Forging Closer Linkages Amidst Challenges in the Water Industry

13 November 2014

Let me first start off by thanking the Southern Tagalog Association of Water Districts (STAWaD) for the invitation extended to me to join all of you here in your Annual Convention. As your elected Senator of the Republic, it is both an honor and a sworn duty on my part to be with the stakeholders of essential public services, especially those of you from the Southern Tagalog water service sector. For it is through dedicated forums such as this that relevant concerns and questions of policy affecting the sector are voiced out and discussed in this melting pot of ideas, effectively crystallized, and then made known to us, your elected representatives.

This year’s Convention has rightly chosen a very timely and relevant theme, which calls for the “forging of closer linkages”, in the face of challenges facing the water sector.

Today, the Philippine water services sector is being beleaguered by numerous challenges. But the ones needing our urgent and focused attention are the ones concerning “water security”, as well as our overall institutional governance and regulatory framework which impacts on our ability and efficiency in addressing the main problem of water security.

As recent studies show, the state of our water security this side of the country is something that should concern or even alarm all of us.

The World Bank 2003 Philippine Environment Monitor Report mentions the Southern Tagalog region as one of the four (4) critical urban areas in terms of water security. The Report bleakly ranks Southern Tagalog high in terms of water pollution, and at the same time ranks it low in terms of total water resources potential.

Pero huwag kayong mag-alala. Mas mababa kaysa sa Southern Tagalog ang ranking ng Ilocos region, ang rehiyon kung saan ako galing! Ilocos region sits right below Southern Tagalog in the regional rankings in terms of total water resources potential.

However, this state of things is gradually and worrisomely becoming a national trend, especially if we further consider the other findings of the Report about the worsening water pollution, and the prediction that a water availability deficit may take place in the country by 2025, resulting in the Philippines ranking second to the lowest among Southeast Asian countries with fresh water availability.

To help our communities possibly delay the onset and soften the impacts of the threats to our water security, we have to implement the practice of “Integrated Water Resource Management” which is presently being strongly advocated and promoted on a global scale. This is the brand of water resource management that combines and implements the essentials of coordination, maximization and sustainability.

In fact, no less than DPWH Secretary Singson, when he reported to the Senate Committee on Public Works about the analysis of the flood problem in Metro Manila, had expressed that an “integrated water resource management” is a most important and a key principle in solving the flood problems of the country. Sec. Singson, remember, is a “Water Czar” in his own right—by expertise and by default—so he definitely knows what he is talking about.

This single and most essential component of this integrated management approach to our water resources, i.e., COORDINATION, brings us to the other—equally urgent—facet of the problem of our country’s water sector: the governance problem.

International and local analyses of our water services sector consistently cite our country’s lack of an integrated and coordinated governance framework with regard to our water resources. To use an example, a USAID study concludes that “fragmentation and lack of coordination” constitutes “the single greatest barrier to improving water resources management and promoting water security”. In fact, Sec. Singson himself also aptly used the terms “fragmented” and “piecemeal” when he described our governing mechanisms under which our flood problems are addressed.

Studies also illustrate a telling picture of a so-called “crowded institutional landscape”. They allege that more than twenty (20) laws provide legal mandates to more than thirty (30) government offices and agencies in the national and local levels in water-related areas.

This scattered diagram of our governance framework—worsened by claims of conflicting and overlapping functions and mandates—can be very depressing to the astute and conscientious policy-maker and legislator, as it means that all the well-meaning laws that we have passed through the years relating to the management of our water resources have, by sheer accretion, resulted in this seemingly giant mess.

It may interest you to know that presently, there is a bill pending in the Senate that proposes to reform the water sector, in order to institutionalize an integrated water resource management system. Precisely, this bill seeks to address the “fragmentation and lack of coordination”, as well as rationalize the conflicting and overlapping functions in our system.

At the same time, however, there are some provisions in the said bill, which seek to modernize and “revolutionize” our present system of independent and locally controlled public water districts, by fostering private competition and promoting private investments and PPPs—hindi ‘yung mga mistulang “PowerPoint Presentations”, tulad ng naririnig nating mga batikos sa ating administrasyon ngayon, kundi mga “Public-Private Partnerships”. Allegedly, the avowed purpose of opening the field for the entry of private investments is to “maintain price stability”.

I say that these coordinate reforms seek to “revolutionize” the water sector, because if allowed to see the light of day, these would practically threaten our local water districts and, sad to say, push them to the brink of extinction.

Certainly, these proposed “reforms” leading to the so-called “privatization” will trigger a very vociferous and contentious national debate considering that the present national policy expressed in PD 198 favors local operation and control of our water systems. For the law specifically declares that the “operation of independent, locally controlled public water districts” is “the most feasible and favored institutional structure.”

Of course, in spite of the noble objectives put forth to justify these new legislative proposals, there are equally persuasive objections to them, such as the complete absence of community representation and control, the subordination of public interests in favor of purely private business interests, and the likelihood of uncontrollable increases of water rates, among others.

In short, there will surely be equal if not greater clamor to maintain the status quo. Ultimately, there will be a need to have very clear, strong and weighty reasons for an abrupt change and reversal in this national policy, which has stood the test of time as it has been maintained for more than forty (40) years.

For sure, in due time, all of these will be publicly discussed and deliberated in Congress, should this pending bill be pushed for enactment in the immediate future. But for now, may I just assure you all of my full support and defense of the interests of our local stakeholders and our consumers regarding this potentially controversial development.

This brings us ultimately to our all-important theme of “forging closer linkages”. Considering the challenges faced by the water sector, the Associations of local water districts throughout the country, especially STAWaD, should realize the necessity and importance of strengthening relationships.

First, there is the vertical relationship, or our administrative relationship with the regulators. We have to strengthen our relationship and coordination with the National Water Resources Board (NWRB), the Local Water Utilities Administration (LWUA) and other key government agencies, and work for a better and more streamlined functioning and administration of our local water districts, not only to address this “fragmentation and lack of coordination” in our system, but also to ensure a smooth and harmonious regulatory environment.

Also, we have the horizontal relationships. We have to strengthen ties among fellow members not only in the STAWaD, but also with the other Associations, all the way up to the national association or the Philippine Association of Water Districts (PAWaD). Because as key players in the sector, you have your own perspectives on certain matters, especially on questions of policy and regulation, and also your own distinct interests to protect. Hence, you have to be united, and come strong with a single, unified voice.

Last but certainly not the least, there is our relationship with our consumers. Let us always ensure that we make the paramount interests of our consumers our topmost priority, over and above our own personal and parochial interests. To re-echo your mandate under PD 198, local water districts should supply fresh and clean water “to the greatest number and at the least cost”, in the spirit of the timeless words of the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. For as long as we continue doing so, we prove and affirm to the Filipino people the unquestionable and indubitable utilitarian wisdom of the policy and rationale behind PD 198.

Another clear example of our efforts to protect our consumers has been intimated to me by the Batangas Water District. This is with regard to the threat of saltwater intrusion into our aquifers, which is already being felt—or tasted—in several parts of the country, most notably in Cavite, Cebu, Iloilo, not to mention Metro Manila, among others. Umaalat na di-umano ang tubig mula sa ating mga gripo! At hindi po ang ating dila ang may problema; umaalat ang tubig dahil pinapasok na talaga ng tubig-dagat ang ating mga deep wells!

The local water districts are instrumental not only in reporting to and coordinating with the NWRB regarding the occurrence of saltwater intrusion in our respective communities. The water districts can be ”tapped”, so to speak, to act as the NWRB’s deputies on the ground. Not only is the NWRB authorized to do this under PD 1067, or the Water Code, but more importantly, the water districts are also just as empowered to safeguard and protect the use of their waters under PD 198.

Saltwater intrusion poses both health and economic concerns to our communities. Worse, there is also a penal consequence, since “distribution for public consumption of water which adversely affects the health and safety of the public” is made a crime under Article 91 of the Water Code. Kapag ito ay nangyari at lumala, sino pa ba ang sisisihin ng taumbayan kundi ang kanilang mga water districts?!

I laud the STAWaD for bringing up this issue, not only for the protection of the consumers’ welfare, but most important of all, considering the finiteness and scarcity of available freshwater.

Finally, please allow me to discuss one last essential point. If you will recall, Republic Act No. 10026 was enacted in 2010, in order to expressly clarify the tax-exempt status of water districts and also to authorize the condonation of tax delinquencies. As we speak, there is also a move in the Senate to further amend the law, by making the condonation absolute and immediately effective, and removing all the conditions and the strings attached as provided for under the existing law.

Again, I assure you of my support for this proposal to amend RA 10026. But in addition, let me take this opportunity to call on all the water districts to faithfully comply with their end of the bargain under the law, by channeling their tax savings to expand water service coverage and improve water quality, and by strictly adopting internal control reforms and other corporate governance best practices.

To recapitulate, let me emphasize once again the point that if we keep our consumers happy and satisfied, then there won’t be any clamor for a drastic change in our system. Remember, our consumers and the public are the single biggest and most influential group of lobbyists in Congress, definitely stronger than the STAWaD or even the PAWaD! As representatives of the People, we, your elected legislators, are duty-bound to listen to and act upon the complaints and grievances of our consumers!

Hanggang dito na lamang po. Muli po, nagpapasalamat ako sa inyong lahat sa inyong paanyaya!

Mabuhay ang mga local water districts ng Timog Katagalugan, at ang STAWaD!

Mabuhay ang ating mga consumers!

Magandang umaga muli sa inyong lahat!