THINK ON THESE by Henrylito D. Tacio“Unlike the energy crisis, the water crisis is life threatening.  The level of suffering and misery is almost beyond comprehension.” – Klaus Toefer, former executive director of the United Nations Environment Program

Water covers 71 percent of the world’s surface, representing a volume of 1,400 million cubic kilometers, according to United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).   Ninety-seven point five percent is too salty to be consumed or used for industrial or agricultural purposes.  Fresh water represents 2.5 percent of the water total.

In the Philippines, water is everywhere but despite this fact, there is still water shortage.  Indeed, it is a mystery why our country, which is made up of 7,107 islands, should experience water crisis.

One national daily reported this fact: “Water crisis is already a reality and a nightmare among 15% of all families in the Philippines who do not have access to safe drinking water.”

A professor at the National Institute of Geological Science at the University of the Philippines predicted that by 2020 – that’s two years from now! – the following provinces will be affected by water scarcity: Agusan del Norte and Sur, Bukidnon, Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna, Metro Manila, Rizal, and Surigao del Norte and Sur,

No province in Davao Region is included but a study conducted by the Japan International Cooperation Agency some years back singled out Davao City as one of the nine major cities in the country to be “water-critical” areas – along with Metro Manila, Metro Cebu, Baguio, Angeles, Bacolod, Iloilo, Cagayan de Oro and Zamboanga.

Unlike in Metro Manila or Metro Cebu, Davao City doesn’t have too many residents yet but in the near future some of the Dabawenyos may soon experience waking up without water flowing from their faucets.

When talking about water problems, there are actually three kinds.  One is water scarcity, which happens during summer and long drought.  During the rainy months, there is plenty of water but flooding is a constant struggle.

Then, there’s the problem of poor water quality which is brought about by domestic, commercial, industrial and mining waste.

It is the latter that makes the Philippines a country with waterborne illnesses.  “An estimated 50 percent of typhoid cases (in the Philippines) are due to water pollution, sanitation conditions and hygiene practices,” a World Bank report noted.  “Outbreaks are commonly associated with contaminated water supply systems.”

Although the government is trying its best to provide Filipinos potable water, its efforts are outwitted by rapid population growth.  For instance, from 1995 to 2005, the government has successfully provided water for an additional 23.04 million people. However, the population increased by 24.5 million over the same period.

Aside from rapid population growth, water crisis in the Philippines can also be traced to degradation condition of the environment and pollution.  According to study done by the Asian Development Bank, only about 33% of river systems are classified as suitable public water supply sources, and up to 58% of groundwater is contaminated.

Of the 457 water bodies classified by Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), only 51% meet the 1996 water quality standards. Sixteen rivers are considered biologically dead during dry months.

“Many of our rivers, lakes and seas are now polluted because they are being used as dumpsites and as toilets,” admitted Lito Atienza when he was the DENR secretary under the administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.  “In fact, domestic wastes account for more than 50% of the degradation of our bodies of water.”

Atienza was called “Champion of Philippine Waters” by environmental activists and groups for his efforts to rehabilitate the country’s bodies of water.  “Some rivers, which used to produce bountiful harvests of fish, now emit foul odor. These heavily polluted rivers also create health problems and are partly responsible for the death of 15 Filipinos each day due to lack of access to clean water supply and poor sanitation,” he said.

Other causes of water problems in the country include wasteful and inefficient use of water, saltwater intrusion, high non-revenue water levels due to leaks and illegal connections, and denudation of forest cover.  “Combined with growing population pressures, it is becoming more difficult to provide basic water services,” the ADB study surmised.

Dr. Sandra Postel, director of the Massachusetts-based Global Water Policy Project, believes water problems will be right there with climate change as a threat to the human future.  More importantly, higher global temperatures will worsen the current water problems.

“Although the two are related, water has no substitutes.  We can transition away from coal and oil to solar, wind and other renewable energy sources.  But there is no transitioning away from water to something else,” wrote Postel in an email sent to this columnist.

“Water is the most precious asset on Earth,” Postel pointed out.  “It is the basis of life.”  Next to air, water is the element most necessary for survival.  A normal adult is 60- to 70-percent water. A person can live without food for almost two months, but without water only for a few days.

A household of five needs at least 120 liters per day to meet basic needs – for drinking, food preparation, cooking and cleaning up, washing and personal hygiene, laundry, house cleaning, according to the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, a global environmental group.

A person needs at least 24 liters of water daily or one liter per hour.  Even when he breathes, he still needs water.  “Our lungs must be moist to take in oxygen and excrete carbon dioxide,” wrote Leroy Perry in an article.  “It is possible to lose half a liter of liquid each day just by exhaling.”