Lethal Cocktail

by Juan L. Mercado

“”When  the  well  dries  up,  even  the  fool  saves  water.” This  axiom came to mind  as  forecasts of  El Nino, searing  the country, sent  everyone scrambling . Well,  almost    everybody. 

Of   the  country’s 126  cities,  the most  vulnerable to dry spells  is  Cebu.  How  will  El  Nino affect  a  city  crammed  with migrants, collapsing aquifers, salt contaminated wells and biologically dead rivers?  City Hall  couldn’t  be bothered.
There’s   an “above 50 percent chance” that   moderate El Niño conditions will  set in ,  the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration  cautioned.  Warmer-than-usual readings,  200 meters below ocean surface, have been  noted,  US  Climate Prediction Center  reports.

El Niño  is  argot  for  warming or cooling of surface waters in the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean.  It  occurs  anywhere  between  four to 12 years. El Niño can come in tandem  with  “La Nina”: Droughts  are trailed  by  tropical cyclones.

El Nino  has  an “uncanny  way of taking place during or after a financial crisis”  , Union Bank of  Switzerland  observes. After the 1997  Asian crisis,  El  Nino  cut  Philippine  output to 1.2 percent from the 5.6 percent.expansion forecast.

El Nino  today   follows lingering  effects from  global recession and swine flu.  It  could affect  wheat harvests in Australia and  palm oil output in Malaysia and Indonesia. It’d  crimp  rice harvests here, Reuters  reports..

Rice shortages and  pilas, in a  tense   election year, is political dynamite. If  El Nino  straddles  the dry cropping season it’d  blight  nearly 544,000 hectares planted to rice,  Agriculture Undersecretary Bernardo Fondevilla  estimates  “If we have to  import rice, we will.”

National Economic and Development Authority   reactivated it’s  El Niño Task Force to craft mitigation plans. .National Irrigation Authority  will  shut down irrigation taps in Camarines and Sorsogon.  Negros Occidental  reports onset of  El Nino-like spells.  “Breadbaskets”,  like  Mindanao, still have to be heard from.

Metro Manila now  tracks  the slump in water levels of  Angat and other  reservoirs.   Flyers on  water conservation  have been  published. They  signal  other  cities of what they must  do, but soon..

“We can draw lessons from the  past,” US  Lyndon Johonson once mused. “But  we can not live in it.”. The 1997-1998  El  Nino, for  example,  compelled  “excessive draw downs”, recalls  Leonardo Liongson of UP’s  National Hydarulic Center, That triggered  irrigation  cuts  for  over 10 months. El  Nino’s reappearance, in 2001-2003,   forced “low or zero” allocations, over brief periods for irrigation.

Unlike Burma or Malaysia, we’re not  water  rich. In 2000, we had only 6,332 cubic meters of total actual renewable water resources per capita,  Asian  Development Bank notes.  That   dipped to 5,880 cm five years later.  It is still falling today.

Water  remains clear upstream. But it morphs into a murky lethal cocktail as it meanders through  littered rivers and chemical tainted creeks  More than half ( 58 percent ) of groundwater today is contaminated. Of 457 water bodies classified by DENR, only half ( 51% ) meet 1996 water standards. 

Two- third of rivers  no longer provide potable  water.   Pag walang tubig na linaw, iinumin kahit labo, the  Tagalog   proverb says.(“It there is no clear water, one will drink even the turbid.”)

Children are specially vulnerable to water-borne diseases. Annual infant deaths, from diarrhea alone, exceed the toll of Mindanao armed clashes,  Viewpoint  commented in “Poisoned Wells   ( CDN/  Jan  8,2008)   This   ecological decay spawns a Jekyll-and-Hyde paradox :  from life giver, water turns into a   killer,.

“ Indeed, it is a grave moral shortcoming if people can not drink water without courting disease or death,” Worldwatch  Institute’s  Sandra Postel  stresses.

Scampering to cushion El Nino’s   blows is essential  . But  who  among those who proclaim themselves fit to lead this troubled nation., have looked beyond periodic crises? Who has really  grappled  with  long term water security?

Few  budged  when  Japan International Cooperation Agency warned back  in 1998:  Unless decisive reforms were adopted, water  resources would be at a critical stage by 2025.  Main  cities and eight of 19 major river basins, will be parched  or polluted

Many  developing countries  risk mortgaging their water security, in a decade or two, if business-as-usual mindsets persist, cautioned   ADB vice president Ursula Schafer-Preuss

Cebu  City  exemplifies  this “tomorrow-will-be-another- today mentality.”.The burg  is 99% dependent on water mined from collapsing aquifers. The city  siphons twice what is  recharged. Water tables have slumped.  Salt water has seeped into aquifers by  Cebu foothills  over eight  kilometers inland. This  is  irreversible damage.

Metro Cebu Water District  serves only 55% of residents  whose number quadrupled  since 1940. The number of homes with water taps is a fraction more than when  Mayor Tomas Osmena took over  City Hall.  three terms back.

He  denies  a water crisis  even  as he steps down from city  hall.  Thus, he  blocked   proposals to pipe surface water from outside the city. That’s the only alternative to terminal collapse of aquifers. 

In so doing  Osmena  also  scrubbed long term water supply for his pet  project:  the  297-hectare  South Reclamation project.   No investor  of sound mind will   build in an   area  that  drills  into already collapsing aquifers for  water.

In  Shakespeare’s  inimitable phrase,  Mayor Osmena   “hoisted himself  with his own petard”. He did it  with superb efficiency.Sure.  But that,  alas,   is not a substitute for water policy.

( Email: juanlmercado@gmail.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it )

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