EXPLAINER: What caused Manila Water's service problems?

MANILA, Philippines – Manila Water customers have been struggling to go on with their daily routines due to water service interruptions.

Some have even resorted to using mineral water to take a bath or wash dishes. There's anger, frustration, and uncertainty, with many not knowing when their water supply will go back to normal.

The Ayala-led Manila Water admitted it has been wobbling, as it tries to balance supply and demand, and works on infrastructure begging for upgrades.

What's the dam problem? The Angat Dam provides around 96% of Metro Manila's water supply needs.

Located in Norzagaray, Bulacan, it is able to hold some 4,000 million liters per day (MLD).

Out of that capacity, 2,400 MLD is allocated for Maynilad Water Services, while 1,600 MLD is for Manila Water.

But Manila Water said demand has gone up to an average of 1,740 MLD, higher than the company's Angat Dam allocation. The deficit is being supplied by water from the La Mesa Dam in Quezon City. (READ: Maynilad to share supply with Manila Water)

Data from the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) showed that the water level in the Angat Dam was at 200.28 meters as of Tuesday, March 12. This is already below the normal high water level (NHWL) of 210 meters, but still above the critical level of 180 meters.

However, the water in the La Mesa Dam is already at a critical low. The level was down to 68.85 meters as of Tuesday, from its NHWL of 80.15 meters.

Manila Water communications manager Dittie Galang explained that while there is still enough supply from the Angat Dam, the water cannot pass through Manila Water's facility at La Mesa because the dam is drying up. See the illustration below.

SOURCE OF SUPPLY. Water used by Metro Manila residents comes all the way from the Angat Dam. It then flows to the Ipo Dam, and eventually to the La Mesa Dam. While there is enough supply from Angat, La Mesa is drying up and water cannot flow to the aqueduct. Illustration by Alejandro Edoria/Rappler

SOURCE OF SUPPLY. Water used by Metro Manila residents comes all the way from the Angat Dam. It then flows to the Ipo Dam, and eventually to the La Mesa Dam. While there is enough supply from Angat, La Mesa is drying up and water cannot flow to the aqueduct.

Illustration by Alejandro Edoria/Rappler

To get water from the La Mesa Dam, Manila Water deployed floating water pumps.

Galang said there are certain times of the year, particularly summer, when the Angat Dam cannot meet demand.

She added that they had sounded the alarm on a looming crisis as early as 2016.

A similar scenario would have also occurred in July 2018, when the La Mesa Dam's water level reached 70 meters. It was only prevented due to a typhoon, which filled up the dam.

Maynilad has not been suffering the same scenario, as it draws water directly from the Angat Dam.

Why the surprise water interruptions? Manila Water insisted that it alerted residents last March 4 that it would implement operational adjustments.

"In light of PAGASA's recent El Niño advisory and its threat to Metro Manila's domestic water supply, Manila Water will be implementing operational adjustments that may affect water service across the entire East Zone. This is to help arrest the rapid decline of the water level at La Mesa Dam, due to limited inflows from rainfall," the advisory stated.

It listed the affected areas, but did not indicate the schedule of water interruptions.

While there was an announcement, Manila Water admitted it did not anticipate that people would be storing water round-the-clock, which eventually caused the quicker depletion of supply.

"Hindi namin ito inasahan na nag-ipon sila 24/7, pero hindi rin nila ito kasalanan. Hindi na-anticipate ang demand in certain hours na dapat ay nagpupuno kami ng reservoir," Galang said.

(We did not expect residents would store water 24/7, but this is also not their fault. We were unable to anticipate the demand in certain hours where we were supposed to be filling up the reservoir.)

When will the supply return to normal? The question on everybody's mind seems to have a simple yet complicated answer.

"Actually, hindi mahirap sagutin: hanggang sa umulan," Galang said. (Actually, the answer is easy: until it rains.)

Galang said Manila Water is playing the tricky balancing act of allocating the available supply to a wide demand base.

She said they are working hard to restore services, especially in pocket areas in Mandaluyong City and Pasig City.

Manila Water said it will continue to deploy water tankers and find ways to divert water toward problematic areas while it seeks long-term solutions.

What is the long-term fix? Galang said Metro Manila is in dire need of more water sources.

She said projects like the Kaliwa Dam in Quezon province would address the higher demand in the coming years.

The project is expected to be completed by 2023.

Galang added that Manila Water has proposed other projects, but these are still up for the approval of regulators like the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System.

She warned that water service interruptions are likely to happen again if other sources of water would not be developed. – Rappler.com

Ralf Rivas

A sociologist by heart, a journalist by profession. Ralf is Rappler's business reporter, covering macroeconomy, government finance, companies, and agriculture.

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