Water: Toward an ethic of responsible consumption

In a barangay in Quezon City a few days ago, a group of young men vented their anger over the sudden stoppage of the water supply in their neighborhood by attacking the two fire hydrants in their street. No one dared to stop them. They pounded the concrete base of the hydrants until they hit and broke the main water line.

But, instead of the oozing fountain they expected to uncork, all that their frenzied effort yielded was bubbling water barely able to rise to the surface. The crowd that gleefully gathered around the toppled hydrants could only watch in dismay as the precious liquid flowed straight into the canals.

Nothing more vividly captures the visceral emotions that are unleashed by the abrupt denial of water to a community than a scene like this. It is as though, in an instant, all the unexamined resentments of an angry public congeal around an unmet need, waiting to be ignited. The senseless attack on the fire hydrants could be dismissed as an extreme reaction to the current water crisis besetting a section of Metro Manila. But, disputes over water have become so common in many societies that we are likely to see more of these conflicts in their violent form in our own communities before we realize the urgency of the problem that lies at their core.

“Never waste a good crisis,” the saying goes. In that spirit, it may be worth asking two urgent questions at this point. One, how do we consume water as though it were the scarcest resource in the planet? And two, how do we ensure its shared and equitable utilization as a resource?

Living in a tropical country lined by rivers and dotted with lakes, we have tended to assume that water is an inexhaustible good. Paying for it is something we expect to see only in the city. In the countryside, people are so used to drawing water freely from public water pumps, or from mountain springs and backyard deep wells, that they would generally resist paying a monthly tariff to a water service provider.

I grew up in a provincial household that sourced its drinking water from a public pump and the rest of its water requirements from a deep well at home. The local water district offered piped clean water for a monthly fee. But my mother couldn’t see the point of paying good money for what she regarded as a public resource that, like the air we breathe, should be freely available to all.

In that frame of mind, I myself never thought I would see the day when water could be sold as a commodity. Today, bottled water is everywhere—an overpriced product we can’t seem to do without. This and the easing up of the water supply that came with the large-scale privatization of Metro Manila’s water utility ironically promoted the illusion of an inexhaustible resource.

But this is a mindset that is perpetually skewed toward the search for new sources of bulk water to meet the ever-rising demand for clean water. It is not hospitable to the thought that some good could come from regulating water consumption itself.

This is a theme that my son, C.P. David, an environmental geologist who has studied water from different angles, has harped on for quite a while. He claims that we are so fixated with increasing the supply to keep up with the demand that we don’t think enough of the need to instill discipline in water consumption. So trapped are we, he says, in the perspective of the vendor, which sees only more profits to be made from increased demand, that the specter of real scarcity seldom figures in our calculations.

From where he stands, here is what a scheme for regulating the demand side might look like in broad outline. For lack of space, I can only sketch the basic assumptions and features of what appears to me to be a contribution to the political economy of water conservation.

Water is a basic need, and indeed it is the duty of governments to make sure it is made available to all its citizens. That entitlement, however, is not unlimited. None of us has the inherent right to take more from the store of Nature than what we reasonably need.  Existing estimates place current per capita consumption of water in Metro Manila at 100 liters per day. That seems a lot at first blush. In fact, C.P. says, it is probably at 200 liters already, given the growing affluence of a sizeable portion of the urban population.

We need to find ways to curb the demand. Water remains “undervalued,” so there’s no pressure to conserve it.  This is easily seen when we compare what we pay for water with the cost of a telecom connection. We can have a pricing system that guarantees a minimum price for, say, only the first 150 liters of a person’s daily consumption. Beyond that, one has to pay substantially more for every liter of additional water consumed. The difference in price has to be meaningful enough to make water conservation a practical option.

This scheme can be complemented by a socialized pricing system that would charge higher water rates in affluent gated communities, malls and high-rise condos, using prevailing market land values as guide.   The excess tariff collected should not go to the service provider as profit. It should instead be kept in a special fund dedicated to improving water and sewage infrastructure.

The complexity of a multitiered pricing scheme like this could be mind-boggling. The susceptibility of special funds to corruption is also too well-known to ignore. But these are problems of governance that need to be treated separately. What seems certain is that it is not in the nature of a profit-oriented private enterprise to promote an ethic of responsible consumption. That would be a function of the state or of the educational system.