Water Aristocracy

by Juan L. Mercado

“In shallow waters, shrimps will make fools of dragons”. That  Asian adage  is  backdrop for  the 21st  World Water Week conference  which opened in Stockhlom  Sunday.  Over  2,000  scientists, bankers and economists are  discussing, in this  annual meeting,  “Water In An Urbanizing World.”
 
Set aside, for now, the need for food, homes, schools or health  services. Focus on water demand, as  seen in population profiles of  cities. Metro Manila ranks 11th  among  the world’s 15 largest  cities.  It contains an estimated 16.3 million people — all needing water. As  more  turn on faucets, water tables slumped.  

Tokyo, Seoul, Mumbai, Jakarta, Delhi, Osaka, Shanghai and Calcutta  account  for eight of the  world’s  largest  15 urban centers:. .. Four years from now, there’ll l be 27 megacities, Emma Porio of Ateneo University foresees. Of these, 18 will be in Asia. “By  2050, more people will live in cities than the number of people living in the entire world today.”
 
In the Philippines, 54 out of every 100 lived in cities by 2007.  What does  this “implosion” imply?   For an answer, hit the rewind button for 1990. At that point, only 30 out of every 100 lived in 60 cities, the National Statistics Office recalls.  By 2020, the number of urban Filipinos will be double their  rural counterparts..
 
Highest concentrations today cluster  in National Capital and Southern Tagalog regions. Metro Cebu and Metro  Davao  are mirror images of that surge  Today, the  Philippines has 138 cities,  if 16 unqualified  towns are included  in the roster, thanks to a flip-flop-flip  Supreme Court decision.
 
Many cities are saddled with below-par water facilities even as births and migration interlock. A “youth bulge”  characterizes this  migrant  torrent,  San Carlos University’s  Soccoro Gultiano and Peter Xenos of East-West  Center point out. The hormones of these young migrants are on overdrive. They will tarry, in the reproductive age bracket longer.  
 
Therefore, kiss goodbye the hoped-for birthrates slowdown. It won’t materialize anytime soon, not even if the Reproductive Health bill gets into law books. But demand for just about everything else will spiral. And there is no substitute for  water. 
 
Water shortages cripple economies and invariably trigger debilitating diseases and premature deaths. Diahrrea is the second child  killer here.  Daily, 10,000 kids ,under 5, die due to tainted water, mostly in Third World countries. Hence, city governments must craft policies that reach beyond brittle underground aquifers and tap surface water. Cebu is the classic example of a city that secures 95 percent of it’s water by overpumping. In the process, it  wrecks irreversibly itnarrow aquifers.
 
“Distant water won’t quench your  thirst.”  Often, surface water sources are located far beyond city limits. In this region, “cities are reaching out to more distant sources of water,” Asian Development Bank notes. However, “relocating industries close to water sources no longer means assured supply” 
 
Aside from getting investors for surface  water projects,  cities must  develop the twin track of  water conservation  The Rainwater Catchment Law is  universally ignored here. This  blanket failure  wastes a critical  resource, Magsaysay Awardee Antonio Oposa grouses. “A  fool is thirsty in the midst  of  water”  an  Ethiopian  adage says. “

Contrary to myth, Asia does not have abundant freshwater endowments. They are, in fact, among the world’s lowest. Over the past half century,  per capita availability has declined by  55 percent in Southeast Asia. A  Filipino, for example, has 6,332 cubic meters available yearly. Compare that to 26,105 cm for Malaysians or 94,353 cm for  Canadians. Saudi Arabians have only 118 cm. But  Saudis  swap oil for water. “Any well in the desert will do”, an Arab proverb says.

These disparities anchor a little-recognized but real “aristocracy of water.” Skewed possession of this vital resource absorbs the on-going Stockholm conference. “Cities are engines of growth”, writes Anders Berntell of Stockholm International Water Institute. “”But all too often, lack or poorly functioning water and sanitation systems carry heavy social and human costs. They adversely affect women….Wise management and recycling of water, within and around cities, can reduce social and economic tensions in an increasing variable water future.”

Will our policy makers plow through the wealth of  peer-reviewed papers, before the Stockholm meeting?. They should. Some have relevance to the parched  Philippine setting. “Policy cocktails for protecting coastal waters from land-based activities” is one  “Pathways to improved water quality”is another.  DILG secretary Jesse Robredo’s staff may find it worth their while to leaf through “Enabling sustainable water service delivery by local government.”

Too often, the poor pay far more for water more than those in affluent enclaves.  A  squatter’s shack in Cebu City   will pay 13 times for water than a gated  Maria Luisa enclave home, notes the UN “World Water Development Report. “ This is water aristorcracy set  on it’s head.

“Difficulties encountered in accessing water, frequently fix  position of the poor on the poverty ladder”, ADB  notes in “Water for All.” “Water security has become a key issue for survival… . Today, stakeholders see  more clearly that the future will be more concerned with managing a dwindling resource — and mitigating adverse impacts of a profligate past.”

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