A Brewing Controversy at the Water District

Redempto Anda

The City government of Puerto Princesa last week expressed interest in selling bulk water to the Water District, saying it wants to ensure that there is a constant supply of water to city residents and avoid the shortage everyone had experienced during the past summer.


Negotiations are currently ongoing, on a technical working group level, between the City government and the Puerto Princesa Water District. Curiously, sitting in these meetings are representatives from the provincial government, participating as sort of advisers to the City.


It is out of character for the current city administration to suddenly be jumping the gun on a private cooperative in an ambitious bid to take over its core business of supplying water. Certainly, it wasn’t in the political agenda or campaign promise of the present administration to place water services under government control. So what gives?


What is likely to emerge from this deal is a scenario where the City government builds a reservoir in the same water sources currently being eyed by the Water District. It then sells this water to the local cooperative at a negotiated price. The cooperative, in turn, gets castrated and limits its role to mere distribution of water to its consumers through its existing piping infrastructure. Eventually, the awkward arrangement will obviate the coop’s usefulness and it will realize it will be better to give up the business altogether to whoever has gained the inside track on it.


This development should raise the collective eyebrow as it has all the ingredients of becoming another controversy similar to the power crisis we had been experiencing. Most of the players involved are in fact the same people. At this early stage of the ballgame, again the consumers and the public are in the dark as to what’s going on. This is a fait accompli in the making and I’m telling my wife and neighbors they should start asking questions this early.


The first question is: Why is the City government suddenly interested in the bulk water supply business? And don’t believe city spokesman Henry Gadiano telling you in his press release they just want to make sure you have water next summer. We’ve also heard already Capitol’s Gil Acosta assuring us the province is not interested in the bulk water business. Heaven help us with these spokesmen.


The City, or Capitol for that matter, is basically undermining the Water District while everyone is cluelessly taking their showers.


The Puerto Princesa Water District, a government regulated entity, has been sourcing and delivering water for as long as anyone can remember. They take the brunt of the public ire when our underground wells dry up as what happened last summer because of a prolonged drought.


The Water District has been trying to gain access to the Montible basin as it’s main source. They have long been awaiting the nod from the Department of Justice which owns the property, amidst rumors that certain parties are blocking it. They have the financing essentially approved by the bank, as they await for the signature of the justice secretary.


Instead of the City helping the Water District get its water rights, it now wants to operate the same target reservoir in Montible, deal with the DOJ by itself, and sell the water to the cooperative.


How many times have we heard the proposition that government is lousy at doing business and should just leave the commercial enterprise to the private sector?


It is obvious that this idea was a transposition of the original proposal publicly raised already by Gov. Jose Alvarez of the province selling bulk water to the water district. In one of his press briefings recently, water district manager Tony Romasanta said they are awaiting Capitol’s unsolicited proposal about this, stating at the same time that they were open to the idea. Apparently, it now becomes a City proposal.


Mayor Bayron is now asking the cooperative to abandon it’s expansion plan and share the business instead with the City and whoever they may bring to the table. The City plans to avail of a soft loan from a Department of Finance window to build the Montible reservoir. It will most likely end up contracting a private developer to run and manage the business in its behalf. Those details aren’t out in the open yet but the blueprints are unlikely to be inside the Mayor’s Office.


What we’ve heard as an overriding agenda of the City mayor is to get the Water District to reduce it’s current selling rate of P28/cubic meter to somewhere below it. Okay, it may reduce our water bill and make the mayor look good in time for next year’s election. But the cooperative will have to do away with it’s expansion and other development plans to compensate for its financial losses.


Is the coop happy with these developments? If you ask Tony Romasanta, he will give you a standard answer — that they are more than welcome if the City or Province wants to take over their water sourcing projects.


It must be tough sitting in the board of the Water District and realizing they are going through the same turbulence that is being experienced by Paleco because of the arm twisting and pressures exerted by local political leaders. In fact some of the board members of the water coop also sits in Paleco. Some others including its current chair Tony Go are just realizing how challenging their roles have become.


If the LGU’s main agenda is to take over or privatize the water cooperative, they should simply come out of the woodworks and subject the issue to an open, free and public debate. That is better than usurping the coop and issuing silly press releases.


And don’t expect the Water District officials to whine in public about this. Mr. Romasanta and company must have learned some lessons from Paleco not to mess with City Hall. Or should we make that Capitol?

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