Water managers warn of rising water stress, appeal for reforms

A water management official called for the conservation of water resources as the Philippines continues to experience water stress as a result of the steady decline in available supply as demand expands.

Susan Abaño, policy chief of the National Water Resources Board (NWRB), said that based on the water stress index threshold, the Philippines has been under stress since 2007 as water availability continues to fall, at present dipping between 1,000 and 1,700 cubic meters (m3) per capita per year.

Abaño, in a water security update at the Philippine Water Challenge forum on November 17, noted that from 2,100 m3 per capita in 1995, water availability has decreased to 1,300 m3 per capita in 2020.

Water stress or scarcity occurs when demand for safe, usable water in a given area exceeds the supply.

Today, the country faces a host of challenges in the water sector including increasing population pressure, rapid urbanization, wasteful consumption, climate change, degradation of watersheds due to deforestation, water sector fragmentation, and weak governance, Abaño said.

“We have so many water-stressed cities already, I think [there are] 33 highly urbanized cities and most of them are already under stress.”

As of 2020, of the 33 highly urbanized cities, 16 are in the National Capital Region (NCR), while 17 are outside the NCR, according to Philippine Statistics Authority data.

Abaño said that to address these issues, the NWRB is implementing integrated water resource management, a process which promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources.

In addition, the NWRB—the government coordinating and regulating agency for all water resources management and development activities—has just concluded the National Water Security Roadmap. The roadmap looks at achieving water security through the harnessing of water resources and provision of sufficient, good quality and affordable water to all users without compromising the environment, Abaño continued.

The roadmap also seeks to focus on fortifying the four pillars of supply management, demand management, infrastructure and governance, while strengthening linkages between resiliency, economy, rural households, urban areas, and the environment.

Abaño also urged other government agencies, local government units, private institutions, nongovernment organizations and other stakeholders to extend the necessary cooperation for the successful implementation of the roadmap.

“Save water; only then will water save you,” she concluded.

At the same event, a water executive from Israel shared how her country was able to overcome the same water challenges currently plaguing the Philippines by implementing needed reforms, including the adoption of an integrated water management model.

Like the Philippines, Israel once had a “messy” water sector until the country began to implement in 2007 some key reforms that allowed the nation to achieve water security, according to Tahel Brandes, senior deputy legal adviser of the Israeli Water & Sewage Authority.

The first initiative was to establish a one-stop shop that would regulate the whole industry, said Brandes. Before 2007, several regulatory agencies were overseeing the water sector, from the Minister of Infrastructures that regulated water levels and the Minister of Health that was in charge of setting drinking water standards to the Minister of Finance which implemented tariffs and budget control.

The result of having different regulators for one sector was decades of consecutive crises including water pollution, water shortage, lack of overall planning, leaking infrastructure, and environmental damages, Brandes said.

Thus, in 2007, Israel established the Israeli Water & Sewerage Authority, in effect keeping in the hands of a lone entity the task of integrated planning, management, development, supply, preservation, and regulation of water resources.

The authority was given overall responsibility over three vital functions: regulation, financing and imposition of service standards.

Regulation is the particular purview of the Water Authority Council, the decision-making body of the authority that maintains a professional and integrative approach to its function, said Brandes.

The finance function entails ensuring cost recovery for suppliers and fairness and uniformity for consumers.

Keeping high service standards calls for overseeing investments in water infrastructure and ensuring high quality for end-users.

“This is a very important point because when you have a one-stop shop you are able to have an overlook of the whole sector,” from water resources management all the way to sewage treatment, said the executive.

Another notable reform instituted was handing over the management of the whole sector to professional managers. “It’s not in the hands of Parliament, it’s not in the hands of the local municipalities,” she said, adding that the entire sector is managed and regulated by professional entities.

Another measure implemented is the setting by the Water Council of tariffs that are “economy-based,” which means the tariffs are designed to cover all of the sectoral expenses and to restrain water consumption. “People pay for water and what they pay enables the sector to go on working and supplying water,” Brandes said.

Finally, Israel further reformed the sector through what she described as the deliberate effort to “measure every drop,” explaining that “when you know what happens to your water resources, it enables you to know where you are going,” and it increases a country’s resilience to water crisis and even climate change, the same catastrophic events confronting the Philippines.

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