Country Water Actions

Country water actions are stories that showcase water reforms undertaken by individuals, communities, organizations, and governments in Asia-Pacific countries and elsewhere.

Philippines: Securing Water Rights for All
July 2007

By Cezar Tigno ADB Web Writer In the Philippines, only a handful knows that water rights are granted by the government. In contrast, many water users do not have permits as proof of water rights. Discover the travails and triumphs of an inconspicuous government agency as it expands water rights coverage to secure water rights for all. LICENSING THE RIGHT TO WATER Every morning, Benjamin Villanueva gazes across his rice field with a contented sigh. He knows his crops are getting enough water and a fruitful harvest is in the horizon, just like in the past twenty years. “I never have to worry about where to get water for my crops. We have our water permit,” Benjamin said. By “we,” Benjamin is referring to the 73 other farmer-members of the San Benito Communal Irrigation Association. Together, they own 137 hectares of land in Laguna province, south of Manila. By “water permit,” he meant the license and “water right” granted by the Philippines’ National Water Resources Board (NWRB), the country’swater apex body. “We’ve been irrigating these fields with water from the Santol River ever since we got our permit in 1986,” Benjamin proudly said. “We can get up to 600 gallons per second of water.” The Philippines’ 1976 Water Code explicitly says that all water—from under the ground or flowing in rivers—is owned and protected by the government, and that water users need to secure a permit to use natural water resources. Not every water user in the Philippines has a permit, though, or even knows enough about it to secure it. The gruelling task of implementing the Water Code and issuing water permits falls unto NWRB’s hands. NWRB Executive Director Ramon Alikpala says, “Many people don’t realize that getting their water permit not only means securing their water rights. It also means we can allocate water more effectively to different water users and maintain ecological balance.” WATER USERS AND THEIR RIGHTS The Philippines’ Water Code defines the extent of the rights and obligation of water users. All water users are born with fundamental water rights, some acquire water rights, and some have water rights thrust upon them. The Water Code recognizes human beings’ fundamental right to water—it exempts drinking, cooking, bathing, and other domestic or household uses from the permit requirement. People also do not need water permits to collect water from rivers or lakes using hand carried receptacles, or to use these waters for bathing or washing, watering or dipping of domestic or farm animals, and for boating or water transportation. Water users who use water beyond domestic purposes acquire their water rights when the NWRB grants their application for a water permit. Mostly bulk water users, they include municipalities or towns that extract water for community purposes farmer organizations that use water for irrigation, like the San Benito farmers commercial water users that extract water for power generation, fisheries, livestock raising, industrial, recreational, and other purposes. The 1997 Indigenous Peoples Rights Act thrust water rights upon indigenous peoples. Traditional water use practices, though not mentioned in the Water Code, are protected by the Act, which bestows customary water rights to indigenous communities. IMPLEMENTING THE WATER CODE It is difficult to believe that many people have yet to hear about the 30-year-old Water Code, and some of the few who know about it believe it an unnecessary government regulation. “We’ve been fighting against this idea for years. We need to strictly regulate the use of our water resources, or it’s the environment that suffers,” Alikpala said. Many people still extract surface and groundwater at will because they don’t know that they need permits to do so. Alikpala explains, “When you extract water from the underground water table, you not only risk polluting the entire system, but also run the risk of land subsidence. This is what is happening in the CAMANAVA area.” Composed of four cities in northern Metro Manila, the CAMANAVA area has been sinking slowly because of groundwater overextraction, causing frequent floods.

But the Water Code’s enforcement has been derailed by the lack of public awareness and the NWRB’s modest financial and human resources. “We are a small government office. A lot of water users probably don’t even know we exist,” Alikpala said ruefully. It didn’t help that NWRB has a lengthy and taxing permit procedures, or that lost application are regular occurrences. GRANTING WATER RIGHTS, LEFT AND RIGHT Despite the NWRB’s limitations, it has made remarkable progress in the last decade. The development of a new “Water Permit Knowledge-base,” that tracks individual applications speeded up the granting of permits. A team of NWRB staff also overhauled and simplified the application process. NWRB also started issuing “cease and desist” orders on violators, imposed penalties on illegal water users, and cancelled permits of users that use more water than their permits allow. In 2006, the NWRB butted heads against Manila’s five-star hotels, malls, and other high-profile businesses that have been extracting water from deep wells —without water permits. Some of them now have their water rights affirmed. Alikpala said, “Big users are now more conscious in making sure they have their water permit and other necessary government requirements such as the environmental compliance certificate.” NWRB is also planning to strengthen the capacity of its deputized agents, such as provincial water districts, that serve as NWRB’s arm in remote rural areas. “It’s really the small and far-off users, such as 1-hectare farms and beach resorts in the provinces, that we do have problems with,” Alikpala said, “But because of NWRB’s limited resources, we have to prioritize areas where there are water scarcity and high density population issues.” More dynamic provincial NWRB agents would make the water permit application process easier for water users. Among these are the National Irrigation Administration regional offices that help irrigation associations such as Benjamin’s group in getting water permits. Alikpala claims that over 1000 companies now apply for water permits every year and NWRB expects to considerably improve the coverage of water permits by 2008. WORKING TOWARDS FAIR WATER ALLOCATION Asked about what else is there for NWRB to do more in terms of implementing the Water Code, Alikpala said, “We can do better, because we don’t allocate water strategically—not yet anyway.” He says the NWRB is still too liberal in giving permits.

Today, the agriculture sector is the biggest user, receiving more than 80% of total available water. Alikpala suggests that if only the agriculture sector can cut back their water use to 70%, and produce the same volume with less water, a lot can be saved for other uses. RELATED LINKS Benjamin, however, disagrees. “We are efficient in our use of water. Besides our high yield rice variety, we now also plant watermelons and cash crops. Much will be lost if the water allocated to agriculture is decreased. They should go after the big industrial companies that waste a lot of water.” Alikpala also stressed the need to plan for allocating water for the future, while taking into account population growth projections and the higher water demands it would bring. “We have to plan forward. We’re only looking at today’s needs,” he says. Meanwhile, Benjamin and the farmers of San Benito hope that their water rights remain secure for the next generation of farmers. Country Water Action: National Regulator Takes Drastic Measures Against Big-Time Commercial Water Abusers

_______________________________ *This article was first published online at ADB's Water for All website in July 2007: http://www.adb.org/Water/Actions/phi/Securing-Water-Rights.asp. The Country Water Action series was developed to showcase reforms and good practices in the water sector undertaken by ADB’s member countries. It offers a mix of experience and insights from projects funded by ADB and those undertaken directly by civil society, local governments, the private sector, media, and the academe. The Country Water Actions are regularly featured in ADB’s Water for All News, which covers water sector developments in the Asia and Pacific region.