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Water Use and the Lack of Infrastructure

The Philippines is one of the ten largest consumers of water in the world, but a significant portion of its population does not have access to safe drinking water.

The Philippines is one of the ten largest consumers of water in the world, but a significant portion of its population does not have access to safe drinking water.

In 2016, the Philippines’ water use amounted to 85.14 billion cubic meters. That’s enough water to fill the largest aquarium in the world, which is at China’s Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, 1.4 million times over! Or if you’re into skyscrapers, that volume of water is equal to the amount of concrete of 258,000 Burj Khalifas. The Philippines may rank 12th in the whole world in terms of total population, but it ranks a bit higher on water use – sitting at 8th place.

Welcome to the 4th article of my reading series entitled, Cherry-Picked, a group of articles where I deliberately try to build a story around a number that doesn’t get enough exposure – but I feel like deserves some. If you are new to my writings, please know that you do not need to read the preceding articles to understand the one you are reading right now. In case you’re interested, here are the first three articles on the Cherry-Picked series:

  1. Job Losses and the Death of Tenure818,000 Americans lost their jobs in January 2009, amid the Great Recession. How does this compare with jobs lost during the pandemic?
  2. The Fiscal Quarter that was a Nightmare for the Philippines – the Philippines suffered a contraction of -16.9 percent in the 2nd quarter of 2020. How can it bounce back?
  3. Energy Labels and Consuming Electricity Responsibly – the average Filipino consumed a total of 863 kilowatt-hours for the entirety of 2019. Do energy labels help drive better consumer consciousness?

Without further ado, allow me to make my case on why talking about the 85.14 billion cubic meters of water used up by an archipelagic country is something worthy of its time.

Just an Ordinary Citizen’s Water Use

How much water do you use?

The easiest way you can find that out is by reading your water bill. One other convenient way to find out is by knowing your country’s per capita consumption of water. And for the Philippines, in 2016 that amounted to 821 cubic meters per person, per year. That’s 68 cubic meters a month for the average Filipino – and when I compare that to my water bill, it’s actually way off! To be more specific, 68 cubic meters of water used per average Filipino is more than eight (8) times my own water consumption, based on my latest water bill.

What’s the reason for the extreme discrepancy? Is it because my household is relatively smaller? The average Filipino household is 4.8 people, so if I do a little ratio-and-proportion which they taught in elementary school (while secretly using Google because I don’t trust my math skills anymore), an average Filipino household – applying my own household’s water consumption – would use 12.8 cubic meters of water every month.

That’s still not close.

It falls very short of the 68 cubic meters of water per capita per month, which is ultimately based on the 85.14 billion cubic meters that the Philippines used up in 2016. You would need to be such a water-waster to achieve 68 cubic meters a month, or run your own water-refilling station. And so, how did we get to the 68 cubic meter consumption? Where did the 50-plus cubic meters of water all go?

Which Sector Uses up the Most Water?

The reason for the huge discrepancy is because municipal water use accounts for only 8 percent of the Philippines’ total water consumption. This is where domestic water falls under, and so that probably explains why per capita consumption is far larger than what households actually consume. Agricultural use accounts for roughly 12 percent on the other hand, and the remaining 80 percent goes to agriculture. Municipal use accounts for a bit more in other countries, but not so with agricultural water use – and the chunk that it takes up can be a good indicator on whether or not a certain country is agricultural instead of being more industrial. Take for example the following countries:

  • United States: 47% Industrial use, 40% Agricultural use, 13% Municipal use
  • China: 64% Agricultural, 22% Industrial, 13% Municipal
  • United Kingdom: 74% Municipal, 14% Agricultural, 12% Industrial
  • Australia: 60% Agricultural, 24% Municipal, 16% Industrial
  • France: 72% Industrial, 18% Municipal, 11% Agricultural
  • Brazil: 56% Agricultural, 26% Municipal, 18% Industrial
  • India (2010): 90% Agricultural, 7% Municipal, 2% Industrial

Source: worldometers.info/water (based on 2016 figures if not stated otherwise)

The Philippines, based on the amount of precipitation, renewable resources, and its absence of water dependency shouldn’t have to encounter anything remotely close a water supply crisis similar to what several African countries have experienced. I remember listening to a podcast in 2018 while I was taking a shower, and the topic was how Cape Town in South Africa was counting down to Day Zero – a day where there was going to be no more running water for any of the citizens. Most of the people there couldn’t even imagine using a clear bucket of water for flushing toilets or dishes – and here I was just wasting water excessively, as liters of clean water escape down the drain.

Agriculture comprises the biggest chunk of the Philippines' water use.

Agriculture comprises the biggest chunk of the Philippines' water use.

An Infrastructure Issue

With the seemingly perpetual supply of water in the Philippines, why does it still cost people money to use it? When I checked my latest water bill, I paid 360 pesos (7 USD) for using up 8 cubic meters, which meant the rate was 45 pesos (~1 USD) per cubic meter. This was just an effective rate, as I disregarded any other fees, charges, and tax. The fees, charges, and tax all vary depending on the user – for example, a commercial building would surely have to pay more in the way of fees because of the infrastructure costs that the water supplier has to deal with.

And when talking about infrastructure, this is probably the biggest issue the country faces in terms of supplying water to its citizens. Roughly 8 percent of the Philippines’ population do not have access to safe drinking water. This indicator alone tells you that infrastructure to distribute water to the lowest level is clearly lacking, because this metric should be zero or at least close to it. Here are how the other countries mentioned earlier compare:

  • United States: 0.8% of the population do not have access to safe drinking water
  • China: 4.5%
  • United Kingdom: 0%
  • Australia: 0%
  • France: 0%
  • Brazil: 1.9%
  • India: 5.9% of the population don’t have access. This is surprising since 31% of the country’s usable water is sourced from outside the country, as opposed to the Philippines which has no water dependency at all.

Looking at the other countries, 8 percent is too high of a figure for a portion of the population to not even have access to – a resource so basic to life and living. From personal experience, I’ve known firsthand the struggles in water supply. When I was living in a small town, there were days that there would be no drip at all coming from the faucets – and I was perplexed because there were no signs of drought, and our town was home to several bodies of freshwater – nor were there any industries that polluted these resources.

It was clear to me then, that the problem was infrastructure. The focus on water supply infrastructure can vary greatly throughout the country. You have your major Philippine cities – most of Manila, a few in either the Visayas and Mindanao regions – these are ones with more than one water supplier, and often privatized. And then on the other extreme are the small towns (like the one I used to live in) – and their infrastructure, ‘water district’, is run by the local government. The fact that water districts are run by local governments means instability – the next politician may not have that much care in maintaining the commodity, and worse, he may even use it to leverage his political standing.

Should we be Concerned About our Water Use?

The extent to which I value usable water can vary day to day. In days where the faucet lets out an endless stream, a forceful blast owing to the pressure tanks on top of my building – I could hardly care about water, much less care about how many unnecessary times I flush the toilet on a single use.

But when I hear a stifled choke as I turn the dial, and nothing comes out – my thoughts bleakly wander to Day Zero, and I start to think that the 85.14 billion cubic meters is just a myth to give citizens a sense of security.

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