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[OPINION] Thirsting for water: The challenge for the Philippines

It's World Water Day today. Maybe this reminder comes to you as you experience water shortage in your own home. The reality is that this World Water Day is serving as a wake-up-call that the Philippines has a long way to go until it is sustainably managing its water resources. Take a closer look around the country, and you'll find that water shortage is a recurring theme.

El Niño, a natural phenomenon that causes increased temperatures and decreased rainfall, has been blamed for the water shortage in Metro Manila and Rizal. That is true to some extent. PAGASA reported decreased rainfall in parts of the country during the last 3 months. For areas that rely solely on surface water such as rivers, lakes, and springs, the lack of rain has been observed through dwindling supply.

However, El Niño is only a contributing factor to the problem. If water management plans are properly executed, water rationing should not be necessary. The challenge is that often, these management plans are not executed as they should be. Lack of coordination among local government units is one of the key culprits, delaying projects months, years, or even indefinitely.

PAGASA's report recommends that "concerned agencies and the general public...take precautionary measures to mitigate the potential adverse impacts of El Niño." Regardless of what, or who, is to blame for the water shortage, what do precautionary measures even mean? To me, they mean infrastructure both centralized and decentralized, as well as water resources education.

INFRASTRUCTURE. The Buhisan Dam in Cebu, a key source of water for the province. Photo by Sarah Hartman

INFRASTRUCTURE. The Buhisan Dam in Cebu, a key source of water for the province.

Photo by Sarah Hartman

Infrastructure

An undeniable component of the current water shortage is lack of adequate centralized infrastructure such as dams and piping networks. Urban areas such as Metro Cebu are struggling to build the infrastructure needed to support quickly growing populations. This is a challenge because large-scale infrastructure is in theory the most effective way to manage water resources. If a metro area can navigate the politics and costs of major infrastructure updates such as dams, modern pipe networks, and even a desalination plant (a process for turning saltwater into freshwater), a large population can be sustainably served with a few projects.

However, going big is not the only path to success – the country needs solutions at the local level, even at the household level. I propose rainwater harvesting as one technology to mitigate future shortages. Rainwater harvesting can take on many forms – a bucket placed outside to directly capture water droplets, a small (check) dam on private land, a modern building system with gutters and filters to use for potable and non-potable uses.

With its origins in Asia, rainwater harvesting has long been used in the Philippines, though not recently, it seems. This simple technology can easily solve water shortage problems by diverting water captured via roofs to storage containers. With simple bacterial treatment of rainwater with clean fixtures and a first flush filter system, water can even be used for human consumption.

In Australia, rainwater supply accounts for 63% of residential water outside of urban areas and 9% of all residential water nationally. The widespread use of rainwater harvesting technologies in Australia has emerged from an acute need for water. Their model of decentralized household systems can serve as inspiration for a Philippines thirsting for water.

Water resources education

The value of education can never be understated, most especially if it pertains to one of the 3 basic life needs of every human. Water resource education can serve as a tool to understand the water cycle, sources of contamination in our environment, and the way this affects water supply for human uses. Water education can be incorporated into public school science classes, where conservation and resource management are discussed, and it can be highlighted through barangay health centers. Increasing awareness of water resources will allow individuals to make more informed decisions about their water consumption and how to alleviate shortages at the individual, decentralized level.

Resources are available through online sites, such as United Nations Water, and the 30+ government agencies that regulate water in the country. The key is to stay informed so that you can make smarter choices when it comes to your water. 

Now think back to the last rainy season. If you are from any metro area in the country, you likely cringe as you recall flooded streets and unnavigable traffic. The ironic challenge of the nations' concrete cities is that water can be both too scarce and too plentiful. However, with water resources education and harvesting infrastructure designed to ease the ebb and flow of water supply, both problems can be reduced.

Is there an immediate, low-cost solution to the Philippines' water shortage? Unfortunately not during this El Niño season. However, there are steps individuals and the nation must take to move toward a more secure water future. – Rappler.com

Sarah Hartman is a United States Fulbright Scholar conducting rainwater harvesting research at the University of San Carlos, Cebu. She is an engineer in training in the US and holds a bachelor's degree in environmental engineering from the University of Delaware.