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Tap water in Metro a lot cleaner now, say experts


By Paterno Esmaquel II, GMA News
Newsbreak’s Maggie De Pano Fellow

But agencies grapple with problems on how to communicate this to consumers

MANILA, Philippines—Reynaldo Sarmiento, a resident of Tondo, Manila, will always remember the time his father Aquilino, 70, succumbed to diarrhea after drinking tap water in 2003.

Aquilino and least seven other Tondo residents died and over 800 others were hit in one of the biggest outbreaks of water-borne diseases in the country in the past decade.

Nagka-phobia na kami doon (We’ve had a phobia on that),” says Reynaldo, a Maynilad consumer, who now makes it a point to serve only bottled water at least to his family’s toddlers.

Tondo resident Reynaldo Sarmiento makes it a point to serve only bottled water to his family's toddlers after dirty tap water supposedly caused his father's death in 2003. Photo by Hubert Pacheco

Tondo resident Reynaldo Sarmiento makes it a point to serve only bottled water to his family's toddlers after dirty tap water supposedly caused his father's death in 2003. Photo by Hubert Pacheco

Water from the two Metro Manila concessionaires is generally safe, according to experts. But the public is not aware of this. They don’t get real-time information on water quality from agencies.

In Metro Manila and surrounding areas, tap water is delivered to homes, offices, and establishments through networks of pipelines managed by Maynilad Water Services Inc. and Manila Water Company Inc., the two water concessionaires in the metropolis.

Maynilad and Manila Water derive their mandate from the privatization of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS), which has been tasked since 1971 to deliver potable water to Metro Manila residents and some from surrounding provinces (See: ‘Dirty’ tap water forces poor to pay more).

Stories of death and disease, however, have dirtied the image of Maynilad and Manila Water through the years, spreading through anecdotes and receiving media attention.

Tondo, Manila, where the 2003 outbreak occurred, belonged to the concession area of Maynilad. When the outbreak took place, the concession agreement was already in effect.

Illegal connections, leakages

Both concessionaires invariably attribute incidents like the 2003 outbreak to reasons beyond their control, such as illegal connections and poor hygiene.

Suppliers claim responsibility for water quality but only before the water reaches a household's water meter. Photo by Hubert Pacheco

Suppliers claim responsibility for water quality but only before the water reaches a household's water meter. Photo by Hubert Pacheco

Teresita Mancera, head of Maynilad’s Central Laboratory, says the 2003 outbreak took place in areas where illegal connections proliferated and was therefore not the supplier’s fault.

Illegal connections could lead to leakages that allow contaminants to seep into pipelines, Mancera explains.

Reynaldo says his father’s water pipe was legally connected to Maynilad. Mancera points out, however, that a neighbor’s illegal connection could also affect nearby legally connected households.

“If you have a neighbor who’s using a pump, it would create negative pressure du’n sa linya (in the pipeline). So…kung may kapitbahay ka na gumagamit ng pump, papasok na ‘yung dirty water (So… if you have a neighbor who uses a pump, dirty water can enter),” she says.

Jeric Sevilla, head of Manila Water’s corporate communications division, shares the same view. “We are tasked to provide them with water, but our [responsibility] ends with the meter,” Sevilla says. “From the meter, papasok na sa loob ng either bahay, subdivision, or condominium (From the meter, it will enter either a household, subdivision, or condominium). That is already the responsibility of the customer.”

6 stopovers

Both Maynilad and Manila Water vouch for the safety of their water transmission, treatment, and distribution processes. They say that a number of their safety standards even exceed those required by the government.

In these processes, a glass of water theoretically travels from as far as Umiray River in Nakar, Quezon, to the two concessionaires’ water treatment plants in Balara and La Mesa in Quezon City.

Water makes at least six major stopovers to ensure its quality once it is delivered to individual households in Metro Manila and surrounding areas.

The basic process involves the following steps:

  • flow of water from Umiray River, to Angat Dam, then to Ipo Dam
  • settling process in the Bicti Settling Basin
  • delivery of water to La Mesa Treatment Plants 1 and
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    2, and Balara Treatment Plants 1 and 2

  • water treatment involving four processes—including coagulation, flocculation, sedimentation, filtration, and disinfection
  • distribution of water using gravity and pumping

To kill contaminants in water, chlorine, a chemical disinfectant,

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is applied at different points of the treatment process. It is the Philippine National Standards for Drinking Water (PNSDW) that monitors the water’s chlorine level.

Compliance with drinking water standards is regulated by the health department, the lead agency tasked to implement the Sanitation Code of the Philippines.

Before it reaches our faucets, tap water travels from as far as Quezon province to Quezon City in this case, the La Mesa treatment plant of Maynilad. Photo by Paterno Esmaquel II

Before it reaches our faucets, tap water travels from as far as Quezon province to Quezon City in this case, the La Mesa treatment plant of Maynilad. Photo by Paterno Esmaquel II

In Metro Manila, the DOH-led Metro Manila Drinking Water Quality Monitoring Committee (MMDWQMC) monitors compliance with standards, and publishes water quality pronouncements every month.

Both Maynilad and Manila Water say they regularly pass and even exceed a number of PNSDW requirements–in particular, the required level of residual chlorine. This refers to the amount of the chemical remaining in water once it reaches a customer’s faucet, considering that it gets depleted every time it attacks bacteria and viruses.

The PNSDW requires a residual chlorine level of 0.3 parts per million. This means that if water, at the treatment plant, is mixed with 0.7 ppm of chlorine and passes through kilometers of pipelines—with with the chlorine killing impurities and getting used up along the way—water should still end up at a household tap with 0.3 ppm of the disinfectant.

The PNSDW sets the maximum level of residual chlorine at 1.5 ppm.

Water from Maynilad has a residual chlorine level of 0.85 ppm, while that from Manila Water also has 0.85 ppm, based on the latest MMDWQMC water quality pronouncement, which is for July this year. The pronouncement was issued on August 26.

General improvements

The water testing processes themselves serve as proof that Metro Manila’s water services have improved since Maynilad

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and Manila Water took over from MWSS, according to Maynilad’s Mancera.

A Manila Water employee performs laboratory testing on water. Paterno Esmaquel II

A Manila Water employee performs laboratory testing on water. Photo by Paterno Esmaquel II

She herself worked at MWSS from the 1980s until 1997, when she was transferred to Maynilad following the privatization of MWSS services.

As an example, Mancera cites the number of fixed sampling points in the two companies’ concession areas as determined by the MMDWQMC. Based on the July pronouncement, Maynilad has 808 sampling points while Manila Water has 605.

Mancera notes that before the privatization, MWSS only had 200 to 300 water sampling points for both the West and East Zones–less than a third of the current sampling points of Maynilad and Manila Water combined. “So logistics-wise, we’re better off, which redounds to better customer care, ‘di ba?”

She also says Maynilad equips its laboratories with “top of the line” instruments.

Both Maynilad and Manila Water add that they have successfully brought down non-revenue water (NRW) or systems losses caused by leaks and defective meters, among other things.

The Asian Development Bank defines NRW as “water that a water utility does not receive any compensation for” as a result of leakages, inadequate measurement, and illegal and unauthorized use.

In its fact sheet as of March this year, Maynilad reports that it has slashed its NRW level to 50 percent. For its part, Manila Water says it has reduced its NRW level to 11 percent as of 2010.

NRW reductions mean more resources to give the public, Manila Water’s Sevilla explains. “Reducing the systems loss and recovering ‘yung tubig na nawawala (the water that is lost) gives us the water to provide to these areas lalo na ‘yung mga depressed communities,” he says.

Sevilla adds that lower NRW levels remove “potential avenues for contamination.”

In time for Ondoy

Dr. Lino Macasaet, the Department of Health (DOH) program manager for food-and-water-borne diseases, vouches for the potability of Maynilad and Manila Water supplies.

Macasaet notes the massive improvement of pipelines by the two concessionaires, the “clear effect” of which was seen when tropical storm Ondoy inundated large portions of Metro Manila in 2009.

He says that at that time, the DOH was expecting a rise in the number of cholera and typhoid cases due to water contamination through rusty pipelines. Macasaet recalls that both Maynilad and Manila Water were upgrading their pipes from metal to polymer at around the same period.

The DOH assumed that the two companies did not finish their pipe upgrades and therefore stockpiled on water purification tablets and other drugs in anticipation of a waterborne-disease outbreak, according to Macasaet.

“[Thankfully], tamang tama lang, natapos (They finished just in the nick of time),” he says. “Mangilan-ngilan lang ‘yung cases ng cholera and typhoid (We only had a few cases of cholera and typhoid).”

Pinky Tobiano, a chemist and founder of the independent water laboratory Qualibet Testing Services Corp., also confirms the claims of the two concessionaires. “Tap water in Metro Manila, as long as it is supplied by the two water providers, and as long as the pipes in the homes are intact, there’s no problem drinking it,” she says.

‘Late’ quality pronouncements

But is the public aware that tap water is safe, as certified by the MMDWQMC and other experts? (See latest MMDWQMC water quality pronouncement)

Engr. Jose Carmelo Gendrano, deputy executive director of the Philippine Center for Water and Sanitation, believes that tap water is generally safe. Gendrano, however, says the MMDWQMC has difficulty relaying information on water quality to the public.

Gendrano points out that MMDWQMC water quality pronouncements, which are released weeks after the covered period, should come out much earlier than this. The water quality pronouncement covering July, for example, still holds until the middle of September when the August pronouncement is expected to come out.

Gendrano says bacteriological, physical, and chemical examinations on water—all covered by the MMDWQMC pronouncements—should take only around four days per sampling point. He says water quality reports should be posted online immediately after the testing.

“The more real-time ‘yung data na ‘yon, the more confidence meron ‘yung mga tao. Kaysa ‘yung two months ago (The more real-time the data is, the more confident the public will be about it. More than about data from two months ago),” he says.

Gendrano says delayed data makes it “way too late” for people to take action on water quality.

“O halimbawa, start of the rainy season, June ngayon. Ang available na data sa akin is April, dry season pa ‘yon. Eh alam natin, ‘pag rainy season, mas malaki ang chance ng mga outbreaks ng water-borne disease. So kung April pa ‘yon, parang maganda pa ‘yung water quality. Mami-mislead ako,” Gendrano explains. (For example, it is now June, the start of the rainy season. The data available to me is for April, a dry season. But we know that the rainy season heightens the chances of outbreaks of water-borne diseases. So if the data was for April, water quality may still be of better quality. I will be misled.)

The two water companies could also be victims of “slanted information” presented in commercials to persuade consumers to buy bottled water instead, according to Gendrano. “Commercials try to convince you by presenting information which is sometimes not balanced,” he says.

Mixed feedback

Despite advertisements suggesting tap water is unsafe to drink, a growing number of residents are now starting to have faith in Metro Manila’s water supplies.

The two water concessionaires are regaining the confidence of a growing number of Metro consumers. Photo by Hub Pacheco

The two water concessionaires are regaining the confidence of a growing number of Metro consumers. Photo by Hub Pacheco

In Tondo, for example, several residents have noticed improvements in water quality, prompting them to drop bottled water in favor of tap.

Pedicab driver Renato Mata explains, “Mula noong nagpalit na ng tubo ang Maynilad, ayos na ang takbo. Maski hindi mo na pakuluan ang tubig, inumin mo na nang diretso, wala nang problema (From the time Maynilad replaced its pipes, it became fine. Even if you don’t boil water and instead drink it directly, no problem),” he says.

Eric Lacson, another Tondo resident, has abandoned drinking bottled water altogether. “Talagang malinis ngayon, naiinom (It’s really clean now and potable),” he says.

Gendrano himself drinks from the tap without boiling his water. “Kasi matagal na akong umiinom, hindi naman ako nagkakasakit (Because I’ve been drinking that for the longest time and I never get sick),” he says.

Yet, even Macasaet and Tobiano still hold reservations about drinking directly from the tap. Macasaet, who says water from the two concessionaires is 90 to 100 percent safe to drink, uses a filter for tap water at home. “Just to cover for the other 10 percent,” he explains.

Tobiano says she doesn’t mind drinking from the tap “as long as it comes from a safe source,” such as her own household. “But I don’t think I will drink tap water in a public area, because I’m not sure where the source comes from, and I don’t know how clean that it’s being maintained by a certain institution,” she says. – Newsbreak

(Next: Even the Palace doesn’t serve tap water)

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.)

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  1. I remember when I was a kid, people could actually drink tap water and bottled water was unheard of. Our social studies teachers also classified water as an inexhaustible resource. This was just in the ’70s.

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