Tightening Water Spigots

“There go those stunning roses in the Palo Alto garden of our daughter,” the wife muttered. She had flagged a New York Times article on California Gov. Jerry Brown’s order: Reduce water use.

Tightening spigots is a first in California’s history. A four-year drought crested crisis proportions after winter’s record-low snowfalls. A 25-percent cut will be clamped by the state’s 400 local water supply agencies.

“California is home to high-tech industries,” a San Francisco resident wrote in the local paper. “Yet, we never thought of capturing all the rain…” Our Rainwater Catchment Law is universally ignored here.

Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo, announced that “if the drought persisted, they’d restrict water availability for the city of 20 million to two days per week,” Scott Moore wrote in the New York Times. Some might have to “get out of São Paulo” to shower.

Brazil needs to price water realistically, and spur conservation to create “water markets.”

After Tropical Storm “Maysak” (“Chedeng” here), the searing summer will set in. A Filipino has 6,332 cubic meters of water available yearly. Compare that to 26,105 cubic meters for Malaysians, or 94,353 cubic meters for Canadians. Saudis have only 118 cubic meters. But they swap oil for water.

Twenty liters per person each day is the threshold requirement to meet basic human needs, according to the United Nations Human Development Report. Here, about 72 percent of water, from rivers or ponds, is unfit for human use.

Cebu is the classic example of a city that once secured 95 percent of its water by overpumping. In the process, it wrecked—irreversibly—its narrow aquifers.

Too often, the poor pay far more for water than those in affluent enclaves. A family living in a squatter shack in Cebu City pays 13 times for water than a family in the gated Maria Luisa enclave, notes the UN World Water Development Report. This is “water aristocracy” set on its head.

The Philippines’ 142 other cities, meanwhile, watch a tutorial unfold on Cebu’s spreading shortages of an irreplaceable resource: Parched residents have dug up to 5,000 wells. Most are hand pumps sans permits.

The warning has been raised: Salt irreversibly taints many urban aquifers. Wells in mountain barangays are “not sustainable.” Once pumped dry, they’ll be difficult to replenish.

The “saline edge” has seeped inland up to 150 meters a year, University of San Carlos hydrologist Herman van Engelen discovered in 1975. “Stanch it,” the SVD priest urged City Hall then, “or your children will never drink from those aquifers again.”

Just 50 liters of seawater can taint 1,000 liters of fresh water, cautioned the Water Resources Center. The “saline edge” is now seven kilometers inland, shattering aquifers in 12 cities and towns.

“It’d take three centuries to flush the salt.” A call for reforms was sounded from Delft University to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. The call fell on deaf ears.

Cebu’s spanking-new, P136-million-plus city legislative building boasts of plush councilor seats. But it lacks a catchment to save rain, although Republic Act No. 6716 requires all to do so. In contrast, Singapore collects every drop of rain for funneling into 17 reservoirs.

How can 142 other cities avoid similar water-policy bankruptcy?

Cebu is now getting surface water, for the first time, from the town of Carmen 40 kilometers away. This P702-million agreement between the Ayala-led Manila Water Consortium and the provincial government is still short of the demand by 18 percent. But it’d ease the pressure on aquifers.

Cebu’s fiasco should prod 142 other cities to look at Cambodia’s success. In 1992, the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority gurgled murky water for 10 hours daily to only 20 percent of the residents. Water theft topped 72 percent.

Reforms instituted over 14 years resulted in today’s 24-hour service to nine out of 10 customers. Illegal connections were whittled down to 6 percent. The firm won the 2004 Asian Development Bank Water Prize, the 2006 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, and the 2010 Stockholm Industry Water Award.

What unlocked this turnaround? “Leadership, professionalism and integrity,” said director Ek Sonn Chan. Add to that “community participation and information sharing,” plus transparency and accountability.

Leaders of our 142 other cities must see water for what it is: a God-given, limited and irreplaceable resource, not a political bludgeon. Some cities are more endowed than others. But there is a common denominator: No one can afford to waste a drop.

The need is to involve citizens in crafting water supply plans. Start by assessing the resource realistically. Tap expertise from agencies and universities to develop multiple approaches. That’d end reliance on a single source.

Then, conserve rain and rehabilitate watersheds. Penalize waste and reward conservation. Price water realistically.

And remember to stash that water-diviner mumbo jumbo that one Mayor Osmeña fancied. “Make failure your tutor.” Otherwise, it will be “your undertaker.”

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