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Philippines’ public water systems in the face of disasters and climate change

by Mary Ann Manahan – June 30, 2014

After super typhoon Haiyan hit central Philippines, access to safe and clean water and to sanitation were pressing concerns for survivors. Here, the role of public water systems came front and center.
In the province of Leyte, two public water utilities – the Baybay City Water District and Leyte Metro Water District – were able to restore services and undertake rationing within 24 hours. According to ground reports, management was able to provide foresight and leadership, while workers provided the selfless determination to restore crucial municipal service despite being victims themselves.
Total damage for the public water sector was estimated at US$69.8 million, with almost 86 per cent of the costs due to damages to private household connections, equipment and operations loss. The recovery and reconstruction needs of the water sector were pegged at almost US$134 million, a third for recovery and the remainder for reconstruction.  

Beyond resilience?

Public water systems, including community-based water systems, were back in operation immediately after the typhoon to re-establish basic services, repair damages to facilities and reconnect people to potable water supply.
Beyond these immediate needs, reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts toward building better public water systems (including community-based ones) are now focusing on climate resiliency or ‘climate proofing’, in the parlance of development circles. It is crucial to enhance the resilience of water supply by rehabilitating water sources and watersheds, improving sanitation facilities, instituting structural and non-structural measures for ‘climate proofing’ and equipping the public and community to adapt to the impacts of climate change.
Haiyan shows dramatically how climate change tests the robustness of drinking water supply and sanitation systems. But global warming, according to scientists and experts, has also affected the hydrological cycle, which has far-reaching, long-term impacts on ecosystems, rain-fed and irrigated agriculture and water resources, putting into question the capacities of communities to cope, adapt and survive.
According to David Schlosberg at the University of Sydney, this means that we are living in a climate-changed and climate-changing society in which adaptation is now a necessity. He urges us to address the inequitable distribution of environmental risks and harms, climate change having differentiated impacts across class, gender, age and ethnicity that shape the possibilities of creating a functioning environment necessary for social justice provision.

Revolutionizing water management and governance

What must be stated here is that the sustainability and stability of public and community water systems not only in the face of privatization and commercialization but also in holding up to climate change risks will become more and more important. To ensure stability, deep changes must happen.
First, this includes changing or transforming the destructive relationship between people, nature and the environment, replacing unsustainable practices, and providing ways for communities and individuals most affected by climate change and resource scarcity to regain their ability to shape their own lives. In Schlosberg’s words, the growing movements that “participate in changing the flows of power that reproduce practices that damage ecosystems or contribute to climate change”  such as the anti-fracking, anti-dam and anti-mining resistance, are already showing the way.
Second, talking about climate-just alternatives demands a clear, long-term vision of the kind of democratic public water management that will address the daunting challenges of climate change and water scarcity. Solutions need to fulfil the right to water and sanitation, defend water as a ‘commons’, and end privatization.
There are innovative models that go beyond old-style public, such as upstream-downstream watershed protection that crosses political boundaries, offer new paths for protecting water resources and providing viable, pro-poor and ecologically sustainable options for Filipinos and other populations that suffer from water scarcity and extreme weather events. In the Philippines, there have been initiatives by public utilities that have allowed communities to manage and maintain their cities’ water sources. The public utilities directly invest in agro-ecological farming practices and in community livelihoods, with the philosophy that a “good environment will produce good water.”
Third, public investment is needed, especially for climate adaptation. The public sector has been financing up to as much as 78 to 88 per cent of water supply in the world, but its support in adaptation and resilience efforts are still lacking, especially in developing countries. Analysis by consultancy group McKinsey (2009) estimates that private investments are the largest source of climate finance in developing countries, contributing US$57 billion annually versus US$12 billion from governments and US$1-3 billion from carbon markets.
Corporations are trying to take over the adaptation agenda but have failed to adequately address the challenge at the local level, where the impacts of climate change and water stresses are felt more acutely and where people are challenging and engaging the adaptation discourse. Voice and real participation are essential, especially in empowering and assisting communities with drought and flood planning as well as disaster management.
Public water systems can play a proactive role in this regard, notably investing in watershed protection.  For example, the Bacolod City Water District in Central Philippines has been charging water levies to commercial and industrial users for protection and rehabilitation of watersheds and livelihood projects of people living inside the watershed. This is part of a more elaborate and developed watershed protection program of the public utility.
There is still much to be done in terms of articulating and implementing progressive models of water management and governance as a strategy to shape a progressive adaptation to climate change. But for such alternatives to flourish, a stable institutional, policy and legal framework as well as strong political will must first emerge.
Mary Ann Manahan is a research-campaigner with Focus on the Global South, Philippines, since 2003. Focus is working with partners to monitor the impacts of typhoon Haiyan as well as community and government responses as part of its work on reclaiming the commons, climate justice and trade and investments.