Lessons learned from water woes

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    THE ongoing episode involving an angry President Duterte and the sheepish corporate duo of Maynilad and Manila Water Inc. over the issue of private concessions in the distribution of water in Metro Manila will make for an interesting study in crisis management and practical governance.

    What triggered the latest problem was the extraordinarily furious outburst of the President Duterte last week upon receiving the news that the Permanent Court of Arbitration in Singapore ordered the Philippine government to pay P7.3 billion to Manila Water for its alleged losses. In year 2017, the tribunal also ordered the government to pay Maynilad P3.4 billion for not allowing the company to increase water rates.

    A more sober perusal of the events and documents involving the water concessions of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) reveals that the nation’s problems on water concessionaires started in the administration of President Fidel Ramos which effected the privatization of water distribution, to end in 2022. Then even before the end of these contracts, the administration of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo extended these deals for another 25 years.

    These official acts of the two former presidents must have prompted Duterte to take a swipe at “two past administrations” that allowed the country’s Constitution to be “bargained away” through the “plunderous” agreements with the water firms. Duterte’s actual words: “I cannot imagine two administrations allowing our Constitution to be bargained away.” While a broadsheet newspaper interpreted this as the administrations of Arroyo and Benigno Aquino III, it was clearly Ramos and Arroyo — not President Joseph Estrada or President PNoy Aquino — that were instrumental in effecting these government sellout to the water concessionaires.

    In the Senate, Sen. Francis “Tol” Tolentino asked the chamber to investigate the apparent “onerous” contracts executed between the government and the two firms. According to Tolentino, the water concessionaires’ corporate greed was the reason for the current water crisis.

    Tolentino said the water crisis had affected not only the national economy or the productivity of students, workers, and everyone in society but it ultimately puts the health of the people, especially children, at serious risk.

    Duterte’s serious threats and vitriol against Maynilad and Manila Water, and also directed against their owners whose business interests in the country are expansive, finally resulted in the two companies’ spontaneous reaction to blink first. They offered not to force the government to pay up, seemingly accepting the fact that they will have to forgo the collection of some P10 billion awarded to them by the arbitral court in Singapore.

    As this might be another ruse card held by Maynila and Manila Water, President Duterte is right in not gloating and to cautiously study his next move. Duterte had said he wanted to talk with the lawyers who drafted the original contracts of concession, before meeting with lawmakers and officials who finally signed these onerous deals. What is certain is that a renegotiation will be made with the proponents to somehow favor the interest of the people.

    In the meantime, the public hearings in the House and the Senate should continue to further shed some light on this case, if only to let the public know what really happened to water, this very important part of our everyday lives.