IT is encouraging that the impending El Niño-driven seasonal water crisis is being acknowledged at the highest levels of government, with President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. making the unexpected but very welcome decision to form an Office of Water Management via an executive order earlier this week. From our perspective, this was a necessary intervention on the part of the President to correct the failure of Congress to act on the pending Department of Water bill, and we agree with the President's view that the Office of Water Management is a stopgap measure.
Unfortunately, some reactions from the Senate to the announcement from Malacañang seemed to indicate that lawmakers consider the problem of inefficient and unnecessarily complicated water management solved with the creation of the new office. If this is truly the Senate's perspective, it is a mistake, because the water crisis we are expecting in the upcoming dry season will not be a temporary problem.
On the eve of the UN Water Summit held March 22 to 24 in New York, the Global Commission on the Economics of Water (GCEW) published an alarming report, which revealed that fresh water demand globally will exceed supply by 40 percent by the year 2030. Obviously, some parts of the world are facing a more dire future than others, but as even the President noted, the Philippines contends with constrained water supplies even in periods of normal weather conditions, which is a great irony for a country surrounded by seas.
The GCEW report identifies several broad causes for the rapid depletion of fresh water supplies. The two largest of these, the report explains, are unsustainable agricultural use of water driven by government subsidies as well as overuse of water resources by the mining industry. Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and co-chairman of the GCEW, and a lead author of the report, said in a media interview that the world's neglect of water resources was leading to disaster. “The scientific evidence is that we have a water crisis. We are misusing water, polluting water and changing the whole global hydrological cycle, through what we are doing to the climate. It's a triple crisis.”
All of which means that the impending summer water crisis is more likely to become a way of life rather than an occasional or seasonal problem. Fortunately, the report indicates that the Philippines has a couple of advantages that will provide at least a bit of time to develop solutions.
First, as an archipelago, the country is less affected by other countries' water use; one example is the near-constant friction experienced among our neighbors along the Mekong River. About half of continental countries' fresh water supply can be traced to evaporation from neighboring countries, but that is not a significant factor here. Second, unlike a number of other countries, the Philippines has not yet reached a point where demand exceeds potential supply of water, although much of that water may be difficult to access. Water demand in the Philippines as of 2019 was just under 75 percent of potential supply; which compares favorably, for what it's worth, with countries such as South Korea and India, where demand is nearly 100 percent of supply, and the Gulf States, where water demand exceeds supply by between 10 and 38 times.
Those advantages are only useful if the country acts now, however, before accessible water supplies are overwhelmed by demand from a growing economy and population. While the details of the scope and mission of the new Office of Water Management are yet to be disclosed, the GCEW report offers some pointers on which direction it should take. Among its recommendations are reconfiguring and improving water management — something the Department of Water would do, if Congress ever sees fit to pass the measure — imposing stricter water conservation and pollution control standards, and expanding investment in water supply and management infrastructure through direct government spending as well as public-private partnerships.
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