IF I was obliged to pick just one point I’d like our business section audience to take away from this week’s special report on the water rate dispute, it is how glaringly insufficient the enabling law for water privatization is.
The Water Crisis Act of 1995 (RA 8041) was intended to address a critical emergency by creating an entirely new framework for the delivery of an essential public service to more than 10 million people.
RA 8041 enabled the government to surrender its role as the service provider, and changed the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) into a contractor and regulator.
The document itself, however, is only four pages long, and one of those pages is entirely devoted to defining the various ways in which the crime of ‘water pilferage’ can be carried out, and the penalties for it. The privatization of water services was virtually completely operationalized by the law’s implementing rules and regulations and the concession agreement with the two water service providers, Manila Water and Maynilad. In the process it totally bypassed any legislative scrutiny. In other words, the people, through their elected representatives, endorsed the privatization of water services, and then had any further opportunity to provide input and guidance as to how, exactly, they would like that to be accomplished taken away from them, with all decisions placed in the hands of a few unelected bureaucrats and corporate representatives.
The result of that, of course, is the mess that was described in the special report—a lack of clarity in defining what is legally a public utility and what tax obligations count as recoverable costs has led to a dispute between the government and the water concessionaires that could potentially cost Filipino consumers tens of billions of pesos.
Although the water rate dispute is worthy of focus on its own, in another sense it is simply one of the larger examples of important services or areas of development that are hopelessly handicapped because of vague, incomplete laws. Other examples of laws that inevitably create conflicts—which retard actual development and result in all manner of sunk costs—are the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira), the draft mining law developed from President Aquino’s (equally poorly-written) EO 79, and the Reproductive Health law.
It is more than a little illogical for the people to surrender their authority to deliberate and decide on detailed courses of action in important matters and then complain later about the outcome, but that is the irrational position the people of the Philippines have put themselves in by being careless about who they elect to represent them. Demanding more rigor, more debate, more attention to detail—in short, demanding that legislators actually do their jobs—is a right Filipinos should not have relinquished, and should claim again as the next election approaches.
Everyone would benefit from it, with the possible exception of those lawmakers who will find it difficult to retrain themselves to punch in every day, as opposed to appearing only on pointless advertising banners. Public interest would be better protected, and business interests would be as well, because much of the time-consuming and costly ambiguity that characterizes project development now would be eliminated. Would be, if anyone showed any interest in holding their elected representatives to a higher standard. As it stands now, it seems very likely the chaos years of lazy legislating has already caused will continue to be business as usual after May.