water, nature, ecology, environment, climate change, Manila, water wars, war, peace, Erle Argonza, Philippines, technorati, Asia, economics, urban, post-industrial,
Erle Frayne D. Argonza
Good evening from the Philippines!
A water crisis is now looming big in Manila (the entire metropolis), the Philippine’s premier big city. The western side of the big city is particularly badly affected by pilferages and spillages (over 55% lost), thus reducing the volume of water available to around 7 million people more or less.
Such a situation has been causing panic lately on urban residents, a panic that could lead to water riots. The western side of the big city is flatlands, which renders it vulnerable to floods and consequent destruction of water pipelines during calamities. Contrast that to the eastern side that comprises of highlands where watershed areas are nestled.
Just recently, the palace officials in Manila have been pronouncing the mobilization of army troops to help deter possible water riots. This is a new twist in the history of army missions, as the mission is one of police task in an urban setting (most army missions comprise of anti-insurgency tasks in rural hinterlands).
The outbreak of water conflicts right at the heart of Manila appears culled from the futuristic narratives of Isaac Asimov. The sci-fi genius prophesied (right after World War II) that the future will see communities divided between suburban highlands and urban lowlands. The residents of the suburbs, whose living comfort in gated villages is accompanied by robot sentinels, will comprise the upper class, while those of the urban lowlands, who will be exposed to the hovels of pollution, will comprise the lower class.
The urban-suburban divide seems to be gelling so fast in this country today. The water crisis caught palace officials and utilities bureaucrats flatfooted, even as they have been acting in near-hysteria fashion. A water war right in the big city is looming ahead, and there’s nothing in the management textbooks of the officials that can offer them quick solutions to an escalating crisis.
I do recall well that in the late 1990s, when I went back to graduate school to hone my skills in development policy via retooling with state-of-the-art analysis and social technologies, we already forecast the possibility of water wars (during classroom discussions). At that time, certain towns in the Cordilleras (mountain range to the north) began matter-of-factly to quarrel over water source and distribution. And so the challenge for us development workers was to craft mitigation measures that can deter such wars.
As soon as the new millennium began, Singapore and Malaysia did have some diplomatic confrontation regarding the issue of Singapore’s access to water sources found in Malaysia. The water source, so to speak, was getting depleted, thus slowly disabling Singapore from meeting its water needs. Desalination was the strategic solution to the problem, a surefire solution by Singapore’s visionary leaders that averted another conflict between the two polities (the earlier conflict led to Singapore’s separation from the Malaysian federation).
Certain policy experts and development workers are quite prepared for the eventuality of water wars in this 2nd world country, true. But those in the palace and even the legislature just may not have that luck of being exposed to new policy and institutional tools to deal with water-based conflicts.
Certainly too, the local execs and bureaucrats of Manila are unprepared for such a gargantuan crisis and eminent conflict based on water access and distribution. They haven’t retooled, and I know this for a fact based on my interaction with local officials known to me in the big city. They are mired in the old world, a world that is long gone (10 years ago in today’s context of rapid change is too long a time gone).
A water-based Asimovian nightmare is shaping up fast in Manila, and probably in other mega-cities around the world as well, a nightmare that is over-stretching the competencies of Establishment bureaucrats and politicians. The crisis exacerbates the urgency for urban lowland dwellers to leave the flatlands once and for all for the greener and water-rich highland suburbs, which could be the lowlanders’ panic complex response.
As an analyst and development practitioner, I am critical of any decision to use police state tactics to resolve the crisis. Scare tactics won’t let the problem fade away at all. The stakeholders better do their homework well, by getting together to dialogue, think and act. Through good all consensus they can configure what course of action to take that includes desalination of waters off Manila Bay.
Meantime, I am now all the more discouraged from ever residing or working in urban flatlands. Safely niched in Manila’s western highlands and suburban Calabarzon for the longest part of my life, I’d now rather heed the Asimovian option of better living in the suburbs, with or without the robot sentinels in our subdivision villages.
[Philippines, 23 July 2010]
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