THE PHILIPPINES, despite being surrounded by water, is likely to face shortages of water for drinking, sanitation, agriculture, and industry within the next ten years unless stronger management and conservation efforts are initiated. The situation will impact dire consequences on the population, the economy, and the ecosystem. This is the general conclusion of studies conducted by the government, environmental groups, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
In its latest study, Asian Water Development Outlook 2016, ADB scores countries on a scale of 0 to 100 in terms of “national water security,” which encompasses key factors such as access to clean water, sanitation systems, water sources for agriculture and industry, laws designed to protect water resources, and conservation efforts. It has found that in the three years since its previous assessment of Asia’s water resources, water management has indeed improved in the Philippines and throughout the region.
For example, in 2013, the Philippines had a “national water security index” score of 35; in the 2016 ADB report, that had improved to 40.4, largely on the back of somewhat better enforcement of environmental laws and the growth of water supply systems serving communities.
According to the study, the Philippines’ regional group – which includes Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam – had generally made significant gains in improving water security, but still faces a challenging future. Despite improvements in managing water resources, “the region is a global hotspot for water insecurity,” the ADB said. Sixty percent of the world’s population and the world’s poorest people live in Asia, ADB pointed out, with agriculture consuming 80 percent of the region’s water.
“Industrialization and economic transformation require more power and a shift to more water-intensive diets, thus increasing competition between water users like industry and agriculture,” the ADB report warned. “The region’s water demand is projected to increase by about 55 percent, due to the growing needs for domestic water, manufacturing, and thermal electricity generation. Agriculture will need to produce 60 percent more food globally by 2050, and 100 percent more in developing countries, using diminishing water resources.”
PH mirrors region, globe
The challenges the Philippines is facing mirror the regional and global water outlook on a smaller scale. Over the past several years, numerous studies have reached a similar conclusion: Unless water demand is slowed to match the rate the country’s water resources are replenished, the Philippines will face serious water shortages, with dire consequences for the population, the economy, and the ecosystem.
According to data from the National Water Resources Board (NWRB), the total freshwater resources in the Philippines, including water from lakes and river basins and groundwater, is about 149.5 billion cubic meters per year. According to data compiled by the World Bank, as of 2014 the Philippines’ total water demand – the amount extracted from the environment – is about 81.6 billion cubic meters per year.
That sounds like a healthy margin, but the surplus is rapidly shrinking year after year as the population and the economy grow. Agriculture by far is the biggest user of the country’s water, accounting for more than 85 percent of yearly demand, most of it for irrigation, according to NWRB data. Alarmingly, this demand may increase very rapidly. According to a report by environmental watchdog Greenpeace, only about 47 percent of the agricultural land that could be irrigated is covered by irrigation systems. With expanding irrigation a key part of the Duterte administration’s socioeconomic strategy, which suggests that a significant expansion of irrigated land area is on the horizon, demand for water can very quickly exceed the country’s available supplies.
The shrinkage of annual water supplies is already starkly evident in the data, even without large-scale projects like expanded irrigation. In 2003, a study conducted by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) estimated that by 2025, only 1,970 cubic meters of fresh water per capita (per person per year) would be available, which would make it the second-lowest supply in Southeast Asia. As of right now, however, based on the latest available data on water resources and population, the water supply is already well below that estimate at just 1,457 cubic meters per capita, meaning that the water shortage crisis projected for the year 2025 may happen much sooner, and perhaps already is.
Areas of concern
Among the agencies working to mitigate the potential water crisis the Philippines faces, the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) has identified areas where water issues need the most attention. Disparities between supply and demand are a particular concern, with urban areas using more than they should, causing seasonal shortages not only for their own populations, but those in watershed areas as well. NEDA also cited what it called “a lack of a water allocation formula” as a major problem; laws and regulations on water allocation, use, and conservation are still largely based on the old principle of “first in time, priority in right,” NEDA explained, which is no longer practical or fair.
Other problems highlighted by NEDA included the poor enforcement or weak regulations on water use, which is partly attributable to a lack of government resources to properly investigate and process water permit applications; inefficient water use, and waste due to poorly-maintained supply and drainage systems; excessive groundwater extraction due to unlicensed wells, which can cause ground subsidence and sea water intrusion into water tables in coastal areas; and fragmented management, with too many government agencies having conflicting or overlapping responsibilities for monitoring and managing water resources.
Fortunately, many Philippine companies, particularly large users of water, have in the past few years stepped up to the challenge to protect water resources for the future. Most recently, the Coca-Cola Company pledged P25 million for a five-year project in cooperation with the World Wildlife Fund to rehabilitate and conserve part of the Ipo watershed, an important source of Metro Manila’s drinking water. In a statement, the company also highlighted its commitment to restoring 100 percent of the water it uses in producing its beverages back to the environment or affected communities by 2020.
Likewise, food conglomerate Nestlé Philippines received a Sustainable Business Award in 2014 for its water conservation efforts, which include the installation of wastewater treatment facilities in each of its manufacturing plants, and its Project WET (Water Education for Teachers), a curriculum activity-based training on water and related environmental concerns, and the Greening the Supply Chain Program.
The cement industry, one of the Philippines’ key manufacturing sectors and an extremely heavy user of water – the Cement Manufacturers’ Association of the Philippines (CeMAP) estimates the industry uses 3.2 billion liters (3.2 million cubic meters) of water per year – has since 2013 pursued an industry-wide initiative to capture and utilize rainwater for many of its production needs, potentially saving hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of water per year.
Many more examples of water conservation efforts among industries, environmental action groups, non-government organizations, and local communities abound, and the increasing concern and effort to ensure a sustainable future for our most critical resource is encouraging. But as experts from ADB, NEDA, and environmental groups such as Greenpeace and the WWF all agree, much more needs to be done, not only by business and government, but individuals as well if we are to avoid a serious water crisis in the years ahead.