Florete: ‘We can deliver’

(Part I of a Special Report on the Water Supply Situation in Iloilo City)

Flowater Resources (Iloilo) Inc. has the capability to deliver the contracted 25,000 cubic meters of processed water to ease the shortage of tap water in Iloilo City.

The problem is that its customer, Metro Iloilo Water District (MIWD), does not have big enough pipes to bring the water to the more than 139,000 households in its franchise area.

This was the assertion Sunday of Dr. Rogelio Florete, chairman of FloWater, during a plant tour and press conference at the company’s P1 billion water treatment facility in Barangay Nanga, Pototan.

“Would I be stupid to spend a billion pesos only to fall short on my commitment?” Florete remarked before a small group of media persons. Former city councilor Perla Zulueta, who had once served on the board of directors of the MIWD, was also present to hear Florete out.

To prove his point, Florete gave the media group access to the 5-hectare property beside the Jalaur River and the water flow metering station where the company’s main 800-mm pipe connects with the MIWD in Leganes, Iloilo.

At the intake pond on the northern bank of the river, Florete showed media that FloWater has three submersible pumps, each capable of drawing 15,000 cubic meters of raw water into its filtration and treatment plant.

Dr. Rogelio Florete explains to media the mechanics of how raw water from the Jalaur River in Barangay Nanga, Pototan is pumped into its treatment facilities from a P20-million intake pond beside the riverbank.

Dr. Rogelio Florete explains to media the mechanics of how raw water from the Jalaur River in Barangay Nanga, Pototan is pumped into its treatment facilities from a P20-million intake pond beside the riverbank.

“To meet the contracted volume of 25,000 cubic meters daily, we just need to operate two submersible pumps,” Florete said. The third one serves as a spare in case one of the two submersible pumps break down.

And it’s not all: Florete showed there are a total of six chambers (one unit for each chamber) on the intake pond for the submersible pumps. Three more are not yet equipped with submersible pumps; these are in anticipation of future business when demand for water grows bigger.

It was this intake pond that became the cause of delays in the plant’s commissioning. “My agreement with the contractor was design, build and transfer,” he said. However, the contractor wanted Florete to start paying him even before construction work could even start, he explained.

“When he continued to drag his feet on the intake pond, I threw him out of the project and took over the work,” Florete added.

Florete also complained the contract imposed a deadline that was impossible to meet. “We were given only six months from the award of the contract to start delivery,” he said. Within that period, he pointed out that he was expected to buy land where the plant was to be built, obtain approval for its conversion from agricultural to industrial, develop the facility and lay out the pipes. “Even just the process of getting the conversion approved took months,” he said.

Workers at the intake pond of the FloWater Resources (Iloilo) Inc. use a vacuum hose to suck sludge from the bottom to keep its depth at optimum level and ensure uninterrupted flow of raw water into its pumping stations.

Workers at the intake pond of the FloWater Resources (Iloilo) Inc. use a vacuum hose to suck sludge from the bottom to keep its depth at optimum level and ensure uninterrupted flow of raw water into its pumping stations.

But Florete said he plodded on, determine to make his own positive contribution, and legacy, to the growth of Iloilo City.

The idea of a bulk supply contract to meet MIWD’s requirements came after its management realized its existing network of deep wells augmenting the main supply line from Maasin was simply inadequate.  MIWD has deep wells in Oton and San Miguel that draw tens of thousands of cubic meters from a known aquifer in the area. Not only was the volume of water pumped from underground sources not enough; there’s concern about overdrawing from the aquifer that could result in salt intrusion. If that happens, the aquifer would be rendered useless, as the process is irreversible.

The mainstay for MIWD’s water supply is the antiquated intake dam in Barangay Daja, Maasin, where the water is then pumped several kilometers to the filter and treatment facility in Barangay Talanghauan, Sta. Barbara. The facilities were designed and built in 1926 during the American colonial rule in the Philippines.

Supply is not the only problem. A critical factor, too, for the MIWD’s inability to deliver a steady stream of water to households is the derelict network of pipes serving the franchise area. Hundreds of millions of pesos have been spent for pipe-laying during the last two decades, but it appears much of the money went to corruption. It was discovered that most of the pipes on the ground are old, with leaks springing every hundred meters or so.

Because of these problems, a study commissioned by the World Bank, known as the “Castalia Report”, showed that MIWD is able to provide water to less than 20% of the 139,000 households in its franchise area. The study was conducted seven years ago, and since then, more subdivisions have sprouted all over the city. That number could easily rise to 145,000.

The situation is rather embarrassing for a city that aspires to host the 2015 APEC sub-ministers meeting and markets itself as a tourist destination. Its hotels depend on twice-a-day deliveries from water tankers to keep their faucets flowing. Only a few areas in the city enjoy 24-hour water service. In many areas, hardly a drop of water reaches households. The business of water tanker deliveries has enjoyed brisk sales because of this.

Hence, the need for a bulk supplier to meet the city’s needs.

(To be continued)

Absence of leadership

For more than a week before the year 2011 ended, local radio stations discussed the alarming report about the dangerous levels of coliform bacteria that a laboratory technician of the Metro Iloilo Water District (MIWD) detected in the water flowing out of household faucets. And it was distressing to find out that the local chief executive, Jed Patrick E. Mabilog, had chosen to keep quiet about the issue until just before the New Year, and when he did, all he could say was that he “no comment”.

Didn’t the city mayor feel alarmed by the report? Didn’t he sense danger written all over it, and that lives of his constituents have been placed at risk? Didn’t he feel enraged that incompetence and negligence were aggravating the city’s water woes, with obvious health hazards now thrown into the equation? The actions of Mabilog in the face of this report about elevated levels of coliform in the city’s potable water system validate fears that he lacks fundamental leadership skills to confront issues and protect the public welfare. We didn’t see a mayor tackle this crisis; we saw a nitwit and a coward.

In the face of this danger, Mabilog should have been all over the place, ordering additional tests on the water quality and issuing warnings to the people to take precautions like boiling the water before using it. He should have summoned health authorities to an emergency session to talk about ways to protect constituents, specially children, from falling ill, or even dying, as a result of the contamination. He should have confronted the MIWD management and fumed about the negligence which was obviously the root of it all. Unfortunately, leadership took a leave of absence in City Hall, and Mabilog simply tried to appear cute.

It’s a good thing nothing tragic happened. A series of subsequent tests showed that the coliform bacteria level in the water samples taken from several points in the MIWD pipe system indicated that it had gone down to non-threatening levels. But it doesn’t mean the problem has been solved. There is still contamination, because once the water starts flowing into the MIWD pipeline, it should already be zero level of this disease-causing bacteria that comes from human waste. That the coliform bacteria level has been reclassified as “tolerable” isn’t the equivalent of “safe”.

This crisis should not have happened had our city mayor acted swiftly and boldly to address the water woes of the city. His most violent reaction to the MIWD issue was to threaten leading a picket in front of its offices several months ago to protest the removal of his power to appoint its board of directors from erstwhile LWUA chairman Prospero “Butch” Pichay. As the inability of the MIWD to provide potable water to tens of thousands of households in the city, Mabilog kept busy traveling abroad. Every week, he spent two days in Manila. He behaved as if nothing serious was taking place in the city. He looked at his job as an opportunity to see the world and pursue his business ventures.

After 18 months, there is enough basis to categorically label Mabilog as a total failure on the job. He has done nothing to indicate he possesses the “right stuff” to lead the city and do things differently from his predecessor, Rep. Jerry P. Trenas. Decision-making? Zero. Ability to inspire people? Zilch. Transparency and honesty? Fail. If anything, the half-time report on Mabilog is characterized by scandalous anomalies and plain incompetence. Mabilog is the city’s worst nightmare.

Having wasted the first half of his first term in office, we can expect Mabilog to just slide into eventual irrelevance and early retirement. His brand of politics offers little hope for improved delivery of public services. He is a poor shadow of Trenas. Mabilog became city mayor through pure luck at the right time. But his failure to deliver even just a small portion of the expected performance will shove him into the dustbin of political history. He might as well just focus on business, because that is where his heart is. He has no heart for the city and its people.

We are just thankful there is Senator Franklin M. Drilon to take up the slack for the meager performance of our mayor. Almost everything good that has happened in the city is the handiwork of Drilon. In fact, Mabilog has threatened to become the biggest obstacle to Drilon’s projects. To cite just one example, Drilon arranged for a dredger from DPWH to be deployed here last March to remove the sedimentation of the Iloilo River. It hasn’t started its work because Mabilog hasn’t found suitable dumping area for the silt.

Mabilog’s absence of leadership is something we have to endure until 2013. We will have to be patient; the nightmare will not last forever.

Bulk water

Just last week, Pavia municipal mayor Arcadio Gorriceta paraded over local media what he described as a trailblazing achievement for a local government unit (LGU) when he signed a bulk water supply contract with Pilipinas Water, Inc. Under the contract, Pilipinas Water is supposed to build a multi-million peso water filtration and treatment plant that would turn water from the river into potable drinking water. It’s supposed to be another feather in the cap of Mayor Gorriceta.

But almost immediately, the contract drew unfavorable reactions after apparent legal infirmities were discovered.

First, what was the legal basis for the LGU embarking on such an endeavor? Is it a contract for services that is governed by the Government Procurement Act? Or is it an undertaking in the purview of the build-operate-transfer (BOT) law? How did Pavia get to choose Pilipinas Water as the private partner for the project? Will it involve the expenditure of public funds? What studies were made the basis for the project? Were there public hearings?

Second, there’s the issue of transgressing an exclusive turf of the Metro Iloilo Water District (MIWD). Pavia happens to be within the franchise service area of MIWD, and it is apparent the scandal-rocked water district had no participation in the scheme. Did the contract intend to sell and deliver potable water to households in Pavia? If so, that would run afoul with the law. You can’t just barge into a service area unless a waiver of sorts is issued. And even if MIWD doesn’t object, how will Mayor Gorriceta distribute the water to Pavia households? MIWD is not going to allow them to use its pipes in Pavia. Will he deploy water tankers to go around and sell water to his constituents by the gallon?

Apparently, Mayor Gorriceta rushed head-long into this project with profits in mind. He didn’t think about the legal and practical considerations. This is an embarrassing twist for a man who likes to comport himself as a “super-mayor”. It’s DOA — dead on arrival. Now he will have a hard time explaining to his constituents why he can’t deliver water.  Next time, he’d profit more if he adhered to the railroad crossing sign that says, “Stop, look and listen.”

The MIWD mess is getting murkier

How to get rid of an uncooperative board of directors?

This must have been the question that bedevilled LWUA chairman Butch Pichay (my primo) for quite sometime now regarding the Metro Iloio Water District (MIWD).

Pichay has found it difficult to push planned reforms for the MIWD because of the well-entrenched board of directors that refused to yield to the various attempts to change course. Basically, the board was locked in bullhorn-to-bullhorn battle with the water district’s management team. The stalemate effectively stopped the MIWD on its tracks to any improvement in its services.

There is no dispute that the MIWD has one of the worst water supply services in the country. So many millions of pesos in pipe-laying projects have been wasted as this hasn’t resulted in more households getting a steady supply of potable water on their faucets. Until now, a big portion of the city doesn’t have potable water and residents depend on private water suppliers for their daily needs. The board blames the management for this. Management is quick to throw the blame back to the board.

This has frustrated Pichay who has tried his best to play the role of referee. With no improvement in the situation in sight, Pichay looked elsewhere for a solution. This is where some bright boys at the LWUA must have put forward a bizarre solution: kick the entire board out of office through a legal question on their appointments. LWUA came out with a pronouncement that henceforth, the power to appoint members of the MIWD board of directors is vested in the provincial governor. The reason? The number of active service connections within Iloilo City failed to reach 75%, and under the law, this strips the city mayor of his power to appoint the board.

And with a questionable decree, the LWUA simply declared the existing board members as having lost their seats, saying their appointments were void ab initio.

Which is which?

LWUA might be correct on the point that the power to appoint now rests with the provincial governor. But it isn’t as simple as that. There has to be a transparent process to establish the factual basis for the removal of the appointing authority from the city mayor and transferring it to the provincial governor. There should be consultations with the LGUs concerned so that all parties are adequately informed about the legal and factual basis.

What happened here is that LWUA supposedly asked MIWD to submit a report on the distribution of its service connections, and when they checked, the figures no longer support the continued authority to appoint in the city mayor. Indeed, the provincial governor is the appointing authority for board members of water districts in the province serving two or more municipalities. There’s nothing controversial about that.

In an interview, Congressman Jerry P. Trenas raises a valid point about the legality of the LWUA’s action in unilaterally nullifying existing appointments. Is the LWUA vested with judicial powers to declare certain actions void ab initio? Even if there is basis for the nullification of these appointments, Trenas argues that only the proper courts could rule on the issue.

I know Chairman Pichay has noble motives in trying to sweep clean the board of directors of MIWD. But it has to be done in accordance with the law. It might entail a slow and cumbersome process, but that’s how things are done.