6 Things to Know about the Philippine Water Supply and Sanitation Situation

Thanks to thousands of people working behind the scenes, the water infrastructure Philippines cities and farming communities will have in the future will be of much higher quality than  those made in the previous years. Water infrastructure planners and engineers are now drawing lessons from water management successes around the world, and they’re reshaping tried-and-tested solutions to meet local challenges.

However, the country still has a long way to go before it can meet its goal of delivering sanitary water to all Filipinos. Below are a few key facts surrounding Philippine water supply and sanitation that are informing current infrastructure developments.

1.) Only 47.34% Of Filipinos Have Access to Sanitary Water Supplies

A 2021 report by the  World Health Organization (WHO) and Unicef Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (JMP) found that only a little under half of Filipinos had consistent access to “safely managed drinking water.” While access to clean water in many areas may be significantly higher than the quoted 47.34% figure, the inconsistency of the supply and management of water sources means that most Filipinos are still at risk of contracting waterborne illnesses. 

However, there is reason to be hopeful. The same report showed that the country had consistently increased access to sanitary water supplies every year since 2015. This helps put the country closer to the goal of meeting its target of universal access to sanitary water by the year 2030.

2.) Agriculture Accounts for 85% Of Philippine Freshwater Usage

Some Filipinos are surprised to find that agriculture accounts for anywhere from 83-85% of the country’s consumption of freshwater supplies. Industrial, commercial, and residential use account for the remaining 15% according to data from the Asian Development Bank. 

In most countries, agriculture does account for a majority of water use. However, the agriculture sector’s water use in the Philippines is especially high thanks to rice cultivation. By some estimates, rice cultivation alone accounts for close to 70% of the country’s total water consumption. This is down to the use of water-intensive traditional field flooding techniques and the use of open-air irrigation infrastructure.

3.) Many of the Country’s Water Systems Are Outdated

Parts of the country’s water infrastructure date back to the Spanish and American colonial eras, and more of it harks back to the postwar era. The age of water infrastructure is not necessarily a problem by itself, as older structures and equipment may still be reliable if given regular maintenance. 

Rather, the main issue tends to be the design specifications of older infrastructure, as these assets were mostly intended to serve smaller populations. Due to urban migration, many local water systems are being strained beyond capacity, as they are now serving a much larger population than originally intended. In many cases, these local systems are reliant on underground supplies, which are often slow to regenerate.

Thanks to new water treatment technologies, more sources of water can now be tapped, permitting cities access to previously unviable water supplies. For example, Davao’s Apo Agua Infrustructura water project is supplanting Davao’s old underground aquifer system with sanitized water drawn from the nearby Tamugan River, a much more sustainable water source.

4.) Thousands of Filipinos Die from Waterborne Illnesses Each Year

Many Filipinos do not realize how critical access to sanitary water is. According to the World Health Organization, up to 139,000 Filipinos died in 2016 due to waterborne illnesses such as cholera, diarrhea, and dysentery. The vast majority of these deaths would have been preventable with direct access to safe water. 

While the country has made significant progress in delivering sanitary water to far-flung populations since 2016, there remains much work to be done to ensure no Filipinos succumb to preventable waterborne diseases. 

5.) Pollution, Overpopulation, and Climate Change Are Major Near-Term Threats

At present, the Philippines as a whole has adequate water supplies. However, these supplies are not always close to major population centers. Developed sources close to cities are facing problems regenerating water levels during the dry season and the overall water quality is also declining.

In cases where supplies are close to cities, human activity creates pollution that lowers the quality of water and reduces access, particularly for poorer urban families. These supplies are also being over-exploited due to the steep rise in urban populations. Water systems that rely on underground aquifers are particularly vulnerable as these take a long time to regenerate.

Additionally, climate change is raising seawater levels. This is causing previously viable water sources to be infiltrated by seawater, reducing water quality. Hotter dry seasons are also impeding the regeneration of water tables during some months out of the year. These problems have further increased pressure on the finite freshwater supplies that Filipinos have access to.

6.) All These Issues Are Solvable

Thanks to the efforts of government units and private enterprises, water infrastructure in the Philippines has improved significantly in recent years. Better systems are being built to supplement existing ones, and more sustainable sources are being tapped with the help of advanced water treatment technologies. Water distribution networks are also expanding to bring water and sanitation to previously unserved areas.

Even with all these challenges to our water supplies, the country is slowly but surely moving forward in modernizing its water infrastructure. Through better water management and infrastructure projects, the country may yet meet its dream of a water-secure future.

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