Beyond water interruptions: Expensive water and connection woes burden consumers

By the Samahan at Ugnayan ng mga Konsyumer para sa Ikauunlad ng Bayan (SUKI)

 The ongoing water shortage is just the latest among water problems that consumers have been struggling with for decades. Despite privatization and its promises, poor consumers across the metropolis still suffer expensive water, erratic connections, and inadequate services. The government and private water firms are still far away from providing cheap, accessible and adequate water for all.

For over a week now, water services have been disrupted in the East Zone concession area of Manila Water. Some six million households in 227 barangays in 8 cities and 9 towns of Metro Manila and Rizal have been affected. The operations of hospitals, schools, and businesses have also been affected. The water firm initially blamed the El Niño phenomenon for low water levels at La Mesa Dam, one of three reservoirs supplying water to Metro Manila, until this was refuted by government water and weather agencies who said this was still too weak to be a factor.

“Water firms invoke a water shortage year in year out, but for us consumers it’s government that has to take control of the situation because no one deserves to be deprived of water,” said Eufemia Doringo, an urban poor leader and co-convenor of the SUKI network.  “This queuing for so long even during the wee hours is another burden on our backs. We were already faced with erratic water supply and increasing bills even before this,” she said.

Urban poor’s pockets bleed

Doringo lives in a Camarin, North Caloocan relocation site of 10 medium-rise buildings housing almost 900 families who source water from a single mother connection. Maynilad, which has the West Zone concession area, cuts their water supply every time the households are unable to pay their bills which reached over Php800,000 in 2018. Many households do have difficulty paying for their water. The families’ incomes from construction work and odd jobs are low and always uncertain, so settling this huge debt on top of the Php1,000-Php2,000 monthly in rent for their units is a constant burden.

Low-income households in Tala, Caloocan City that mostly depend on construction workers and tricycle drivers, like Feliciano Ceno, also feel over-charged for water. Ceno is among 673 families living in 14 National Housing Authority (NHA) low-cost medium-rise buildings that share a single water source. They pay Php42.00 for every cubic meter of water and their Maynilad bill has gone up to as much as Php594,000. Aside from this, each family also shells out Php2.00 every day to pay the Php40,380 monthly salary of the site’s water administrator.

In Barangay San Roque, North Triangle, Quezon City, informal settlers do not have direct water connections and get their water from individuals with Manila Water accounts. The rate for low-income residential or ‘lifeline’ customers consuming not more than 10 cubic meters is only supposed to be Php80-82 but the bills of households averaging 5-6 members can reach as high as Php1,800 monthly. Others who remain unconnected pay as much or even more — “Boysen” pails of water cost Php5.00 each to be filled from faucets or deep wells and households use up to 12 of these daily. These water rates are exorbitant for families whose breadwinners are mostly temporary construction workers or vendors.

Costlier but unstable service

There are increasing reports of water supply becoming more expensive but less regular across the country due to privatization of local water districts. The Water for the People Network (WPN) said that more and more water districts are entering into joint venture agreements with private water firms. At least 37 of these are with the PrimeWater Infrastructure Corporation of former senator and real estate magnate Manuel Villar who recently become the richest Filipino.

Consumers are complaining that water rates have increased from pre-joint venture levels. For instance, the Alliance for Consumer Protection (ACP) of Bulacan said that the water bills of average-sized households in the municipality of San Jose Del Monte, Bulacan, have gone up from Php300 to Php400-500 per month since the local government forced the water district into a joint venture with PrimeWater. The consumer alliance also noted intermittent service interruptions since the joint venture took effect in May 2018 that were not happening before.

In Samal, Bataan, residents used to enjoy free, clean and uninterrupted water supply — until the local water district entered into a joint venture with PrimeWater in 2016. Residents said that the municipality’s old sources of water like pumps and wells started running dry when PrimeWater started operating. This forced them to start buying water from the private firm. The population of mostly poor farmers, fisherfolk and workers suddenly found themselves burdened with a previously unheard of additional expense.

Does it have to be privatized?

WPN said that these cases of more expensive and inaccessible water and, recently, the disruption of water services in Metro Manila are just the tip of the iceberg. Every day brings more and more complaints of expensive connections, costly water rates, and interrupted services especially from low-income consumers who have no choice because water is such an essential basic utility.

Pubic water services are steadily being privatized not just in big cities but also in local water districts of smaller cities and municipalities. The government has apparently not learned its lesson from the failures of Metro Manila water privatization and, if anything, has been accelerating water privatization in recent years. It is abdicating its responsibility to provide water for all – as water is a basic right – and giving this to the private sector to profit from.

The trend of passing public utilities such as water into the hands of profit-oriented private firms has to stop. Lessons can be learned from the successful experience of local government-run water districts that have efficiently delivered affordable and adequate water services to their customers. Beyond this, public water services capacity can also be built at regional and national levels with a responsible government that is transparent and accountable to the people. ###

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