Manila Water takes blame for shortage
Sorry, but let’s not talk about a refund just yet.
The president of Manila Water Co. apologized to the public on Monday, saying he was taking full responsibility for Metro Manila’s water woes, as he, along with waterworks officials and other stakeholders, faced a hostile House panel.
But Ferdinand dela Cruz, also Manila Water’s chief executive officer, was silent on his company’s willingness to refund thousands of inconvenienced consumers in the east sector, where many households had either been suffering from no water or low water pressure since March 6.
“I am holding myself accountable for the sudden drop in our service level to your constituents who we have served for 21 years,” a contrite Dela Cruz told the House Metro Manila development committee.
“March 6, 2019, is a date I will not forget as Manila Water president. I know the suffering your constituents have suffered, whether they be rich or poor,” he said.
Dela Cruz’s words drew praise from a number of House leaders, who assured him the hearing was not intended to put Manila Water in the hot seat.
“We didn’t call this hearing to assign blame on anyone,” Majority Leader Fredenil Castro said. “We assure you that the very intention is to go to the bottom of the case, study it and prevent it from happening again,” he said.
But that did not stop antagonistic questions directed by other lawmakers at Dela Cruz on whether he would be stepping down or if his company would be refunding consumers for its shortcomings.
“When are you resigning?” asked Rep. Lito Atienza of Buhay party-list.
The executive replied: “As I’ve said, I’m taking accountability for what happened. I am prepared to resign for failing customers, but my focus right now is restoring service.”
Moments later, Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate asked Dela Cruz if consumers who had had no water for the past few days would still be required to pay for the days when there was no water pouring from the tap.
“They will still pay a minimum amount,” the CEO admitted.
“Even if there’s no water pouring out … now my question: Will you refund consumers?” Zarate inquired.
“There’s no discussion yet on that because our focus is restoration of the service,” Dela Cruz said.
“Are you willing to refund even if there’s no discussion yet?” the congressman pressed him.
Dela Cruz replied: “We will follow the prescribed process of MWSS (Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System) as a regulatory office.”
An irate Zarate scolded him: “Here you are now saying sorry, but it’s pure incompetence [on your part].”
Patrick Ty, MWSS chief regulator, similarly endured a skewering from lawmakers, as he answered questions on whether the agency could penalize the water concessionaires for their failure to serve consumers according to the terms of the concession agreement.
No fine, penalty
Ty said the deal struck in 1997, when water services in Metro Manila were privatized, had no provisions on “fines and penalties” for either Manila Water or Maynilad Water Services Inc., which services the western sector of Metro Manila.
He argued that his office had been pushing for new legislation to give it more teeth to run after the concessionaires.
But his claim was challenged by lawmakers after Dela Cruz said there was actually a mechanism for Manila Water to be punished.
“The penalty will be in the form of the expenses we will use to fix this problem and that we will not be allowed to recover this” by charging consumers, Dela Cruz said.
At that point, Ty, along with the other resource persons, was asked to take an oath on the truth of his testimony, as the committee chair, Rep. Winston Castelo of Quezon City, expressed misgivings about the official’s honesty.
Zarate said that since Manila Water was apparently “willing to pay penalties,” it was clear that the “regulator is the problem.”
“You allow yourselves to be inutile as regulator at the expense of consumers,” he said.
Asked if he would step down, Ty said: “We inherited this problem and we are prepared to face this.”
Toward the end of the hearing, Marikina Rep. Bayani Fernando said Dela Cruz, having owned up to his mistakes, should take the initiative of refunding customers, considering “you have admitted you’re at fault.”
Fernando, however, went easy on the executive, saying he should not resign, having earned the former’s admiration for apologizing to the public.
Dela Cruz recalled the events that led to water rationing in large swaths of its service area.
La Mesa reserve
On March 6, the La Mesa reserve breached the critical level of 69 meters, preventing Manila Water from getting 150 million liters per day (MLD) from the dam, as the water level “went below the lowest opening it could flow into to reach our water treatment plants in Balara.”
Without the additional 150 MLD, “we cannot fully serve the peak demand at sufficient pressure,” he said.
Dela Cruz said Manila Water had contingency measures to plug the deficit, such as taking water from Laguna Lake through the Cardona water treatment plant, reactivating deep wells, and developing new deep well sources.
Manila Water earlier said the plant in Cardona, Rizal province, that would filter water from Laguna Lake had yet to be activated.
What went wrong?
When advisories were issued about La Mesa’s declining water levels, people in both affected and unaffected areas began storing water to prepare for the water interruption, Dela Cruz said.
“This unpredictable demand profile upset the planned refilling schedules of our 28 network reservoirs and stressed our 20 pumping stations,” he said.
He said this led to a snowball effect that “made it extremely difficult to be accurate in our subsequent service advisories.”
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.