DOJ: Review not driven by entry of new water firm

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    JUSTICE Secretary Menardo Guevarra yesterday said ongoing discussions by the Cabinet on the controversial water concession agreements of the Maynilad and Manila Water was spurred by the water crisis and not by any intent to bring in a new water concessionaire.

    Guevarra made the statement after concerns were raised that the recent government pressure on the utility firms was aimed at bringing in Prime Water Infrastructure Corporation, a company owned by the Villar family, to replace Maynilad and Manila Water.

    Prime Water has been successful in its water distribution service by taking over local water districts through joint venture agreements, mostly in the provinces.

    President Duterte last week expressed preference for the Villars to take control of water distribution in Metro Manila. His statement, however, was downplayed by Sen. Cynthia Villar.

    “The Cabinet discussions on the concession agreements were spurred solely by the water crisis and not by any premeditated intent to bring in a supposedly new water concessionaire,” Guevarra told reporters.

    Guevarra likewise brushed aside suggestions of a possible conflict of interest with the inclusion of Justice Undersecretary Emmeline Aglipay-Villar in the panel reviewing the allegedly “onerous” and “disadvantageous” water deals.

    Usec. Villar is the wife of former Public Works Secretary Mark Villar, son of Sen. Cynthia Villar and former Senate President Manuel Villar.

    “Believe me when I say that any good lawyer will see the inequitable provisions in the water concession agreements. The fact that Usec. Emmeline Villar is part of the DOJ review team is totally irrelevant,” Guevarra said.

    “It does not really matter if Usec. Villar is involved because any lawyer will see the provisions that we believed are onerous. I’m the one on top of all of this kaya wala puwede maki-alam niyan na hindi ko nakikita or papayagan ko (I’m the one on top of all of this. No provision can be changed unless I approve of it),” Guevarra said.

    He said it was co-incidental that the units that were part of the review team were under the supervision of Aglipay-Villar – the DOJ Legal Staff, Office of the Solicitor General, Office of the Government Corporate Counsel, Presidential Commission on Good Government, Public Attorney’s Office, DOJ Legislative Liaison Office and the Land Registration Authority.

    Aglipay-Villar said the DOJ team that reviewed the concession agreement was led by Guevarra himself.

    “It was the legal staff who the Secretary worked with. I don’t want to even dignify further by answering further questions,” she said.

    Aglipay-Villar obtained her law degree from the University of the Philippines in 2006 (Order of the Purple Feathers Honor Society). Prior to her appointment to the DOJ, she was a member of the House of Representatives representing the Diwa party-list group.

    REVIEW OF ‘ONEROUS’ PROVISIONS ONLY

    Guevarra said the DOJ review is focused on the prohibition against government interference in rate-setting, the provision on indemnity for possible losses in the event of such government interference, and the 2009 extension of the contracts to 2037.

    Guevarra said that while there are provisions pertaining to early termination of the concession agreements, there were none on extension beyond the original period.
    He also said even the two water concessionaires did not deny the existence of onerous provisions in the agreement.

    “Up to this point, the concessionaires have never denied the existence of inequitable provisions in the water concession agreements. In fact, they have expressed their willingness to renegotiate. If this is so, what contracts are supposed to be extended till 2037? The old one expressly repudiated by the government and virtually admitted as flawed by the private concessionaires?” he said.

    HUNT FOR NEW WATER SOURCES – POE

    Sen. Grace Poe said the search and development of new water sources should continue to ensure steady supply even as she stressed the need for a single water agency.

    Poe said officials of water concessionaires, at the hearing of the public services committee which she heads, mentioned several proposals for interim water sources, which were either waiting for approval or have been given the go-signal by the government.

    Some of these are the expansion of the Cardona water treatment plant, extraction from the Marikina River of around 40 million liters per day using a new technology, and digging deep wells.

    One of the projects that has been approved by state regulator Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage Systems (MWSS) is the building of a new facility in the east bay of Laguna Lake, which Poe said should help ease water supply in the metropolis.

    “While we work towards the creation of a water agency, we look forward to these projects to meet immediate needs,” Poe said, adding: “Water is a vital gift of nature, but the most misused and ignored. We should act quickly to make productive use of the water assets that we have.”

    Poe asked the MWSS to submit to the committee a comprehensive list of proposals for new water sources or expansion of existing ones and their status.

    For his part, Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian called for the the renegotiation of the agreements with Maynilad and Manila Water since the two violated public trust.

    Gatchalian likewise hit officials of the utility firms for passing on to consumers company expenses that were not related to water distribution, such as charitable contributions, expenses for basketball games, sports clinics and other forms of donations, among others.

    Gatchalian also slammed the water companies for overestimating the cost of their projects which he said will be the burden of every Juan de la Cruz, and for the inclusion of the business tax provision in the agreement that the MWSS made with Manila Water and Maynilad.

    He pointed out that such provision somehow enabled the two water concessionaires to skirt away from paying their tax obligations.