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Is pollution relative?

(Article published in the Oct 21, 2009 issue of Manila Standard Today)  

It was probably inevitable that, after the initial proponent of the rehabilitation of Wawa Dam had demonstrated the logic of his project, crab mentality would rear its ugly head. The successful proponent must be brought down and the crabs’ tool for disparagement is emotionally charged accusation of pollution.

 Barely seven months after the administrator himself of the Manila Water Sewerage System (MWSS), which is the government bureaucracy tasked, among others, “to ensure an uninterrupted and adequate supply and distribution of potable water for domestic and other purposes at just and equitable rates”, had accepted the offer, on 07 March 1997, of a private proponent, San Lorenzo Ruiz Builders & Developers Group, Inc., to undertake what was then known as the Montalban River Project, a senior official in the MWSS, publicly took a position contrary to his boss’.

 Said senior official, obviously in an attempt to derail the Montalban River Project, was put on record, on 24 November 1997, as saying that Wawa River’s water was polluted and thus unfit for human consumption.  Results of a laboratory test of the water taken from the Wawa dam for six days in October 1997 were given to media to spread the information that there were most probably 3,000 units of coliform bacteria per 100 milligrams of water, most likely from fecal waste of humans and other animals. That extent of concentration per 100 milligrams is far in excess of the allowable 100.  It was also bruited about that the water also exceeded the limits of biochemical oxygen demand, oil and grease, and other substances like nitrates. Hence, Wawa river’s water was labeled “polluted” and unfit for human consumption.


Logically, the characterization of the water as polluted should remain regardless of whoever might be the person or entity proposing to make use of it. After all, the defect is in the water and not in the person or entity that is proposing to use it.  Hence, the mere change in who utilizes the water ought logically have no impact on the condemnation of the quality of the water being utilized.

 But things do happen sometimes in defiance of logic, at least in the Philippines.  Four years after its water was said to be “polluted”, the Wawa River was, by a new project proponent, surprisingly considered as a suitable and adequate “raw water source [that] “will support our Wawa Dam Water System Reactivation Project as well as the other expansion projects to serve the East Zone.” All of a sudden, strangely gone as if it never existed was the characterization that the Wawa’s water was polluted.

 And stranger still, barely four days later, the very same person in the government bureaucracy who screamed “pollution” in 1997, this time expressed full support in favor of the new proponent’s use of Wawa River as a raw water source. By some strange alchemy, what used to be polluted ceased to be polluted. Simply because a new party had come in, even if its proposal was substantially identical to its predecessor’s.

 The pollution scare was apparently so vanquished and cleared away by the entry of this new proponent that the MWSS Regulatory Board, staking its reputation on the future performance of the new proponent, eagerly permitted the collection in advance of the amount of P732 million in anticipation of its purported development of the Wawa River Dam Project, designed to deliver 50 million liters daily (MLD).

 Forget for the time being that the advance is at variance with the standard government policy of allowing recovery by the project proponent of its capital expenditures only after the project has been finished. Forget, in addition, that the proponent committed, in seeking to collect that advance, to construct a 10-million litter reservoir and lay out transmission mains both for raw and for treated water. Said construction was to commence in 2003 and end in 2005, but, to the best of my knowledge, up to now such project has not even started.

 What is relevant, for purposes of this piece, is the undeniably firm conviction of the powers that be that, at least as of that time when the advance was permitted, Wawa River was indeed worth developing. That was why, in a manner of speaking, it was putting someone else’s money where its mouth was.  The subliminal suggestion is that, by implication, Wawa River’s water was not, and in fact up to now, was really not polluted.

 But hark, the scare of pollution of Wawa River is making a come back.  Last August, on the 28th to be exact, MWSS Administrator Diosdado  Allado was quoted as saying that the Wawa Dam in Montalban was “hardly a viable alternative” to Laiban Dam, adding that “the water table is also contaminated by informal settlers and a livestock facility in the area.”

 So, which is which? Is Wawa’s water polluted? Or not? Or does it depend? On who is going to develop Wawa? Or on who the big shot is that is sponsoring Laiban in lieu thereof?