Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts

Volume III,  Number 48              January 11 - 17, 2004            Quezon City, Philippines


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Who Owns Our Water?

A Marcos Water Code or Presidential Decree 1067 purports that all water found within, beneath and above Philippine territory belongs to the state. Anyone, however, can have access to it, according to P.D. 1067, except those who plan to draw large quantities that should then be the subject of a water permit from the National Water Resources Board (NWRB). But water-distressed communities are finding out that securing a water permit is not only a tedious process. It is likewise putting them at a gross disadvantage over large private companies that are into water solely for profit.


Fernando Mangili has every reason to be disturbed in behalf of at least 30,000 residents of Itogon, Benguet, a province in Northern Luzon’s Cordillera region.

For the past four years, he says local water sources from natural springs and Itogon’s Gumatdang River have shown signs of drying up. In an interview with Bulatlat.com, he expressed apprehension that their situation is about to get even worse.

All because, he says, Benguet Corporation (BC) has taken it upon itself to reserve all the water resources in their municipality in an ambitious yet environmentally controversial plan to supply all the water for Itogon, all the way to Baguio City.

An asinine scheme

BC’s grand plan to become the biggest private water distributor in the Cordillera region, says Mangili, or Ka Ampy to the Cordillera People’s Alliance (CPA) where he serves as vice chairman, is generating a lot of controversy. The plan reportedly eases out the locals and supplants their traditional methods of drawing water for free through natural mountain springs with privatized piped water for a fee.

He bares that although Benguet Corp. has already little by little been compromising the people’s source of fresh mountain water because of its Danum bottled mineral water project, the people are more anxious over Benguet’s plan to shore up all the water in Itogon. The water is to be stored in a reservoir that used to be the mining firm’s open pit mine and mine tailings dam uphill in the company’s abandoned Antamok mine, also in Itogon.

BC’s plan targets to supply and distribute water for the whole of Itogon as well as Baguio City’s 250,000 residents which double during the summer months. The city’s water needs are currently supplied by the Baguio Water District but the latter, according to BC, could only supply about one-third of Baguio’s daily minimum water requirement of 110,000 cubic meters.  

But as early as in 1991, ecologist Erlyn Ruth Alcantara disputed BC’s idea to use Antamok as a water reservoir.

“To say that its (Antamok) tailings dam can become a water reservoir is perhaps the most outrageous, if not asinine, scheme that Benguet Corp's think tank can ever conceive,” states a part of that study. Alcantara cites 20,000 orphaned mines in the U.S. where she said “many old mine sites continue to create environmental problems in the form of acid drainage into streams, lakes, and underground water supplies, as well as sediment production that shortens the lifespan of water bodies.”

The Alcantara study also disputed Benguet Corp’s claim of having a “water-tight” tailings dam, saying experts who have made extensive studies on tailings dams around the world prove that “even the most carefully constructed surface impoundment will eventually leak.”

Yet recent newspaper reports and the December 2003 edition of the Philippine Mining Journal reveal that Benguet Corp. is already well underway in its bulk water supply project for Itogon and Baguio. Benguet Corp. President Phillip Romualdez says the company is resorting to this project as “it will provide financial stability for the company so it will avoid the peaks and drops or booms and busts inherent in the mining industry.”

In an interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Christine Gaylican, Romualdez also proudly announced Benguet Corp’s plan to bid for Baguio City’s water supply, adding boastfully that Benguet Corp. can even increase Baguio’s daily water supply to as much as 300,000 cubic meters using its Antamok reservoir.

Benguet Corp. envisions to set in operation its bulk water project for Baguio City on 2005. The company is already supplying water in some parts of Itogon. It also has a bulk water project in four towns of Bukidnon, Central Mindanao.

Privatization of water sources

Underlying the Itogon controversy is an increasing trend toward a new form of water privatization where the country’s abundant yet finite water resources have gotten the interest of profit-seeking companies like Benguet Corp.

Records from the National Water Resources Board (NWRB) seem to support this trend. For the year 1998 alone, the NWRB has approved more than 1,000 water permits. Also, Lisa Manlulu, NWRB Information Head, reveals that for the past 10 years, their office has been deluged by applications for water permits, majority coming from private companies. She adds that as a result, current backlog of water permits being processed by the NWRB runs to as high as 7,000 applications.

Clemente Bautista, national coordinator of the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment aptly calls this trend the “privatization of water sources.” He says this comes in varied forms from the privatization of infrastructures related to the supply of water like dams to natural sources of water coming into the hands of private entities.

Bautista says that alongside on-going efforts by the government to privatize the National Power Corporation (NAPOCOR), dams being administered by NAPOCOR like the Angat and Pantabangan dams are to be bided by the government to private companies.

He likewise mentions the case in Itogon as well as a similar project in Mindoro Oriental where sources of surface and ground water are being privatized for eventual private distribution. He adds that the same thing is happening in Bohol where the province’s water resources are being extracted and used in Cebu, where a badly depleted aquifer has already been categorized to have reached the stage of saltwater intrusion.  

Ces Quimpo, executive director of the Center for Environmental Concerns (CEC), echoes the same fear about the country’s water resources increasingly coming under the control of private interests. She mentions Lopez-owned Maynilad, the largest private water concessionaire in Metro Manila.

Quimpo says even as the Lopezes’ ABS-CBN Bantay Kalikasan Foundation already controls the La Mesa Dam reservoir by virtue of the latter’s Memorandum of Agreement with the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS), Maynilad is further eyeing Laguna Lake as a possible alternative source of raw water. She, however, quips that the Laguna Lake Development Authority (LLDA), which administers Laguna Lake, does not seem to share Maynilad’s interests.

The La Mesa reservoir supplies the bulk of the water needs of Metro Manila and the nearby province of Rizal.

The law’s bias

All natural-born citizens of the Philippines have the right to seek a water permit, according to PD 1067. As regards corporations, on the other hand, the same can be accorded water permits if they are at least 60% Filipino-owned.

But for Ka Ampy, the law is not actually sacrosanct when it comes to affording equal protection and rights to ordinary Filipinos against powerful and moneyed interests like Benguet Corp., which holds several water permits in Itogon as a mining company.

Mining companies are automatically required to secure water permits for operating mine tailings dams.

Ka Ampy notes that while Itogon folks who have banded together under the Itogon Inter Barangay Alliance (IIBA) to oppose Benguet Corp’s. water permits went all the way to the office of the NWRB in Quezon City, their opposition was not considered because the law does not allegedly take into consideration opposition from parties without a water permit.

According to Ka Ampy, they were simply told to apply for a water permit if they want to oppose Benguet Corp’s 10 (according to NWRB) water permits to extract and store water from various locations in Itogon.

P.D. 1067 states that protests or complaints against an existing water permit filed solely on the ground of adverse effects on the privileges to use water from any source shall not be entertained unless the complainant or protester is also a water permit grantee.

Ka Ampy says that to comply with the law’s requirements, IIBA applied with the NWRB for a water permit. Recently, however, Ka Ampy told Bulatlat.com that their application was denied on several technical grounds. He says the law has several requirements, like land titles and clearances from several national and local government agencies that, he adds, virtually make it impossible for the people to compete with large corporations in reserving what the people traditionally regard as one of the commons “which do not rightfully belong to anyone.”  

An official of the NWRB explains, however, that the NWRB does not just deny applications for water permits. As regards the IIBA application, he says some requirements may not have been complied with yet, which could explain why they have not yet issued permits to applicants opposing Benguet Corp’s water permits.

He further elaborates that the NWRB’s purpose in the granting of water permits is to regulate the extraction of water from source. He adds that the only instance when the Board denies water permits is when their study of the ecology of the place where water is to be extracted no longer permits further extraction, indicating a critical water ecology in the area.

Meanwhile, Ka Ampy says that while before Itogon was blessed with overflowing water resources, a water shortage is now spreading, affecting farmers and indigenous folks in several Itogon barangays, such as Dalupirip, Ucab, Gumatdang, Virac and Ampucao. Bulatlat.com

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