Siegfred Aldous Lacerna and Ann Gabrielle Domingo

Published: January 4, 2023

Originally published on verafiles.org

Staying past the bedtime hours so they can fill  their jugs with water to make it through the next day is nothing new for 22-year old Lynex Joy Biquio, her family, and her neighbors in Quirino, Cagayan Valley.

Biquio’s everyday life circles around utilizing the limited water supply during daytime and fetching during late hours due to water scarcity. This has been the situation  since 2005, she said.

“Since we live in an elevated land, we can only collect water from 12 midnight up to 3 a.m. in the morning. This means from 4 a.m. up to 11:59 p.m., we have no supply of water,” Biquio said, adding that it has been a struggle for them, especially because they are a family of more than seven people.

Biquio also recalled some days wherein they wouldn’t receive any water supply for three days, thus adding more burden to her family. by forcing them to fetch water from lowland neighbors.

“But even then, we had to wait for our turn because they have their own water jugs to fill too,” Biquio said, detailing how after filling in their drums, they would still have to carry it back to their house. Amid all of these, she still has her hopes up that there would be improvements in their water supply in the near future. At the same time, the local from Quirino worries that the worsening climate situation would further aggravate her hometown’s condition.

The daily ordeal of Biquio and her townmates is not isolated. According to Water.org, three million Filipinos still rely on unsafe and unsustainable water while seven million lack access to improved sanitation. This is further worsened by the world’s climate situation as the World Resource Institutealso claims that the Philippines is predicted to experience a “high degree” of water scarcity come 2040.

Thus, several lawmakers in the 19th Congress have filed a measure creating the Department of Water Resources which seeks to “improve water quality, sanitation, and climate change mitigation.”

But, even before 2019, former President Rodrigo Duterte has already mulled about the creation of the said executive department due to water stoppages in the same year. However, it did not pass.

This year, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. underscored the importance of a water department which would direct 20 agencies to properly manage different sources of water.

There are over 35 bills with similar objectives of creating the Department of Water Resources which were filed in the House of Representatives which aims to coordinate different executive agencies while also subsuming some offices under Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Department of Agriculture (DA), and Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG).

The bills also pose promises on climate change adaptation and development of sustainable water resources. Last November 28, two house panels created a technical working group, led by Albay 2nd District Representative Joey Salceda, to draft a substitute bill creating a water department.

On the other hand, the senate version of the bill that was introduced by Sen. Grace Poe, would allow the DOWR to create a “​Water Regulatory Commission” as the primary water management which would also act as a quasi-judicial body. Poe’s bill focuses more on the economic and distributive aspects of water management to address water shortage in the Philippines.

The creation of the DWR may allow the Philippines to follow suit in neighboring countries that already have long-established departments that handle water resources and management. In Malaysia, the Ministry of Environment and Water (Department of Environment) aquatic functions include: river water, marine water, and groundwater monitoring; oil spill contingencies; and the development of water resources.

In Singapore, the Public Utilities Board (PUB) handles water management but is also under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment. Notably, these departments take a holistic approach to water management by integrating the protection of aquatic ecosystems within their jurisdiction.

Despite its promising premise, several experts have varying opinions on the bill, especially its provisions on climate change mitigation because of bureaucracy and execution.

In an exclusive interview, Prof. Jan Frederick Cruz, a lawyer and professor at the Ateneo de Manila University who teaches economics and law, mentioned enforcement, appointment, coordination, and budget as issues he can see in the creation of the Department of Water Resources.

“Sometimes, we do have these stated objectives in the law, but the agency doesn’t have power. It doesn’t have the coercive power to enforce the law,” Cruz said, adding that there is a need to promulgate rules and to enforce those that will be issued by the department.

He also emphasized the need to check the qualifications of the person that would head the agency because if the list of qualifications is too broad, it technically means that anyone can be appointed for the post.

“Even if the intention of the law is good, if there is someone who is not so invested in pursuing the spirit of the law, then the creation of the Department of Water could be a futile exercise,” Cruz said.

He also emphasized coordination as a potential problem since the bill has provisions that aim to mitigate the climate situation for instance, it has to coordinate with various existing agencies with similar objectives like the Climate Change Commission, DENR, and DA which pose further bureaucracy when the government aims to reduce it.

On his first State of the Nation Address, President Marcos said rightsizing the government is top of his legislative agenda.

Cruz also mentioned budget as a problem because the department, if enacted into law, has to compete with other similar agencies in terms of fund allocation, considering that the country has limited funds due to ballooning debts and recession.

“The president can simply pass an executive order enacting an interagency task force whose sole function is coordination,” Cruz said, adding that it would be easier because it would take a lot of funds to create and maintain another executive department.

On the other hand, Assoc. Prof. Mayzonee Ligaray of the University of the Philippines thinks otherwise. Creating an agency which solely focuses on water resources, for Ligaray, means centralizing the duty to resolve issues surrounding it.

“When I want to get information about water resources, I still have to contact several government agencies,” Ligaray said, adding that the problem of executive departments in the country is having too many jobs designated towards few people. Thus, creating a new one means employing new people whose job is focused on one utility.

Biquio is still not convinced that help would reach them even if the water department bill is signed into law.

“There are many programs which are apparently focusing on water improvement yet nothing happens,” Biquio said, adding that if ever the bill would materialize, she hopes the department would lend a sustainable help like long-lasting water infrastructures.

Prof. Elfritzson Peralta, a Department of Biological Sciences faculty member at the University of Santo Tomas, also agrees that the water department has the potential to centralize water management to one governmental body.

But despite its potential to centralize existing mandates, the creation of a water department must not become a redundant effort in replicating the functions of existing environmental or water-related bureaus.  According to Peralta, it can still be strengthened by integrating aquatic ecosystem rehabilitation with the proper guidance of scientists and stakeholders who have expert knowledge on water.

“A number of departments, in  [themselves, have] good mandates to implement those laws and ordinances that we have. But the problem there, if it’s not centralized, if it’s not properly structured and backed by experts, of course, then there would be a problem in terms of the implementation,” Peralta said.

He hopes that the department would prioritize addressing flood, water scarcity, and pollution of different water resources, including helping the Filipino community, especially those who are vulnerable and dependent on water.

Peralta also underscored that as long as the implementations are in place, then the department is in good direction. However, because the bill is still in the hands of legislators, its promises remain to be paper.

*Siegfred Lacerna is a  graduate from the UST Journalism School. Ann Gabrielle Domingo is a senior student at  Ateneo de Manila University majoring in Communication. This story was written  with the support of Climate Tracker and the Earth Journalism Network. Climate Tracker is an international non-profit organization working for  better climate journalism while the Earth Journalism Network is an Internews Europe project dedicated to enabling journalists from developing countries to cover the environment more effectively.