the University of the Philippines campus, was the water problem. Built on the gentle slope of a hill at the edge of the sprawling campus, the house of the maestra was one of the pioneer homes in UP Diliman. Its high elevation gave us a beautiful view of the neighborhood, but put us at a disadvantage in the community’s water distribution system.

The water pressure had to be adequately strong in order for us to get any water, and that happened only from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. The irony is that we were just a stone’s throw away from the Balara filtration system. I remember visiting the old Nawasa office to plead with the gods of Balara to increase the pressure so that the water would reach us before it ran out.  They couldn’t do it. An increase in water pressure would burst the pipes and produce more leaks in the aging system. Everywhere there were telltale signs of precious water springing from underground leaks.

I did not realize until later how much we had woven our daily lives around the impounding of water. Our lives centered on the water tank that we piously filled during the wee hours when the rest of the community was asleep. Every day, someone had to wake up, wait for the sound of trickling water, and switch on the pump to coax the water up the reservoir. We stocked water in all kinds of recycled plastic containers, dipping into these when the tank went empty.

The rust and silt that came with the water made it necessary to filter and boil it before we could drink it. Also, the old pipes usually delivered a few droplets of water but drove a lot of wind into our pipes. The air pressure with no accompanying water caused the water meter to whirl like a jet propeller, registering consumption levels that defied reality. This was reflected in our monthly bill, which was at least twice the amount we pay today. I paid under protest.

The situation was replicated at school where the toilets perpetually stank. Janitors had to carry pails of water at the end of the day to declog them. In frustration, students sometimes celebrated the New Year by rigging the dysfunctional toilets with firecrackers and blowing them up as symbols of a stinking government. I am not a great fan of privatization. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that unless the government recognized the immense complexity of the water problem in view of an expanding population, and completely modernized the system, there was no option but to let the private sector do it.

We were spending a lot on gallons of distilled water. The informal settlers in our neighborhood were paying even more for cans of water delivered by wooden carts to their shanties. It was a problem for everybody regardless of class. In summer, when there was less water to share, the metropolitan rich sought remedy by deploying the biggest pumps to suck the limited water into their houses. The urban poor solved their despair by illegally tapping into the mains and opening fire hydrants.

When Manila Water people knocked on my door sometime in 1997 to tell me that they were laying new and bigger pipes in our street, and to apologize for the temporary inconvenience, I was skeptical. I wasn’t sure how long it would take them to dig up all the old pipes left behind by the Americans. But, not long after, as promised, the water came 24 hours a day.  It felt like living in a modern city. I gave away the water pump, but kept the reservoir as a relic of a waterless past. I would hate to go back to that primitive era.

The main issue in the current debate concerning the water companies is how much they are entitled to charge consumers for the water they deliver. Where there is competition, the answer is decided in terms of who can offer the best sustained service at the lowest rate. But, where the public must deal with only one designated service provider, there is a state-sanctioned procedure for keeping rates at just and reasonable levels while allowing the company to develop the business, recover its investments, and earn reasonable profit.

That procedure is called “rate rebasing,” a process scheduled every five years in the case of Metro Manila’s water services. This is when the water tariff is reviewed and, if warranted, adjusted. The operators of the concessions—Manila Water and Maynilad—have asked for an increase in rates, even as various groups representing the consumers are demanding a lowering of rates from current levels. This is healthy and is to be expected.

We should worry if the government regulator approves everything submitted by the concessionaires. But we should be equally disturbed when the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System, the government agency in charge of the privatization and regulation of water services in Metro Manila, questions the terms of the concession agreement itself. This stance raises all kinds of questions about the government’s ability to honor the contracts it signs with private parties. Disputes arising from conflicting interpretations of the provisions of the agreement can always be brought to a court of law if necessary. They ought not to be unduly politicized, for this is what prevents the private sector from investing in such projects.

Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile put it quite well when he was recently asked what he thought of the call for a congressional hearing on the issue: “I don’t know if Congress has the power to intervene, because it’s very clear that you cannot impair the obligation of contracts. Now, the only remedy here of the government would be to renegotiate the contract, if the parties agree.”