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Foreign business chambers call for Cabinet-level water ‘czar’

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PHILSTAR

By Victor V. Saulon, Sub-Editor

FOREIGN BUSINESS chambers said the Philippines needs to designate a “water czar” with sufficient powers to bring stakeholders together in resolving the impending water crisis.

“It has to be somebody dedicated to the water sector,” said Ramon B. Alikpala, who was former chairman of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS), in a news conference on Wednesday during the 7th Arangkada Philippines Forum at Marriott Hotel in Pasay City.

Mr. Alikpala jointly authored with Christopher A. Ilagan a policy brief on behalf of the foreign chambers in which they offered recommendations to the government on “very clear, actionable” items to take the country closer to realizing water security.

“The path towards water security will surely last beyond 2022, but these actions, if taken today, can yield long-term impacts for our future society,” the policy brief said.

The foreign business chambers asked the President to appoint the water czar in the absence of clear leadership in the sector. The appointee will “shepherd” various reform efforts ahead of the passage of what they call a water sector reform law.




They want the czar to have Cabinet rank and resources to carry out his or her duties.

“Without this strong interim leadership, there is a good chance any reform effort for the sector will falter,” according to the policy brief.

The chambers said the water czar could be announced during the planned Philippine Water Summit in November “to ensure action is taken immediately after the event.”

The appointment is among the recommendations of the joint foreign chambers on improving the management of water resources, which calls for the speedy enactment of a law that will harmonize and streamline governance in the water sector.

They said any water sector reform should include, among others, the creation of an “apex body” that will coordinate the entire effort and fulfill the policy function for the sector. The reform should also establish a clear regulatory regime that will move the sector closer to achieving its universal access targets.

The policy brief said universal access to water is hampered by regulation, or the absence of it, and financial resources.

On regulation, it recommended the passage of a “Water Regulatory Commission Bill” that will serve as an independent regulator to govern water service provision throughout the country.

The regulator should adopt performance-based regulation geared towards universal coverage and minimal service quality standards on water quality, pressure, service availability, among others.

It should also ensure sustainable yet affordable tariffs, which reflect the true cost of service delivery to ensure water delivery systems are maintained and expanded through generations “rather than per political cycle.”

The policy brief also recommended the expansion of wastewater treatment coverage. It said major laws and programs governing wastewater management need to be enforced in order to reverse the heavy pollution in the country’s water bodies. These laws include the Clean Water Act, the Supreme Court mandamus on the clean-up of Manila Bay, and the National Sewerage and Septage Management Program.

Mr. Ilagan, co-author of the policy brief and chairman of non-government organization Philippine Water Partnership, said the proposed Water Regulatory Commission is similar to the Energy Regulatory Commission, which approves rates for the energy sector and functions independently from policy-maker Department of Energy.

“The Department of Water is something that kind of creates the apex body that we need to drive the policy side in line with governance across the 30 plus agencies involved in water today,” he said in an interview.

Guenter Taus, president of the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, said the department could be the “most important department we’ll ever have.”

“We can sustain life without electricity, but we cannot sustain life without water,” he said.

“We need to address our wastewater issues, we need to address our bulk water supply issues, we need to make sure we understand what water is needed where, how much we need for household, how much we need for agriculture, how much we need for industry,” he said.

He said stakeholders in the sector are set to meet with President Rodrigo R. Duterte in November to address water issues while getting government participation from the highest level.

He pointed to the urgency of water reforms in the face of threats of a water crisis, citing Metro Manila as example for having only one water source, Angat dam. He said the situation puts the country’s capital at risk in case of an earthquake or if the dam breaks.

“We need to act and we need to act now,” he said in an interview.

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