Fortnight – Questions we neglect to ask


Fortnight – Questions we neglect to ask

IN Baguio City this time of the year, the problem is concededly seasonal: there is water supply shortage that sends the discourse between the community and the public utility, the Baguio Water District, to a cyclical back and forth.

         At some point a consumer who is lucky enough to get through the BWD complaints “hotline” to vent about not getting their supply on their supposed schedule would say, “nagbabayad naman kami ng tama at sa oras, pero atrasado yung serbisyo ninyo” (we pay on time and in the right amount but your service is always delayed).” Or the variation, “ang galing ninyong maningil, palpak naman ang serbisyo ninyo” (your billing is always prompt but your service is faulty). The habitual reply from the other end of the line is to refer the problem to the person in charge – an engineer or a technical functionary – who gets the flak if he or she fails to satisfactorily address the problem.

         Often this is the point of impasse and it has been taking place for decades. The consumer is left with the only “hopeful” option for a persuasive argument, and the other end of the line provides the customary riposte. That he is prompt with his payments means he should therefore deserve, at the very least, prompt service. 

Under ordinary circumstances, this pleading ought to be enough to merit an appropriate action from the service provider. But the reality with the city’s water service, especially at this time, is that it takes much aggravation on the part of the consumer (prodding on a daily basis, escalating towards flared tempers) to deal with the runaround response ad nauseam before any sort of palliative remedies are deployed.

There is this quiet acquiescence from old time Baguio residents that because the problem is typical of Baguio, there is a point of recovery in all of these and it is usually the end of the dry season. So then perhaps we can and have always “weather/ed” the problem. Besides, in the decades past, if the water situation becomes insufferable, we can always seek succor from the media, especially from the radio stations in another typical manner of publicly airing our grievances – “ipa-Bombo.”

Of late, consumers have found the benefits and convenience of social media such that some pages have sprouted to serve as a forum to convey concerns on water service or the lack of it. It appears that social media is no longer an alternative platform. If it is taking the place of traditional media as an instrument for public grievances, then this only affirms the standpoint that Baguio’s water problem is decades-old and even historically embedded.

         Whether aired on social media or traditional media, this approach usually works for the consumer in terms of a compartmentalized response to the problem. For instance, if the “problem area” is in Quezon Hill, then BWD customarily “troubleshoots” this area of concern. The same system applies in another problem area, perhaps at Dominican Hill or San Carlos Heights. 

This only illustrates the settled premise that the city’s public utility merely acts as a troubleshooter for the entire system. Remarkably, as the world turns, BWD still applies antiquated technologies in their troubleshooting schemes. For broken pipes, they usually do a “tie-out” which is actually BWD’s euphemism for sealing the leak with elastic rubber or in the vernacular, “lastiko.”

Not even when they talk about an “interconnection” to improve the supply of water does the system get past the troubleshooting stage. Not sure if they were deliberately trying to impress the public in their choice of the “technical” phrase “completes the interconnection” to mean that something is being done to address a shortfall in water supply. But on balance, nothing about what they said speaks of operational strategy or a permanent solution. Plain and simple, this is troubleshooting. Palliative. Stop-gap. Band aid.

         You don’t even have to take my word for it. They said it plainly in their recent public notice that the “interconnection” is their response to the situation in “problem areas” such as “Pinget, Pinsao, Fairview, Magsaysay, Quirino Hill, and Tam-awan.”  The information also suggests that due to the reduced yield of the deepwells at Buyog, Pinsao II, and Old Lucban, they needed to draw some of the supply from a presumably higher yielding deepwell at Malvar to boost the output of these low-yield water sources.

         But here is where BWD’s pronouncements become ambiguous. By their own admission, the decline in water supply is merely “seasonal.” They anticipate an escalation in the demand for water in the dry months but this demand is merely “artificial,” they said. They add that what brings this “artificial” demand are “tourist influx, returning residents, and transients.” Really? So, if what they mean is that tourism in the city and its demand factor is not natural, then why in heaven’s name do we keep singing the anthem that tourism is the lifeblood of the city’s economy?

         Their claim that tourism in the city is seasonal should indicate that this is already the natural (not artificial) scheme of things. Tourism is simply the norm; thus, they should have, in their manual of operations, a system that integrates this norm. Instead, because of this so-called artificiality, they have proudly declared in the same public pronouncement, that they have “activated its contingency measure to augment the water supply…by means of the BWD water delivery trucks.”  

         But the job order backlog at the BWD for water delivery during this season is counted in days if not weeks. The reason why the business of mobile water delivery also thrives among the private sector in this city is due to this spillover demand. Which brings us to another nebulous pronouncement from the BWD that these private water delivery operators who are also deepwell owners cause a decline in the yield of BWD groundwater sources because of “over-extraction” and “over-pumping.”

         Setting the profit motives of these private deepwell and water delivery operators aside for a moment, to say that this sector is the reason for the depleted yield of BWD’s wells does not make sense to me. BWD has the statutory right to drill production wells by reason of its mandate. This means they have the blanket authority to extract from the most productive parts of the water table at depths only they are allowed to drill.

         This implies that if a private individual is granted a permit to drill a well, most likely the permit is for domestic purposes only indicating that the individual is not allowed to drill at production depth. The domestic well is a “shallow” well which brings about the questions:  if they are over pumping and over-extracting – considering the variance in the depth of production wells against domestic wells – how do these private wells affect the operation and yield of BWD’s groundwater sources? And more to the point, if the BWD has the exclusive right to operate production wells, shouldn’t they instead be putting these private well owners out of business with the use of their more powerful pumps and motors against the private owner’s two-horsepower “Jetmatic?”

         These are mere conjectures made as a way to expand the argument beyond the consumer’s default charges of “prompt payment in expectation of prompt service.” This disconnect only means there is a problem in messaging. In bringing this out, the BWD might launch a polemic against me to the effect that these points emanate from my non-technical sensibilities. I say they should get off their technical philistinism so we can better understand their technical points. Not that the solution to the water problem (or crisis) is determined merely from a technical or engineering vantage.

         Or, maybe the public should ask questions more. Because if we only wait things out in expectation of a point of recovery, then we only survive or thrive in our own complacency.

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