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Manila Water Crisis: How Did We Get Here?

And is the end to the suffering in sight?
IMAGE Jason Mariposa
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It's been over a week since the start of the water shortage crisis that has gripped about half of Metro Manila’s over 10 million residents. And finally, the big guys are stepping in.

On Friday, the Ides of March, President Rodrigo Duterte issued an order directing the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System to demand the city’s two main water concessionaires—Maynilad Water Services and Manila Water Company—to release water from Angat Dam. The order, issued through the President’s Chief Legal Counsel and Spokesperson Sal Panelo, requires that the “responsible offices” provide water good for 150 days, “in order to supply the affected areas in Metro Manila and deliver, as well as distribute sufficient water to the residents thereof.” 

And for good measure, the President issued a mild threat: “Failure to act or comply with this directive, the President will personally go to them and make the responsible officers account for such failure.”

But according to MWSS Adminstrator Reynaldo Velasco, the President was misinformed when he gave this order.

“There is no such thing as 150 days,” he told ABS-CBN journalist Alvin Elchico. “Sinabihan ko na sina (Presidential Communications Operations Office) Secretary (Martin) Andanar at Executive Secretary (Salvador) Medialdea, na mali ang advice kay Presidente.”

So how did we get to this point? Is solving the crisis really as simple as “releasing water from Angat Dam?”

How did the water crisis start?

Manila Water, the concessionaire in charge of Metro Manila’s East Zone, has made pronouncements about the impending short supply of water since last year, but it first posted advisories about water service interruptions in late February and early March this year, framing it as the company’s “El Niño Water Supply Contingency Plan.” But after statements from weather service PAG-ASA and MWSS made it explicitly clear that there was enough water in Angat Dam for the city’s millions of households, the Ayala-owned firm issued an apologetic statement claiming that it was the low water in La Mesa Dam that caused water interruptions in its sector.

On Tuesday, March 12, a curious exchange happened on the Facebook page of Patrick Ty, the chief regulator for the MWSS. In his post, Ty explained that since 1997, Manila Water has been given a water allocation of 1,600 million liters daily (MLD) compared with Maynilad’s 2,400 MLD. (Maynilad is given more water because it services a larger area and many more households). But because of unusually high demand from an ever-increasing population, Manila Water now requires around 1,750 MLD, which means its previous allocation is no longer enough.

According to Ty, this is the reason why Manila Water has been drawing from its reserve water from La Mesa Dam for some time now.

“Since it hasn’t been raining, their (Manila Water’s) reserve is not getting replenished,” he said. “This is the reason we have a shortage in Manila Water side [sic]. We need a new water source and we need it soon.”

#OpentheBypass

Two days later, comments on the post made by someone claiming to be a former employee of the MWSS drew widespread notice. The commenter said that the solution to the water crisis was simply to open up the bypass valve at the La Mesa Dam.

The commenter further said that it was the MWSS Regulatory Board that ordered the closure of the valve so all the water would flow to Maynilad’s side.

“Kung bakit inutos ng MWSS ito (Why the MWSS ordered this), your guess is as good as mine,” he said.

Ty replied to the Facebook commenter, saying that he never ordered the closure of the valve. At one point, Ty sarcastically thanked the commenter for enlightening him and the rest of the commenters on the issue.

“I didn’t even knew [sic] I ordered its closure,” Ty said. “Must be my evil twin brother.”

Ty’s original post has since been deleted, along with all the comments, but most of the exchange was screencapped by Facebook user Myles Jamito. As of Friday afternoon, Jamito’s post of the exchange has garnered over 60,000 shares on the platform.

The bypass is open

After the post went viral, Ty called for a press conference and categorically denied that he ever ordered the close of the bypass valve. 

“For the record, the bypass is open,” the Philippine Daily Inquirer quoted Ty as saying. “If it is closed, Manila Water would not have water at all.

“The bypass has never been closed,” he added. “I never ordered the closure.”

Meanwhile, Maynilad has also come out with its own statement about the bypass valve, basically claiming that Manila Water, which has total control over the valve, has opened it since February 2018.

“This bypass gate regulates the flow of water from the La Mesa portal to both the La Mesa Dam and to the Balara Water Treatment Plants, all of which are controlled by Manila Water. MWSS has nothing to do with this bypass gate.”

In its latest statement, the MWSS said it is working on short-term solutions to help ease the crisis. “The Cardona plant will be energized within the month, we are tapping several deep wells in consultation wit the National Water Regulatory Board, and we have secured the commitment from Maynilad to share 50 MLD to Manila Water.”

Meanwhile, residents in Metro Manila’s East Zone continue to cry out for one simple thing, proving once again the truth in that old adage that you never realize how essential something is until it’s gone.

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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