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The water crisis in the Philippines is a warning that there is a worse crisis in store for the Asia Pacific region.

Televised scenes in the neighbourhoods of bustling Metro Manila these past weeks have been dramatic.
 
People lugged buckets of water drawn from public taps to their homes. They had to wash utensils and bathe their children in basins under sidewalk faucets.
 
Home faucets had run dry, forcing local governments and concessionaires to manually deliver water to city neighbourhoods. Residents in the city’s middle to lower class neighbourhoods lined up in the streets with buckets and assorted containers so that fire engines could fill them up with water for drinking and cooking. 
 
No fewer than five government hospitals in four cities had to get extra supplies from water tankers as shortages led to one hospital limiting admissions.
 
It all happened suddenly after one of Metro Manila’s two major water concessionaires announced water rationing because of diminishing supply. One of them had to tap deep wells to augment supply in its service areas by 15 million litres per day.

“Infamous for flooding from its frequent typhoons, the Philippines is experiencing a dry spell that has led to reserves being severely depleted. Farms are parched, open fields are brown and cracking, irrigation systems are drying up, crops are damaged and harvest is down.”

Crispin Maslog


Signs of things to come?

While the water crisis seems to have been temporarily and partially solved in Metro Manila, these scenes could be repeated here and in other cities in the Philippines now or in the near future. Cebu, the country’s second biggest metropolis south of Manila, is beginning to ration its water supply. Other cities may soon follow.

This week, at least 41 of the 81 provinces in the Philippines are reported to be experiencing a lack of rain or ‘dry spell,’ according to the Philippine weather bureau (Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration or PAGASA).
 
The weather bureau defines ‘dry spell’ as either three consecutive months of below normal rainfall (only 41 to 80 per cent of the normal rainfall) or two consecutive months of way below normal rainfall (less than 40 per cent of the normal rainfall).
 
Infamous for flooding from its frequent typhoons, the Philippines is experiencing a dry spell that has led to reserves being severely depleted. Farms are parched, open fields are brown and cracking, irrigation systems are drying up, crops are damaged and harvest is down.
 
The disruption could last until July when monsoon rains come to replenish regional reservoirs, one of which is at a two-decade low. When that time comes, this water crisis will be shelved and forgotten until the next season.
 
So far, these water crisis scenes have been confined to the Philippines, where a mild touch of El Niño is starting. However, the crisis could soon spread to neighbouring states in South-East Asia and the Pacific island states if the current dry spell worsens.
  

Deepening water crisis

This Philippine water crisis comes amidst reports of global warming. Scientists have been warning that an El Niño event is very likely under way, bringing extreme weather triggered by climate change. This will increase the chances that 2019 may turn into the hottest year in recorded history, according to the Climate Prediction Centre at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (1)

Now, the big question: is Asia facing a water crisis? Experts warn that water scarcity in Asia is likely to get worse over the coming decades. The continent is home to 4.5 billion people, who use around 65 per cent of the world’s water supply. About 30 per cent of the Asian population is already facing water scarcity.

Philippine agriculture minister Emmanuel Piñol tells SciDev.Net in an interview this week that the problem can be solved in spite of a rapidly expanding population. 

First, he says, “people and governments must veer their mindset away from Disaster Risk Reduction Management (DRRM). For example, [they should not] just [wait] for the next typhoon to strike and then pick up the pieces of destruction and replant and repair year after year.”
 
Instead, Piñol recommends, “Why not be proactive? Build to resist the destruction by putting up structures that can resist Category 5 typhoons and which can house agriculture produce and protect it from destruction?” He cites German technology which can build such domed structures.

dome
 
Image credit: Philippine Department of Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol

Second, Piñol continues, “Why not install deep-water solar-powered irrigation systems with technology now available, to provide water even during the dry season? This would mean agriculture production all year round.”
 
Third: “Make water conservation extensive and systematic. Enhance and enforce the Philippine law which requires government and citizens to construct all kinds of rainwater catchments,” the minister suggests.
 
These catchments include household tanks, deep wells, ponds in community neighbourhoods, regional and local dams as opposed to huge dams funded by foreign grants and guaranteed by national government.  There is a Philippine law requiring catchments; it just needs to be refined and enforced.

Rainwater harvesting, other steps

Rainwater harvesting provides an independent water supply and will supplement the main supply. In the big islands of South-East Asia and the Pacific, this supply comes from groundwater and small lakes and rivers.
 
Forestry experts have long been endorsing reforestation as a long-term solution to protect the country’s dwindling watersheds. Piñol said the government must engage in serious reforestation immediately else it might be too late to save these head waters. Once destroyed, these sheds are gone forever.
 
We suggest exploring new technologies. We cannot ignore desalination as an option, although it is expensive as of now. But it is needed by the small islands of the Pacific which may not get enough rain eventually. Desalination has worked in the rich countries of the Middle East but may not be feasible in South-East Asia and in the Pacific islands on the same scale until a low-budget version becomes widely available. Some rich countries, such as Singapore, are now working on this technology.
 
On a final note, another long-term solution would be to manage the population growth in Asia, which doubled from 2.3 billion in 1975 to 4.5 billion in 2018. More people, more thirst to quench.
  
Crispin C. Maslog, former journalist with Agence France-Presse, is an environmental activist and former science professor, Silliman University and University of the Philippines Los Baños, Philippines. He is a founding member and now Chair of the Board, Asian Media Information and Communication Centre, Manila.
  
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.

References

1. 2019 may be the hottest year yet—here's why. By Stephen Leahy, National Geographic