Metro Manila’s endless water woes

A growing thirst for better policy

Sahara Piang Brahim

Environment & energy, Government and governance, Food & water | Southeast Asia

10 September 2019

With its water policy failing to sustain its population growth, Metro Manila finds itself in need of definitive action from policymakers, Sahara Piang Brahim writes.

With a population of almost 13 million, Metro Manila is one of the largest urban areas in the world. The region as a whole is experiencing constant growth in its population and population density.

The most recent data from the Philippine Statistics Authority shows that Metro Manila’s average annual population growth increased by 1.58 per cent between 2010 and 2015. Some estimates show that, by 2050, there will be 23.5 million living in the area.

This increase, which can be partly attributed to migration from other parts of the country, is not surprising given that Metro Manila is the country’s dominant political and economic centre.

It benefits from better and more opportunities – real or perceived – in terms of employment, education, security, and wellbeing. This increase in population obviously has implications for water demand and water availability.

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Around 97 per cent of Metro Manila’s water needs are met by the Angat Dam and Reservoir. Maynilad Water Services and Manila Water are in charge of distributing and supplying water to residents.

Some 4,000 million litres per day (MLD) are drawn from the dam and distributed to both concessionaires. While the former is allocated 2,400 MLD for its customers in the west zone, the latter is allocated 1,600 MLD for those in the east zone.

Although water services have improved over the years, recent events have called water availability in Metro Manila into question. Water supply interruptions suddenly hit the eastern part of Metro Manila in March this year. These led to low water pressure, a reduced number of hours of access to water, and a complete loss of access to water supply, which were expected to last for three months.

Prior to this, there was little action being taken. Pictures of people queuing up for water were all over the news. When news broke out and people started complaining on social media, Manila Water stated it was unable to cope with the demand, which increased to 1,740 MLD, initially pointing its finger at a weak El Niño.

The west zone, on the other hand, had not been experiencing any water supply issues at the time. This caught the attention of the country’s lawmakers and paved the way for investigations and congressional and senate hearings into the water shortages. Manila Water’s CEO later took responsibility for the service interruptions.

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While investigations into water shortages are certainly welcome, they are yet to facilitate meaningful changes in the management, distribution, and sustainability of water services.

This is especially concerning as residents in the west of Metro Manila, like those in the east, have more recently been having to deal with water interruptions as well. Many have had no water supply for weeks – some even months.

These ongoing issues suggest that water endowment does not automatically lead to water security. Although availability varies by region, overall, the Philippines has relatively abundant resources owing to its topographical characteristics.

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Given that, however, the demand for water in Metro Manila has not been consistently met, and given that its population is projected to increase in the coming years, future water availability and demand will undoubtedly change.

Climate change resulting in drier summers and wetter rainy seasons will also have an impact on dam operation, water allocation, and streamflow.

Several proposed projects looking into other potential water sources – including the Kaliwa, Wawa, and Bayabas Dams – are being considered. Whether these projects will materialise and meet current and future water requirements, however, remains to be seen.

Supply, however, is just one side of the equation. Increased water use and consumption due to rising living standards also matter when developing strategies and implementing measures to address Metro Manila’s water issues.

This piece is published in partnership with The Monsoon Project – the student-run academic blog at The Australian National University looking at issues affecting Australia, Asia, and the Pacific.

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