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International relations

Manila's water shortage turns spotlight on China-funded dam

Duterte's government seeks to fast-track new water source for Philippine capital

Residents line up with containers as they wait for water trucks in Mandaluyong, in Metro Manila, on March 13.   © AP

MANILA -- A water shortage has hit thousands of households in the Philippine capital, forcing President Rodrigo Duterte's administration to step in and putting the spotlight on a contentious China-funded dam.

Rotating interruptions of water service have been happening for nearly a week in Metropolitan Manila's "east zone" concession -- which covers business districts, major hospitals and over 6 million customers -- and could be extended for months amid the El Nino dry weather condition.

Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez said the shortage should prompt accelerated construction of the Beijing-funded Kaliwa Dam, which opponents say may harm the environment, indigenous people and Philippine sovereignty.

"Had this been done before, the water crisis could have been much less of a threat," Dominguez told reporters on Wednesday. "I'm sure the MWSS [Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System] would convince contractors to move faster than originally planned."

The 12.2 billion peso ($231 million) dam project, which aims to ensure that Metro Manila has an adequate water supply, was put out to tender during the previous administration of President Benigno Aquino under a public-private partnership program. Philippine and European companies considered bidding for the project but failure of a pre-auction process led to delays.

Duterte, hoping to speed things up, abandoned the public-private model, opting for funding from China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping gave his blessing for a loan during his state visit to Manila in November last year. China Energy Engineeringbagged the contact for the project, which is scheduled for completion by 2023. Apart from water, Beijing is seeking to invest in several strategic industries in the Philippines, including telecommunications, transportation and energy.

Activists from Bayan Muna, a left-wing political party, on Thursday said the Duterte administration is using the water issue to justify the project, which they have branded "onerous."

But Ayala Corp.-led Manila Water, the private concessionaire of Manila's east zone, said the shortage was due to supply woes that have been exacerbated by El Nino.

"It's simply a matter of demand outpacing the constant supply," said Geodino Carpio, Manila Water's chief operating officer. He said the company had already used up the water reserve intended for the El Nino dry spell.

Demand in Metro Manila's east zone concession has reached 1.75 billion liters per day, versus a supply of 1.6 billion liters, driven by population growth and increased economic activity in the area.

Metro Manila, the country's economic nerve center, sources around 96% of its water from the Angat Dam in nearby Bulacan Province. Carpio said the Kaliwa Dam in Quezon Province, which is expected to produce 600 million liters of water per day, will ensure water supplies in the capital.

"With climate change, we don't have sources that are adequate today and the next major water source, Kaliwa Dam, is going to hopefully be energized by 2023," he added.

Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles on Wednesday said an executive order is in the works. The order, he said, "would help the government better resolve the many issues involving the supply and distribution of water."

Incumbent senators seeking re-election in the May midterms have called for a congressional inquiry next week. "What we are seeing now is not normal and something that our households and farmers do not deserve," said Senate Committee on Public Services Chair, Sen. Grace Poe.

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