|Follow the water|
|Wednesday, 18 April 2012|
"Follow the water" is a simply phrased principle that guides scientists in their search for extra-terrestrial life and makes presence of water a premium indicator that a place is very likely to be livable.
It captures the fact that water is key in all life processes due to its unique physical and chemical properties, its ability to dissolve substances, and enable chemical reactions.
That principle more and more appears to be reflected in historical and social science, as archeological findings suggest that the level of rainfall - in other words, the dwindling availability of fresh and clean water - played a key role in the decline and entire civilizations and communities.
In today's world, this principle plays out in the reality that water - and its abundance, quality, and affordability - constitutes such an important factor in the quality of life.
This is no less true in the Philippines, a mountainous archipelago with a coastline of 36,000 kilometers. Its bountiful array of freshwater resources consists of 421 principal rivers: 20 of them covering 11.1 million hectares or 37 percent of the country's land area; 59 natural lakes; 100,000 hectares of freshwater marshes; and 5 million hectares of groundwater reservoirs; a mean annual rainfall of about 2,400 mm, 1,000 - 2,000 mm of which collects in run-off to rivers, streams and lakes; and finally but not the least, what was described by ESSC Director Pedro Walpole as "green water" and "what makes the Philippines the wet tropics" or "the thin invisible atmospheric blanket of moisture originally not much more than 40 meters provided by the natural forest cover." (see Figuring the Forest Figures)
Given these natural bounties, it is not surprising that Filipinos have been found to be the biggest users of fresh water in Southeast Asia and are projected to remain so until 2025, based on net water withdrawal data. Unfortunately, these benefits now enjoyed may well yet eventually evaporate and denied to future generations. Research reveals that these freshwater resources are now in such a state of risk, degradation, and wanton use that the National Water Resources Board (NWRB), the national water regulatory body, declared grimly in a 2006 report that "once known to be relatively abundant in water resources, the country is now facing the prospects of an emerging water crisis."
According to research findings, availability of water per capita for Filipinos is declining because decrease in water supply associated with degradation of forest watersheds has failed to keep up with rising demand from a growing population. Deforestation has tended to undermine both the country's green water and groundwater by removing the thick vegetation and organic matter that binds the soil, which in turn helps the rainfall recharge the aquifers.
A study has shown that 17 of 20 major river basins will experience water shortage until 2025 under conditions of "high economic growth" and without an effective water resources program. Metro Manila, Metro Cebu and Baguio City are the urban areas with the most critical water situation. Metro Manila's water supply is just about adequately supplied for the present by the Angat Dam, whose watershed is partially denuded, and to a much less extent, by deep wells that have on the other hand contributed to the metropolis' subsidence, or sinking, as in Bulacan and Pampanga. As poor rural migrants continue to flock to Metro Manila in search of jobs scarce in the countryside, the current water set-up is seen to already suffer from seasonal shortages requiring rationing in certain areas. Various studies point to the urgent need to develop new water sources for Metro Manila, although no solution appears to be in sight.
With a daily demand of 234,000 cubic meters (as of 2004), Metro Cebu has been plagued by water shortages since the 1970s, and has relied largely on deep wells that have depleted its groundwater. In some coastal areas, deep well use has also brought about the intrusion of salt water into groundwater, making it unfit for drinking.
Communities would not have had to resort to deep wells and over-extraction of groundwater were it not for one basic problem: rivers and lakes have become so polluted that they can no longer serve as ready sources of clean and safe drinking water. Ideally, being more abundant, surface water as in rivers and lakes supply the bulk of potable water. Yet, only 36 percent of our river systems and surface water areas are potential sources of drinking. Of this, one percent requires only disinfection to be potable, while the 35 percent needs complete treatment.
A more recent assessment presents a similarly dismal picture: according to Vicente Tuddao, Jr, Executive Director of the River Basin Control Office of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), only 28 percent of the country's available water supply of 1.6 billion cubic meters yearly is for domestic purposes, with the rest unfit for drinking.
Of the 421 rivers, 50 are heavily polluted and 16 biologically dead, including all those in Metro Manila, a reality that threatens the water quality of Laguna de Bay.
One major freshwater type of pollutant is toxic synthetic agro-chemicals such as fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Due to run-off from chemical fertilizers, the nitrogen and phosphorus load of Laguna de Bay, the country's largest lake and often eyed as a source of drinking water for Metro Manila, has already risen to 24 percent, not to mention the reduction of its depth from 7 to 2.4 meters as a result of siltation and deforestation. The Pasig River is also dumped with an organic overload of heavy metals, nitrates, phosphates, and pesticides. The same toxic soup now festers in most inland waters outside the Metro Manila, including heavy metal pollution in the Cordilleras and the Caraga region from mining, and in Central Luzon, Southern Tagalog, and Cebu from industries. In the water bodies still not overwhelmed by biological death, biodiversity is a casualty in the form of fishkills.
But pollution has been so pervasive that it has affected not only surface water but also groundwater. A study showed that due to use of chemical fertilizers, 30 percent of the groundwater in artesian wells in rural areas is found to contain nitrates. Moreover, exposure to chemical pesticides such as chlorpyrifos and chlordane in drinking water from artesian wells has been found by medical studies to be associated with cancer, as well as neurological, genetic, developmental, and autoimmune illnesses.
Poor industrial and domestic sewerage is also behind freshwater pollution. Rivers and lakes continue to be the primary cesspools for industrial effluents and domestic wastewater. A survey of the NWRB and the Local Water Utilities Administration indicated that up to 58 percent of groundwater intended for drinking is contaminated with coliform and would need treatment. According to the National Statistical Coordination Board, 84 percent of Filipinos as of 2008 have access to safe drinking water, up from 73 percent in 2001 - indeed, a near success story considering its proximity to the 86.5 percent Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 2015 target. But even this claim is under a cloud of doubt, as scientist Kyle Onda and others recently argued that flawed MDG research methodologies and assumptions overestimate the proportion of people worldwide with access to safe drinking water. Instead of the 89 percent rate supposedly achieved this early, they estimate the global figure to be no higher than 72 percent in 2010, with 1.6 billion still denied access.
To make matters worse for farmers, the irrigation system plagued by lack of maintenance, rehabilitation, and reconfiguring is less than 30 percent efficient.
Around 16 percent of Filipinos still lack access to sanitary toilet facilities, with even the non-poor urban households depending mostly on poorly designed and built septic tanks. Only 7 percent of Filipinos are connected to sewer systems. The lack of clean and safe water thus presents itself as a major challenge to public health, since water-borne sources are found to cause 31 percent of diseases among Filipinos over a five-year period.
And yet as both water supply and water quality prove problematic, water affordability remains another elusive objective for the country and economy. Many Filipinos find water prices unaffordable. The high rates of non-revenue - leaked or unpaid - water, 51 percent in western Metro Manila and 13 percent in eastern Metro Manila, testify to the grinding poverty that drives residents and communities to widespread water poaching.
Impinging on water prices is a proposed Senate Bill 2997 that threatens to do away with the local water districts and eventually privatize the entire water system outside Metro Manila. The Philippine Association of Water Districts however claims that this measure would only end up making prices even more unaffordable. Maintaining that whatever shortcomings water districts have can be traced to the failure of the national government to fund them adequately. They calculate that a budget addition of merely 20 percent of the PhP 30 billion Conditional Cash Transfer budget would have worked wonders for access to government-distributed water.
Despite what may seem as insurmountable challenges, the goal of abundant, clean, affordable water is worth pursuing as life and human development itself. In spite of the grand and lofty objectives of Agenda 21 and integrated water resource management plans, it appears that many of the core components of these programs relating to deforestation, protection of water bodies and sewerage, are under-prioritized and underfunded. Pursuit of core solutions is sorely neglected. Organic farming, for one, protects soil cohesion, fertility, and moisture, and goes a long way in minimizing deoxygenation and nutrient pollution of rivers, bays, and lakes, and the attendant water-borne diseases. Sanitation can be promoted in rural areas with intermediate or appropriate technology for toilet facilities built with local resources and trained local personnel while self-managed by empowered communities.
If this failure is rationalized as a reflection of the scarcity of overall government funds, then this should impel the government and country to take a more far-reaching and wider developmental view of the nation's income and funding needs. This requires a vision of a more optimal economy with adequate value addition, capturing income, and industrialization that is capable of sufficiently funding the protection of our freshwater environment and the infrastructure for water supply, treatment, distribution, and sewerage. This vision should integrally include communities that can afford the costs of abundant and clean water and of larger scale and efficient yet environmentally sustainable sanitation and sewerage facilities.
In the short-term and medium term, the government could move in the right direction by massively adjusting budget priorities and engaging with empowered communities and civil society in the fields of organic farming, adequately strengthening local water districts, strict monitoring and control of liquid waste pollution, and regenerating and protecting watersheds, natural forests, rivers, lakes, groundwater and green water. Only thus can the country truly follow the water in an abundant, clean and affordable way.