MANY consumers are disappointed with the current service of water concessionaires in Metro Manila. In a lot of instances, this corner even criticized them for their shortcomings.
Undeniably, we are quick to go ballistic when no water comes out from our faucets or when there’s traffic due to water works on the road. But come to think of it, consumers get mad without knowing the reasons behind the problem.
When the operations of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) were privatized in 1997, the primary mandate for the winning water concessionaire was to simply improve the delivery and availability of water and waste water services in Metro Manila.
The participation of the private sector was supposed to facilitate improving MWSS services due to better access to funds compared to the then bankrupt MWSS, faster and more cost-effective acquisition of necessary goods and services versus the notoriously cumbersome government procurement process, and improved employee productivity.
Reaching those goals drastically improved services in Metro Manila by 2020: higher coverage of water services in both the East and West zones with over 90% 24-hour water availability, improved water pressure, 100% sanitation coverage, and over 50 new waste water treatment plants which brought waste water coverage from almost zero to 30% of the metropolis.
And while the work of the concessionaires is far from over, the challenges of the 21st century have only made their mandate more daunting.
Uncontrolled population growth and lack of urban planning, particularly in dense cities that have compensated with high-rise buildings and condominiums, have created unprecedented demand for water that is stretching the limits of the current infrastructure.
Aside from requiring new water sources, new pipes will have to be laid, often on roads that are already suffering from massive daily traffic, making it understandably difficult to obtain permits from local government units. Aside from new water sources and additional conveyance capacity, incremental reservoir capacity in areas where available land is limited is also needed to address water availability issues especially during peak hours.
The reality of climate change and its impact on rainfall patterns and the severity of annual droughts and typhoons have made the availability of raw water supply in Angat Dam less predictable, and have increased the variability of raw water quality making traditional treatment methods inadequate.
Heavier monsoon rains following longer dry spells, coupled with continuous denudation of the forests of the Ipo watershed, have caused turbidity levels that require the extensive rehabilitation of existing water treatment plants.
Even the new plants treating water from Laguna Lake have had to incorporate additional processes to handle algal blooms and spikes of organic and inorganic matter at levels not seen from recorded prior ten-year experience.
And while longer dry spells can be addressed by new water sources, flooding due to the heavier rains during the wet season also requires mitigating measures for existing infrastructure.
While the renewed consciousness of the environment, as well as the efforts being undertaken to preserve it, are admirable, these measures will have to be balanced with what can be practically implemented in a developing country like the Philippines and the equivalent costs.
Taking all these challenges into consideration and addressing each of them requires a massive investment in infrastructure. In the last rate rebasing exercise conducted by the MWSS Regulatory Offices, the combined capital expenditure spending of Maynilad and Manila Water needed to complete its service obligation targets until the end of the concession in 2037 amounted to over P465 Billion.
Funding these expenditures has recently become problematic mainly because of the ongoing concession review intended to amend the existing agreement that have made financial institutions hesitant to lend until there is clarity on how the concessions will be resolved.
But this hesitation actually began earlier with the current lack of certainty on the rate setting process, as well as the hesitation of regulators to adjust tariffs to capture the recovery of these investments and effectively more accurately reflect the value of water and waste water services.
The challenges are considerable and can even seem overwhelming but these can certainly be handled if all concerned work together. Perhaps the ongoing concession review, as well as the laws being proposed to reform the country’s water sector, will be the important first steps to a solution that will comprehensibly and systematically address all these concerns.
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