Water disagreement in the Cabinet

How should a disagreement between two Cabinet officials be resolved? With better understanding of both  points of view, but deciding  based on which perspective is more relevant to the situation.

Such a public disagreement occurred over the water governance issue.  In a CNN interview on March 15, Socio Economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia recommended a Department of Water to  centralize water management. It would solve the lack of coordination among the 32 water-related government offices and agencies.


But on March 18, in a press briefing, Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said: ” I don’t think kailangan iyan.” He argued that the Manila East water shortage was under control. Thus, there was no need for such a department.

As the secretary general of the legislative-executive private sector steering committee for the National Water Roadmap and Summit and national coordinator of the Movement for Water Security, I had the opportunity to speak on this water issue at the hearings of the House of Representatives and the Senate on March 18 and 19, respectively. I took the latter role  because my colleagues in the committee saw  the disjointed government water efforts.


Since it believes the water issue is too important to leave it to the government alone, the private sector decided to undertake and expand its own water initiatives. In addition, it committed to support the government’s water-related agencies.

At both the  Senate and House hearings, I took note of the questioning and conclusions of our elected representatives, including the demand that customers should get a large rebate for the inconveniences they were suffering.

The discussions did not explicitly recognize that the Manila East water shortage was just a symptom of a much bigger national water crisis. Some  20 percent of our municipalities are waterless, 9 percent of our people have no access to safe water, and 19 percent have poor sanitation. The causes of this tragedy are manifold:  5.7 million deforested hectares, 300,000 lost mangroves, 4 percent rainwater harvesting compared to India’s 60 percent, illegal mining and a host of other factors.  In the Asian Development Bank 2013 and 2016 water studies, we rank in the bottom third of 48 countries in all five water sectors they studied. They had one conclusion: the main cause of our water crisis is poor governance. This is obvious in the Philippines, because we have 32 government water-related agencies that are not coordinated.

It is this  bigger issue of water governance Pernia was addressing with his recommendation of a Department of Water,  not  the Manila East water shortage which Panelo was focusing  on.

In my steering committee role, I helped organize seven water presummits. I worked with the Departments of Agriculture;  Environment and Natural Resources; Public Works and Highways and Interior and Local Government, as well as the National Economic Development  Authority and the Office of the Cabinet Secretary. Government representatives unanimously agreed there was too much confusion in water governance to address our water crisis today. They recommended an apex body, supported by an independent water regulatory body. The private sector supported this.

At the Senate hearing, a senator said it was useless to talk about a Department of Water because Malacañang had just turned it down. But it must be noted that Panelo might have just been referring to the usefulness of a department to resolve the Manila East water shortage. In fact, the water crisis is not just national, but global as well.

The World Economic Forum has listed water as  the largest global risk in terms of political impact in the next decade. One third of the world lives in water-stressed areas. In 2030, water demand will exceed supply by 40 percent. Experts have said that the next big war will be on water.  We must consider  not only Manila East, but also what is happening in our country and the world.


At the hearing, Sen. Grace Poe said that if an apex body for water was formed, it must have the power to lead, discipline, and enforce. These words must be heeded if we are to overcome the water crisis we are facing.

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TAGS: Cabinet officials, Department of Water, disagreement, Socio Economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia, water management
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