2 SC rulings on sewage connections unleash nightmarish scenarios
MANILA, Philippines – Two Supreme Court decisions made eight years apart are creating future concerns for Metro Manila’s two water concessionaires, their customers and the public in general with repercussions carrying the weight of an entire reservoir of water.
In 2011, the high court, ruling on a case mandating the cleanup of Manila Bay, gave the two Metro Manila concessionaires—Manila Water and Maynilad—until 2037 to complete for the connection of households to their sewage systems, a period that the two companies were all too glad to heed.
But in August 2019, the high court issued another, seemingly related ruling that penalized the two concessionaires and ordered them to pay P921 million each in fines for failure to finish sewage projects in their service areas.
The two companies would be fined P322,102 every day of delay in the completion of their sewage connections.
But at the heart of both rulings, seemingly in disagreement, was Section 8 of the Clean Water Act.
The first application of the law’s provision was on the 2011 case filed by former Environment Secretary Lito Atienza, now Buhay representative.
The second was a case involving a continuing mandamus to clean up Manila Bay.
It is not clear yet which ruling prevails. Although both by the Supreme Court, attention is focused on the one issued in August 2019 especially by the two water supply firms, a group of consumers and commuters.
The August 2019 ruling gave the two concessionaires five years to complete their sewage connections. It means millions of households getting connected to sewage systems in five, instead of at least 20 years. It would also mean road diggings, lots of it.
The group Bantay Konsyumer, Kuryente, Kalsada (BK3) had been keeping watch on the decision and making computations.
In a previous statement, it dwelt on what could easily be seen in plain sight when the two concessionaires start pouring their effort, money, men and equipment into sewage connections to finish these in five years—massive diggings in the roads of Metro Manila.
In their current state, Metro Manila’s roads had already caused the driving guide application Waze to tag the metropolis as the world’s worst place to drive in.
Average speed on Edsa, the metropolis’ main highway, is 20 kph at best and efforts to increase this are often spotty. President Rodrigo Duterte had promised a pleasant surprise in December on Edsa when traversing Cubao to Makati would take just 20 minutes.
But even that could be an exaggeration as officials of the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) said in order to do that, a vehicle has to be moving at least 120 kph, something that a quick look on Edsa would show to be an impossible goal.
One of the measures the MMDA took to move vehicles and people a little faster on Edsa was to clear alternative routes to encourage motorists, especially those driving private vehicles, to take these side roads and avoid Edsa.
When Isko Moreno took over the reins of the Manila City government, road clearing suddenly became a craze as he showed it could be done with political will.
The order to clear roads has become a nationwide campaign, with the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) warning local officials of penalties for failure to heed an order to remove obstructions on local and national roads.
Use these as a backdrop for what BK3 said is likely to happen when water concessionaires start to finish in five years what they had earlier been made to believe they could finish at a slower pace in 20 years.
At least 1,000 kilometers of roads, streets, alleyways, front yards would have to be dug up to connect household sewer pipes to main lines. And it’s not one digging after another. It would have to be simultaneous to beat the five-year timeline. Every digging is a roadblock that means hundreds of meters, if not kilometers, of vehicles moving in a slow queue.
Multiply that on a scale true for the entire Metro Manila and BK3 said there would be “catastrophe.”
“Nothing will move,” a previous statement issued by BK3 said.
Losses as a result of road gridlocks, estimated to run to billions of pesos a year by Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) would have to be adjusted and multiplied at least 5 times.
Traffic would be at a standstill, which would discourage public utility vehicle drivers and operators from plying their routes, leaving commuters with very few options including walking to their destinations.
Stress levels of motorists and commuters, already unhealthy, were likely to spike. Stress-related diseases are already among the top killers in the Philippines.
Costs in terms of money would be staggering. If the Supreme Court ruling required the concessionaires to pay more than P900 million in fines each, rushing sewage connections to beat the five-year deadline and stop bleeding more than P300,000 a day would be at least double that figure.
Being businesses, the two concessionaires were expected to recoup the billions of pesos poured into the rush. Water rates, according to BK3, could rise by as low as P16 per cubic meter to more than P20. Water being a basic need, the brunt of the water rate hike was likely to be carried by the poor.
In explaining why the sewage connections had not been 100 percent finished, the two concessionaires, in the Supreme Court deliberations, pointed to several conditions that had not been met, mainly by government agencies that had committed to provide what was needed for the sewage projects.
In the 2011 decision, the court acknowledged the shortcoming of government in the sewage projects. Agencies had failed to lay down the groundwork for the water concessionaires to connect households to sewer mains. No land from local governments to be used as a site for sewage plants. No overall plan from the national government.
While it appeared to be finger-pointing, the argument of the two concessionaires seemed to point to a bureaucracy apparently lost in its own mazes. No plans, no land, no action have prevented any movement forward on total sewage connection.
The companies’ argument boiled down to two words: good faith.
The crux of the two rulings, Section 8 of the Clean Water Act of 2004, required the Metropolitan Manila Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) and its concessionaires, meaning Manila Water and Maynilad, and the governments of highly urbanized cities to connect existing sewer lines in households, subdivisions or buildings to available sewer systems five years from the effectivity of the Clean Water Act, or by May 2009.
The 2011 ruling of the high court, however, recognized the logistical nightmare of trying to beat the law’s deadline. The court gave all the agencies and companies involved in the sewerage issue until 2037 to comply.
It was an acknowledgment of the time that government agencies needed to finish preparatory work for the massive sewerage connections.
“To protect public interest, the 2037 deadline must prevail and be followed,” the high court ruling said.
Eight years after the Supreme Court said that, it appeared to reverse itself in August 2019, requiring those involved in the sewage issue to finish everything in five years.
And the nightmares of roads filled with diggings and water rates increasing almost tenfolds were let loose.
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