World Water Day: Unequal Water Distribution Behind ‘Water Crisis’

The water crisis, whether in the Philippines or globally, is a crisis underlined by the fact that majority of the poor people have no access to water while most of the water goes to the rich.

IBON Foundation
Posted by Bulatlat

Environment secretary Angelo Reyes recently raised the alarm over an impending water crisis in the country, warning that by 2010, only 1,907 cubic meters of freshwater would be available to each Filipino. This would make the Philippines the second lowest among Southeast Asian countries in terms of freshwater availability.

As a solution, the Arroyo government is offering the integrated water resource management (IWRM) approach. But finding a genuine long-term solution to the so-called water crisis requires policy makers to put it in the proper perspective. The Ramos administration has already used the threat of a water crisis to justify privatization. The Ramos government passed the National Water Crisis Act of 1995 (RA 8041), which paved the way for the privatization of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS, which handles water supply in the National Capital Region and outlying provinces) in 1997 and other water supply systems around the country.

Similarly, the IWRM, once fully implemented would open the door for the wholesale (foreign and local) corporate takeover of water resources in the country.

Glaring disparity

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said that the global water shortage represents a full-scale emergency where the world water cycle seems unlikely to adapt to the demands that will be made of it in the coming decades. While water is renewable and covers most of the earth, freshwater (or water that people use) is said to be inherently scarce. Of every 10 liters of water on earth, less than 1 liter is available for human, animal, and plant consumption.

Available freshwater is also not evenly distributed due to wide variations in seasonal and annual precipitation. Asia, for instance, accounts for 60 percent of global population but comprises only 36 percent of global freshwater resources in contrast to Latin America’s 6 percent (population) and 26 percent (freshwater resources).

The scarcity of freshwater is compounded by the growing pressure that human activities exert on available resources. The looming global water crisis, experts agree, is the result of the combination of rapid population growth especially in poor countries, the pollution and destruction of freshwater resources, and climate change that affects the hydrological cycle and consequently water availability.

However, while population, pollution, and climate change indeed contribute to the worsening shortage of water, what is seldom highlighted in discussions about the water crisis is the reality that the scarcity is felt mainly by the poor and not by the rich.

Inequity in access to water between and within societies, for instance, could not be fully explained by claiming there are too many people competing for an increasingly limited resource. To illustrate, in Southeast Asia, Cambodia has highest available freshwater per capita of 32,880 cu. m per year but only 58 percent of its urban population and 29 percent of its rural population have access to improved drinking water coverage. Myanmar, on the other hand, is next only to Indonesia in terms of volume of available freshwater with 1,046 square kilometers (sq. km) per year but like Cambodia, only a small portion of its population have access to drinking water (73 percent for urban and 40 percent for rural).

In contrast, Singapore which has only 0.6 sq. km of freshwater volume per year and 139 cu. m of freshwater per capita per year– both the lowest in the region– managed to provide 100 percent coverage of safe drinking water to its people. Note as well that there is a glaring disparity between urban and rural areas in terms of access to safe drinking water among all Southeast Asian countries.

National situation

Inequity in access to water is the direct result of widening disparity in income between the impoverished majority and affluent minority among and within countries. In the Philippines, the 2002 Annual Poverty Indicator Survey reveals that 20 percent of all families do not have access to safe drinking water. The lack of access is more pronounced among families in the lowest 40 percent income strata where 29.8 percent do not have access compared with 13.4 percent of families in the highest 60 percent.

The same picture is true with regard to access to sanitation where 26.9 percent of families in the lowest 40 percent income strata do not have a sanitary toilet compared with only 5.2 percent in the highest 60 percent. Overall, 13.9 percent of all families do not have a sanitary toilet. An identical trend is observable on a regional basis as the country’s poorest region– the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM)– has the highest percentage of families without access to safe water supply (66.7 percent) and sanitation (55.3 percent).

But the issue of corporate control over water resources is the more pressing question. In Metro Manila, for example, the private companies that took over the MWSS have hiked water rates by 357.6 percent (Maynilad) and 414.4 percent (Manila Water) between August 1997 and January 2007. With such a huge hike in water rates combined with increases in the price of other goods and services, many poor families could hardly afford water services.

In addition, corporations also directly compete with the people for the control and use of available freshwater resources. For instance, Benguet Corporation, a U.S. mining firm which is now venturing into the water business, holds 65 water appropriation permits issued by the NWRB. The permits cover major creeks, springs, and rivers in the municipality of Itogon in Benguet province that communities use for their domestic and agricultural needs. In San Pablo City, Laguna, farmers and residents complain of declining water availability and blame the operation of a mineral water plant by Nestle Philippines, Inc.

IWRM: Furthering Inequity

The marginalization of the people, particularly the poor, from water resources is bound to worsen if the Arroyo government would implement the IWRM approach.

Proponents of the IWRM argue that people tend to use water wastefully because it is abundant and readily accessible. But because of the water crisis, the need to treat water like oil or gold arose to encourage conservation and maximize its use.

According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), treating water as a tradable commodity would help ensure greater efficiency and productivity in its use. The World Bank, on the other hand, claims that efficiency in water management may be realized through the greater use of pricing and through increased reliance on decentralization, user participation, privatization, and financial autonomy. Thus instead of looking at it as a common good, water is treated like any other commodity attached with a price tag, which becomes the mechanism “that sends appropriate signals on allocation, distribution, and consumption.”

Water crisis or capitalist crisis?

According to Fortune magazine, water is the best investment sector for the century with various estimates placing the value of the global “water industry” between $1-3 trillion. Thus, First World-based TNCs, in dire need to create conditions more favorable to capital and new areas of investment, are in a rush to put their money in the water business. TNCs now directly operate water supply and sanitation systems and some of them have already penetrated the local water sector.

The world’s second largest water TNC Suez of France, for instance, is the foreign operator of Maynilad. Manila Water, on the other hand, has the United Kingdom’s (UK) United Utilities and Japan’s Mitsubishi Corporation as foreign operators. CGE of France is involved in the privatized water supply and sanitation system in Clark, Pampanga while BiWater of the UK is one of the operators of the privatized water system in Subic.

TNCs already established in other business activities are also starting to invest in the water sector. Global giants General Electric, Siemens, and Dow Chemical, to name a few, have been in a buying frenzy of smaller water companies and developing water-related technologies in recent years. TNCs in the food and beverage industry like Nestle, Coca-cola, and Pepsi have established themselves in the bottled water market and are notorious worldwide for their conflict with local communities over the use of freshwater resources.

Raw water pricing and tradable water rights

Consistent with the IWRM framework, the NWRB has been lobbying for the implementation of a raw water-pricing scheme and a system of tradable water rights. Raw water pricing involves the charging of fees for the use of water from the ground, rivers, lakes, and other resources to fund the operation and maintenance of water facilities, recover investment costs, and encourage productive and conservative use of water. The raw water pricing distorts the fundamental and inherent nature of water as a common resource– for a fee, it also allows TNCs to further monopolize access and control over water resources and further disempower local communities. Raw water pricing will aggravate the water crisis as it justifies the wanton corporate exploitation and plunder of water resources as long as companies can afford to pay for the raw water fee.

The system of tradable rights, on the other hand, is potent tool that corporations can use to monopolize access and control over water resources in the country. Water rights pertain to the privilege given by government to government bodies, private corporations (at least 60 percent Filipino-owned), and Filipino citizens to appropriate and use water. Under a system of tradable water rights, corporations can buy up water rights, including those held by poor farmers and households, for instance, to expand its privilege to exploit water resources (i.e. increase the volume it can extract).

An alternative framework

The water crisis, whether in the Philippines or globally, is a crisis underlined by the fact that majority of the poor people have no access to water while most of the water goes to the rich. The IWRM would not correct this gross inequity but would even heighten it as export processing zones; tourism areas like hotels, beach resorts, and golf courses; urban commercial centers; high-end residential areas and subdivisions; hydroelectric power plants; agro-industrial plantations, etc. are assured of a steady supply of water while poor communities, subsistence farmers and fisherfolk, indigenous peoples, etc. are deprived of access and or even displaced from land and water resources.

More than the issue of overpopulation, over-extraction, pollution, and climate change the looming global water shortage is a structural issue. Globalization and its emphasis on market forces defining how societies should manage and use their water resources through the IWRM is the biggest and most urgent threat to the world’s water supply security although overpopulation, etc. would surely exacerbate the situation. Thus instead of using the water crisis as justification for more privatization and the implementation of the IWRM, the water crisis should be used to promote approaches outside the framework of privatization and corporate control. Market forces, with its preoccupation to profit, cannot be expected to be responsive to public good and general welfare.

The only viable and long-term solution to the water crisis is the people’s effective control over water systems and resources. People’s control ensures the equitable, sustainable, and rational use of water for the general social good. Towards this end, the Water for the People Network, in its first national convention in 2004 produced the Filipino People’s Water Code which enumerates guiding principles for implementing pro-people policies and programs on water services, water supply infrastructure management, and water resource utilization.

In the short-term, the people must campaign to reverse the privatization of water utilities including the privatization of the MWSS while demanding for efficient services and questioning water rates hikes; oppose the construction of mega-dams; oppose the commercialization of irrigation services; expose and oppose water policy reforms such as raw water pricing and tradable water rights.(

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