Water is life: How can we sustain our water sources?

By Henrylito D. Tacio

It’s either too much water or none at all. That seems to be the gist of the post of former agriculture secretary Emmanuel Piñol in his social media account.

“For a country which literally is submerged in floodwater during the typhoon season, the Philippines is facing a major crisis which could impact on the lives of the next generation of Filipinos – the lack of water,” Piñol wrote.

You may find this absurd but that is the reality. More ridiculous is that no one, according to Piñol, is paying attention to the problem. “Sadder than this impending disaster is the fact that nobody seems to be concerned about it and that there is no wholistic plan of action to prevent it from happening,” he said.

When Metro Manila suffered a water shortage early this year, there were those who suggested establishing the Department of Water and Water Resources. But when La Mesa Dam was filled with water after a heavy rain, the proposal was completely forgotten.

Water crisis and climate change

Just like climate change, the water crisis should be given the attention it deserves. 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.”

“Water shortages lag only climate change and population growth as a threat to the human future,” Dr. Lester R. Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, echoed the same concern.

“The challenge is not to get enough water to drink, but to get enough water to produce our food,” he told this author in an exclusive interview. “We drink, in one form or another, perhaps 4 liters of water per day. But the food we consume each day requires 2,000 liters of water to produce, or 500 times as much.”

Growing rice is one of the great consumers of water. (Henrylito Tacio)

Agriculture is by far the biggest consumer of water around the world – nearly 70%, according to the United Nation’s 2018 Water Development Report.  “Agriculture is where future water shortages will be most acute,” wrote Michael S. Serrill in the newsweekly Time some years back.

All is not rosy. 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,” Postel told Agriculture magazine.

Not yet “water stressed”

The Philippines is not yet what hydrologists call a “water stressed” nation. That label applies to a country whose annual water supplies drop below 1,700 cubic meters per person. When supplies drop below 1,000 cubic meters per person per year, the country faces water scarcity for all or part of the year.

While the country is still not “water stressed,” it already has areas suffering from water scarcity.  Four river basins – Pampanga, Agno, Pasig-Laguna, and the island of Cebu – are experiencing water scarcity from time to time.

During summer months, many residents of Metro Manila – home to more than 10 million people – are coping with a “water supply crisis.” Metro Cebu in the Visayas and Davao City in Mindanao are already experiencing the same status.

Metro Manila, Metro Cebu, Davao, Angeles, Bacolod, Baguio, Cagayan de Oro, Iloilo and Zamboanga were identified by a study done by the Japan International Cooperation Agency in 1991 to be “water-critical areas.”

While water supply still outpaces demand, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources reported: “Water quality has been deteriorating at a considerable rate with the onset of the ‘90s, indicating grave problems ahead.”

The culprits

Surging population, use of water in industries and farming, and the worsening status of our bodies of water like rivers and lakes, are some of the culprits of the problem.  But some pundits believe the primary cause is deforestation.

Soon rivers like this will be gone as trees in the forests are being cut extensively and without reforestation. (Henrylito Tacio)

Cebu, which has no forest cover to speak of, is now dependent on its water source from neighboring Bohol. Other provinces may follow suit soon if residents and government officials overlook this fact.

“Without vegetative cover, especially the trees, the land’s water absorption capacity is greatly reduced,” said one expert. “If the forest perishes, so will the life of people,” commented another.

The question remains: Do trees really produce water?

“You ask an interesting question,” replied Dr. Patrick B. Durst, who was then the regional forestry officer of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Bangkok, when asked by this author.

“As with so many things related to forests and trees, the answer is not simple – certainly not as simple as many people would like to present,” he explained. “In the narrow sense, trees are not a source of water. In fact, as living organisms, trees are substantial consumers of water, particularly when growing healthily. This is why, for example, people sometimes plant fast-growing trees to help drain swamps; the trees consume water and draw down the water level.”

Conversely, water tables sometimes rise when trees are cleared from an area. Studies done at the Coweeta Hydrological Laboratory in North Carolina since 1934 showed “very clearly that there was scope of increased water yield by reducing forest vegetation.”

Water and trees

Water use by trees is also at the heart of the argument of many against the use of eucalyptus. In 1990, an estimated 10 million hectares – approximately one-quarter of tropical forest plantations – were planted with the said tree species. More than half of these were located in tropical Asia, including the Philippines.

Most of the virgin forests in the country are fast disappearing; what remains are mostly second-growth forests . (Henrylito Tacio)

“As a fast-growing species, eucalyptus uses a lot of water and may contribute to a lowering of water tables,” Dr. Durst pointed out. “The same is true of most fast-growing tree species. It seems, not illogically, that you need a lot of water to produce a lot of wood quickly.”

The next question is: What role do trees play in “producing” water?

“The answer is that trees (and more importantly healthy forests) are very important,” Dr. Durst explained. “The main benefit they provide is helping to intercept precipitation and facilitate its infiltration into the soil and ground water storage areas.”

Trees intercept rainfall; the Philippines is blessed with an average annual rainfall of 2.5 meters. But more importantly, healthy forests’ ground cover – composed of organic litter, twigs, small plants and fallen leaves – help trap water and hold it until it has an opportunity to soak into the ground soil.

In addition, roots – whether alive or decaying – provide additional pore space above that of normal soil texture for water to infiltrate into the ground. This is the reason why local springs and streams maintain a healthy flow when surrounded by protected micro-watersheds.

Role of watersheds

Father Pedro Walpole, of the Environment Science for Social Change, Inc., said that in a watershed, there is the interrelation of many resources.  “There are (also) ecological services that a watershed provides such as delivery of water as part of the water cycle, stable land-water dynamics, nutrient cycles, and a diversity of life forms,” he explained.

As such, “watershed management is not just a matter of managing water but of managing the land that delivers the water and coordinating the people in that management,” Fr. Walpole urged.

Watersheds constitute about 75% of the total land area of the Philippines. “Our country has a total of 119 proclaimed and 154 priority watersheds,” the Laguna-based Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCAARRD) said.

Aside from water, watersheds also provide vital resources like soil, forest range, wildlife and minerals.

However, not all of the watersheds in the country are in pristine status, the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) discloses. “Some are already affected by deforestation, pollution, and other unsustainable practices of humans, who are oblivious of the potential adverse effects,” it admits. “Climate change, ballooning population, and industrialization exacerbated the hazards to the sustainability of watersheds.”

Managing watersheds

To prevent further degradation on a national scale, PCAARRD convened several government agencies and came up with five steps in managing watersheds with the participation of surrounding communities:

Form a management team: Locals, as primary recipients of benefits of watersheds in the area, are likely to be interested in initiatives protecting their water source.  A watershed project management team composed of at least a team manager and representatives from local government units, non-government organizations, state universities and colleges, and environment officials is formed to be part of the Community Watershed Stewardship Program.

Characterize the watershed: Characterization is done through geographic information system mapping of the watershed, inventory and assessment of timber and water resources, evaluation of land cover and land use, and socio-economic, livelihood, and politico-institutional profiling of the communities and stakeholder analysis.

Assess the watershed’s vulnerability: Environmental hazards are identified and modeled out to illustrate possible impacts to communities.  This will help people visualize what courses of action to take in times of emergency situations, such as disasters.  More so, biophysical and anthropogenic factors as well as pollution sources which increase vulnerability are noted.

Equip watersheds with necessary instruments and conduct real-time monitoring:  In instrumentation and monitoring, five aspects are closely observed, such as stream discharge, water quality, meteorology, biodiversity, and erosion and sediment yield.

Develop an interactive online database for learning watersheds: A web-based watershed management system database contains comprehensive watershed profiles, map compendiums, real-time monitoring and vulnerability assessment system, and other pertinent data.

“Watersheds play a multi-functional role in every community,” PCAARRD reminds.  “Aside from providing water for domestic, agricultural and industrial purposes, watersheds in good condition serve as habitats to various plant and animal species and play ecological functions that keep flooding and other natural disasters at bay.” 

Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio

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