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‘Dirty’ tap water forces poor to pay more


By Paterno Esmaquel II
GMA News & Newsbreak’s Maggie de Pano Fellow

Despite assurances from concessionaires, Metro households continue to distrust water from the pipes

MANILA, Philippines—While living only a few steps away from one of Metro Manila’s major water treatment plants, sari-sari storeowner Edralin Cartel wouldn’t dare let her family drink water from the tap.

The 29-year-old mother has reason to be concerned. Only last year, her 7-year-old daughter Beverly contracted amoebiasis, a food and water-borne disease, supposedly from contaminated water in school. Prior to this incident, the Cartels found nothing wrong with drinking tap water.

Sari-sari store vendor Edralin Cartel avoids serving tap water to her family as well as to her customers when selling cold drinks. Photo by Hubert Pacheco

Since then, Cartel has resorted to buying five-gallon jugs of purified water from a nearby refilling station for her family of three, at P35 per jug once every two weeks.

This adds up to a monthly spending of P70 on bottled drinking water—on top of the P300 that she has to shell out every month to pay for the water bills charged by a government-regulated water service. Still, it is a small price to pay for health, says Cartel, whose house in Pansol, Quezon City, is a 10-minute walk from the Balara treatment plant of her water supplier, Manila Water Company Inc.

With a combined income of around P16,000 a month she and her husband, a computer technician, could easily shoulder the added expense.

It is not the same story, however, for some 64,400 families in Metro Manila who live below the poverty line.

Latest data from the National Statistical Coordination Board (NCSB) show that a Filipino family of five needs at least Php4,869 monthly to meet basic food needs. This leaves very little for clothing, shelter and basic utilities.

In Metro Manila, where the minimum wage is pegged at P426 a day for non-agricultural industries—or P8,520 a month for those with five-day work weeks—the monthly income that a family needs to stay out of poverty is pegged at P8,251. (A survey by the Social Weather Stations or SWS says 43 percent of NCR respondents rate themselves as poor.)

Drinking water has turned into an added burden for a growing number of poor Filpinos. Photo by Hubert Pacheco

Drinking water has turned into an added burden for a growing number of poor Filpinos. Photo by Hubert Pacheco

Basic need

Water is a basic human need.

Our bodies are estimated to be about 60 to 70 percent water . We need water to regulate body temperature, transport nutrients and oxygen to our organs and tissues and cells, remove waste and protect our joints and organs. We lose it through urination, respiration, and by sweating.

The jury is still out on how much water an individual needs on a daily basis in order to survive. The popular notion is we need to drink at least 6 to 8 glasses of water a day to remain healthy.

With this rate, a family of five will need buy at least 11 five-gallon jugs to be able to drink the required 6 to 8 glasses a day—or at least around 900 glasses a month—if they depend on refilling stations for their drinking water. This is equivalent to P385 monthly if the family buys per jug for P35.

Kantar report: number of households buying commercial water

The demand for safe drinking water has fueled a multimillion-peso water refilling station industry that generated P1.6 billion in Metro Manila sales in May 2011 alone, based on a study released by Kantar Worldpanel Philippines. This represents a 34-percent increase from the P1.2 billion recorded sales in the same period in 2010, says Kantar.

Kantar, the local arm of a global market research firm, regularly monitors the purchasing behavior of households toward fast-moving consumer goods, or those that are used on a daily basis such as water.

A growing number of Metro Manila households is resorting to water from refilling stations amid concerns over the safety of tap water, notes the research group.

In a household panel study, Kantar reports that over 6 out of 10 Metro Manila households bought water from refilling stations at least once in 2010 alone. This represents a 22-percent increase from figures that Kantar recorded a year earlier (See graph).

The trend is by no means unique to Metro Manila. The entire country posted a 9-percent increase in the demand for water from refilling stations in the same period, according to Kantar. Compared to other urban areas in the Philippines, however, it is Metro Manila that has the most number of residents who consider water from refilling stations “safer.”

Latest data (2009) show Metro Manila as among the regions with the highest incidence of diarrheal diseases and cholera (See sidebar). Both are food-and-water-borne diseases.

NCR tops other regions for diarrhea, water-borne diseases

  • Diarrheal diseases were the 4th deadliest illnesses for children under five in the National Capital Region (NCR) in 2009. These diseases were also the 3rd most prevalent for NCR residents in the same period.
  • The NCR also registered the 2nd highest number of cholera cases in 2009. That year, 32 cholera cases were recorded in NCR–corresponding to 28.1 percent of the total number of such cases in the Philippines. NCR was second only to Region I, which had 38 cases or 33.3 percent.

Sources: Department of Health Center for Health Development – Metro Manila; Philippine Integrated Disease Surveillance and Response Annual Report for 2009

Dr. April Navalta, a pediatrician, says children are especially at risk when drinking dirty tap water. This can expose children to other water-borne diseases such as acute gastroenteritis and typhoid fever, she says. “If you drink your tap water, you can never be so sure how clean your water is. So if you’re using tap water, you boil your water before drinking it,” Navalta says.

State resource

If she can only be assured that tap water is safe, Cartel, a Manila Water customer, would rather drink from the faucet given her water bills. “Ang taas taas ng tubig namin eh. Dapat pagbutihin pa nila ‘yung serbisyo nila (We already have exorbitant water bills. They should improve their service),” she says.

Consumers like Cartel have the right to demand quality service from water companies. After all, water is a public utility that the government regulates and controls. The Water Code of the Philippines, or Presidential Decree No. 1067 signed by then President Marcos in 1976, is clear on who controls this resource. “All waters belong to the State,” the Water Code says.

Since water is “vital” to national development, the law subjects its utilization and protection “to the regulation and control of the government.”

Jose Carmelo Gendrano, deputy executive director of the Philippine Center for Water and Sanitation (PCWS), points out that water is different from other goods and services because this resource is mobile. “So an owner is hard put to defend his property rights over it. Halimbawa, ako may spring sa akin. Hindi ko masasabi sa spring na, ‘Huwag kang mag-flow. Dito ka lang sa akin.’ Talagang magfo-flow ‘yan (If I have a spring, for example, I cannot tell the spring, ‘Do not flow. Stay here.’ The spring will continue to flow),” he says.

The government needs to exercise control over water also because the mobility of this resource allows for the spread of contaminants, according to Gendrano. “I cannot just do whatever I want with the water, na padumihin siya, kasi kakalat siya eh. Mag-ii-spread siya, especially downstream where other people may be using it (I cannot just do whatever I want with the water, to contaminate it, because it will spread. It will spread, especially downstream where other people may be using it),” Gendrano says.

Government exercises regulation and control over water, a mobile resource, to ensure its potability wherever it flows. Photo by Hubert Pacheco

Government exercises regulation and control over water, a mobile resource, to ensure its potability wherever it flows. Photo by Hubert Pacheco

Gendrano also notes that the United Nations (UN) in a resolution recently declared the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right. The resolution, which was adopted in 2010, acknowledges “the importance of equitable, safe, and clean drinking water and sanitation as an integral component of the realization of all human rights.”

No ‘free’ drinking water

It is thus the government’s duty to provide the public with safe water to drink, Gendrano says. He notes that the government could do this in two ways: through direct provision or through regulation.

Either way, potable water comes with a cost.

Money is needed to facilitate the flow of water from watersheds, to collect it in dams, to treat it, to store it in reservoirs, and then to distribute it through pipe networks, says Gendrano.

Government can subsidize it. But if it chooses to do so, it will have to get its funds from taxpayers. Gendrano says another option is for the government to tap private companies to treat and distribute clean drinking water, among other things.

These companies shall then charge its customers so they can recover their investments and make some profit in the process. “Kasi ‘pag malugi sila, kawawa rin ang customers (Because if they lose money, the customers will suffer). Services will stop or deteriorate,” Gendrano says.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon affirms this principle in his remarks at the UN General Assembly plenary meeting on the human right to water and sanitation in July.

Let us be clear: a right to water and sanitation does not mean that water should be free. Rather, it means that water and sanitation services should be affordable and available for all, and that States must do everything in their power to make this happen,” Ban says.

Water concessions

In Metro Manila and surrounding areas, the government has entrusted the task to provide the public with water to Maynilad and Manila Water. The two companies get their mandate from water-supply concessions that began in 1997 (See: From MWSS to Maynilad, Manila Water).

Based on the Water Code, both Maynilad and Manila Water are subject to government regulation. The law that regulates water quality is the Sanitation Code of the Philippines.

Consumers have the right to demand potable water given the amounts they pay for water services. Photo by Hubert Pacheco

Consumers have the right to demand potable water given the amounts they pay for water services. Photo by Hubert Pacheco

The Sanitation Code requires water supplies to pass the Philippine National Standards for Drinking Water (PNSDW), as promulgated by the DOH. The DOH, the lead agency mandated to implement the Sanitation Code, last updated the PNSDW in 2007.

In Metro Manila, a multi-sectoral committee monitors the compliance of Maynilad and Manila Water with the PNSDW. Called the Metro Manila Drinking Water Quality Monitoring Committee (MMDWQMC), this is chaired by the DOH Center for Health Development-Metro Manila.

Other MMDWQMC members include the MWSS Regulatory Office, the Environmental Management Bureau, the National Water Resources Board, Maynilad, Manila Water, and local government units.

Every month, the MMDWQMC subjects water from Maynilad and Manila Water to a bacteriological, and a physical and chemical examination. Generally, Maynilad and Manila Water get positive certifications from the MMDWQMC.

Both companies banner this as a proof of quality.

In its latest water quality pronouncement, the MMDWQMC said the drinking water in the Maynilad and Manila Water distribution systems is “of sanitary quality with adequate residual chlorine.”


The pronouncement, which still holds as of the second week of September, was for water that the public already used in July. The MMDWQMC issued it only on August 26.


Before our interview, Cartel did not know of the findings of the MMDWQMC, or that the committee exists in the first place. Informed about the committee’s positive findings, Cartel remains unconvinced.

Edralin Cartel doesn’t believe that water regulators consume tap water in the first place. Photo by Hubert Pacheco

Edralin Cartel doesn’t believe that water regulators consume tap water in the first place. Photo by Hubert Pacheco

Bakit magtatae ‘yung mga bata? Lalo na ‘pag umuulan, bakit madalas na magkaroon ng pagtatae kapag umuulan kapag nanggagaling sa gripo ‘yung tubig? Kaya ‘di rin talaga kami nagtitiwala (Why do the kids experience abnormal bowel movements? Why do they experience this especially on rainy days, when they get water from the faucet? That’s why we can’t easily believe them),” she says.

Referring to DOH officials, Cartel adds, “‘Di ako naniniwala na umiinom din sila du’n sa gripo eh. Malamang bumibili rin ng mineral water ‘yung mga ‘yun.

While believing that water is adequately treated at the nearby processing plants, she challenges water suppliers to more closely monitor other reasons for contamination, such as leaking pipes. “Dapat nasa kanila rin ‘yung pag-che-check nu’n, kung may problema ‘yung tubo, kasi minsan talagang ‘di namin alam (They should also check the pipes, if there are problems with these, because sometimes we really cannot tell),” says Cartel. – with reports from Karlitos Brian Decena


(The series was produced under the Maggie de Pano Fund for Investigative Reporting on Health. The Fund, which is managed by Newsbreak, is made possible through a grant from Macare Medicals, Inc.)


This article earlier indicated that the treatment plant of Maynilad Water Services Inc. is in Balara, Quezon City. It is in Fairview. Taking Balara as a point of reference, what is common between the two water suppliers is that both hold office there. Our apologies.  – Eds.

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  1. Jose Z. Osias says:

    Rep. Bernadette Herrera-Dy of Bagong Henerasyon party list recently delivered a privilege speech early September to a Congress plenary after filing a report on many MWSS anomalies at the end of July. MWSS and its concessionaires must be held liable for overcharging consumers for water service and also endangering their health thru lack of sewerage improvements.

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