Water is a renewable resource because of the natural water cycle afforded us by the natural environment. The supply of potable and safe drinking water, however, is no longer renewable. While natural biogeochemical cycles help purify water for reuse, human activities have greatly affected the natural flow of these cycles and have impeded their ability to purify water. “Safe” repositories of fresh water, such as groundwater, have also been exploited to the point of contamination due to saltwater intrusion and leachates from soil surface pollution sources.
The problem has been addressed through the process of water treatment. Government agencies, such as the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS), were tasked to tap surface and groundwater sources and treat water to acceptable standards of potability. The process of water treatment, as well as distribution to individual consumers, have incurred large costs. As such, people have had to pay for access to clean water. Those with private wells were able to avoid paying for water, but declining groundwater quality threatened their health. With the recent deregulation of the water treatment and distribution sector, private companies, such as Manila Water and Maynilad, now control the process and dictate the price for safe water. While people have already been paying for access to safe water, water has now become even more of a commodity, with a monetary value attached to it, and no longer a right.
In the Philippines, water refilling stations have sprouted all over the country because of the perceived contamination of tap water. A survey in 2010 reveals that six out of 10 families in Metro Manila buy their drinking water. On the average, these families shell out around PhP20-50 per five gallons of drinking water every two weeks. This is on top of the PhP300.00 that they have to pay every month for tap water service. In 2011 alone, such phenomenon created over PhP1.2 billion in sales for water refilling stations.
Rethinking our idea of human rights and moving forward
While some may see the problem of access to safe drinking water as an issue of resource management, it goes beyond that. Access to water is a basic human right because everyone needs to drink to live. In fact, our bodies are made up of 50-75% water. But more than a human right, having access to safe water is also a requirement to survive. In looking at the issue of access therefore, we also need to question our society’s definition and operationalization of human rights. If we indeed agree that access to safe water is a right and an urgent necessity, then our individual and collective actions as a community and as a state must lead to the valuing of that right. The truth, however, is that these do not.
When it comes to access to safe water, it is always the poor who lose out and have the least access. To address this, existing anti-poverty measures of the state must be coupled with measures that will allow the poor access to basic services, which include water. In so doing, there could be improvements in health and perhaps in productivity. Increased productivity could then bolster incomes and help poor families get out of poverty. Following Amartya Sen’s notion of development as providing capabilities, providing access to safe water could help people utilize their full capacities through better health.
For Filipinos, access to safe drinking water also supports our self-identity as an archipelago, helps us realize our value of cleanliness and hygiene, creates economic opportunities, and gives us a sense of security. Most Filipinos would rather endure a long blackout with continuous water supply, than a long period of water shortage. Recently, Metro Manila residents have also cried foul on the impending increases in water service rates.
If we, as a community, truly believe that everyone deserves access to safe water, we need to show more care in our water use. We need to:
- declare that access to water is a priceless right and privilege,
- protect remaining watersheds so we do not have to rely greatly on expensive water treatment,
- revitalize watersheds and surface waters through reforestation of mangrove forests and coastal/river clean-ups,
- be conscientious in using our water by saving as much as we can,
- better reduce and manage our wastes,
- pay our taxes correctly to help the state provide for environmental conservation and water resource management, and
- if possible, encourage the state to invest in reclaiming control over water distribution to ensure a more equitable access to water and reduce the commodification of access.
Inequitable access to safe water means an unequal access to life. As a community and as a state, should we let this happen? We were often told by our parents not to eat dirt because it might give us worms. If the dirt is in the water, would we also say no to drinking water?