PHL falls behind ASEAN neighbors in water access

Residents use water from a deep well in downtown Iloilo City. Water quality also remains a concern in the Philippines. The Environment and Management Bureau’s National Water Quality Status Report (2014-2019) assessed 185 inland surface waters, finding 40 to 73 percent rated as fair and 13 to 15 percent as poor. (Francis Allan L. Angelo photo)

By Francis Allan L. Angelo

The Philippines continues to fall behind its ASEAN neighbors in ensuring universal access to safe water and sanitation services, according to a recent policy note by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA).

Despite improvements, the Philippines struggles to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 6, which aims for universal access to safe and affordable drinking water and adequate sanitation by 2030.

The policy note highlights that while the Philippines has an estimated annual freshwater supply of 146 billion cubic meters, withdrawals are already at 91 billion cubic meters.

Moreover, while 97.6 percent of Filipino families use improved drinking water sources and 84 percent have access to basic sanitation services, the Philippines is still behind other countries in Southeast Asia in terms of access to basic sanitation services.

Access to these services is highest in Singapore (100%) followed by Malaysia (99.7%), Vietnam (96%), Brunei (94%), and Cambodia (88%).

NEDA’s policy note also highlights significant challenges in the Philippine water sector, including the reliance on unsafe water sources and inadequate sanitation facilities.

According to the 2020 Annual Poverty Indicators Survey (APIS), about 8.4% of Filipino households depend on potentially unsafe water sources like unprotected wells and tanker trucks, while around 2.9% continue to rely on unsafe drinking water.

“Insufficient water and sanitation access directly and adversely affect the health and wellbeing of many Filipino families,” the report states. This lack of access perpetuates poverty, especially in marginalized communities, and poses risks to public health and environmental sustainability.

The Philippines’ water resources, though abundant, are unevenly distributed across regions, exacerbating the problem.

Regions like Central Visayas, which holds only 2% of the country’s water resources but supports 7.4% of the national population, face severe water scarcity.

The report highlights the economic implications of poor water management. According to the World Bank, 42 percent of the Philippine workforce is employed in water-intensive sectors such as agriculture, tourism, and semiconductors. However, current freshwater withdrawals of 91 billion cubic meters annually strain the country’s water resources​.

The Aquanomics report predicts that water-related hazards like storms, floods, and droughts could reduce the country’s GDP by USD 124 billion between 2022 and 2050, with storms and floods accounting for over 97 percent of these projected losses​.

Water quality also remains a concern. The Environment and Management Bureau’s National Water Quality Status Report (2014-2019) assessed 185 inland surface waters, finding 40 to 73 percent rated as fair and 13 to 15 percent as poor.

Similarly, 52 to 68 percent of 22 coastal and marine waters were rated as fair, and 23 to 44 percent as poor. These issues are exacerbated by pollution, poor infrastructure, and population density, which threaten public health and economic stability.

Efforts to address these issues include the proposed establishment of a Department of Water Resources (DWR) and a Water Regulatory Commission (WRC). These bodies aim to create a unified framework for water governance and regulation, addressing current challenges in governance, infrastructure planning, and management.

“In light of the challenges our country is experiencing under a fast-changing climate, the push for sound water governance is more urgent than ever before. As outlined in the Philippine Development Plan 2023-2028, our strategies are aimed at strengthening water security, ecological integrity, and resilience to hazards by improving water governance through integrated water resource management. This move is also in line with the Integrated Water Resources Management Plan, which aims to ensure that everyone has access to sufficient water supply at any given time,” NEDA Secretary Arsenio M. Balisacan said.

The policy note advocates for integrated water resource management (IWRM) to enhance water governance.

The Philippine Development Plan (PDP) 2023-2028 emphasizes strengthening water security and ecological integrity through improved infrastructure programs like the National Irrigation Master Plan (NIMP) and the National Sustainable Water Resource Management Plan (NSWRMP).

The proposed DWR would consolidate the functions of existing agencies such as the National Water Resources Board (NWRB), the River Basin Control Office (RBCO) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), and the Local Water Utilities Administration (LWUA).

This consolidation aims to create a unified framework for water governance and regulation, addressing institutional fragmentation and improving infrastructure planning and management​.

Additionally, the WRC would serve as an independent economic regulator, responsible for granting licenses, regulating tariffs, and ensuring compliance with performance standards among water and sanitation service providers.

This would harmonize frameworks, methodologies, and practices in economic regulation, providing greater clarity and certainty for service providers and encouraging public and private investment in water supply and sanitation services​.

However, effective implementation requires overcoming current governance challenges​.

Secretary Balisacan said the overlapping and conflicting mandates across many areas in water governance hampers the ability of government to improve water service delivery and resource protection.

“Without a central agency responsible for water policy, there is a heavy reliance on ad hoc coordination. Conflicting priorities among agencies result in uncoordinated planning and strategies, as well as inconsistencies in the enforcement of water policies and standards,” Balisacan said.

As the country strives to improve its water management systems, the need for comprehensive and coordinated efforts remains critical. The establishment of the DWR and WRC is seen as a pivotal step towards achieving water security and sustainable development in the Philippines.

“Our push for the creation of a central entity in the water sector will also help us institutionalize the collection and consolidation of water-related data that will help us produce more informed assessments and formulate smarter solutions in the utilization and management of our resources,” Balisacan said.