By Beting Laygo Dolor
Contributing Editor

Consumers from the eastern half of Metro Manila are facing the grim prospect of a massive increase in their water bills. The same is also likely true for consumers in the western half of the national capital region.

This, after Ayala Group-owned Manila Water — which has the franchise to supply water to the eastern part of the metropolis — warned of an increase of up to 780 percent in water rates if the Supreme Court does not reverse its decision to penalize the company for its alleged failure to comply with the Philippine Clean Water Act.

The bad news is not limited to half of Metro Manila. Although it was Manila Water that warned of the dire consequences of paying the PHP921 million fine (roughly US$18.5 million), the other concessionaire for the western part of the metropolis, Maynilad, is in the same situation and has also been ordered to pay the same amount.

If forced to pay, Manila Water said it has no choice but to pass on to consumers the added expense.

Aside from the two private companies, the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System was also held liable for failure to comply with the law.

On top of the PHP921 million, Manila Water and Maynilad were also ordered by the high tribunal to pay an additional fine of PHP332,102 (US$6,642) per day until the multi-million peso fine is fully paid.

The root of the case was a directive from the Department of Environment and National Resources issued in 2009 that sanctioned the two water distribution firms for failing to set up sufficient sewerage treatment facilities for their respective areas.

The threat to impose the massive rate hike did not sit well with lawmakers.

Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian called the move as “unconscionable and downright highway robbery.”

In a statement, Gatchalian said, “Government regulators should never allow this inhumane increase.”

Buhay party-list Rep. Lito Atienza said, “This is the height of arrogance. Instead of complying with the Supreme Court order, they are now threatening consumers with an oppressive hike in water rates unless the high tribunal reverses its ruling. This is tantamount to blackmail.”

Atienza, who was formerly mayor of Manila, also served previously as Environment secretary. It was during his term as the latter that both Manila Water and Maynilad were penalized PHP100,000 daily for the same reason: failure to comply with the Clean Water Act.

Advocacy group Laban Konsyumer said Manila Water’s statement was “a form of bullying” as well as an “abuse of dominant position.”

Last week, the water utility firms were given 15 days to pay the fines. Manila Water immediately filed a motion for reconsideration.

Besides the hefty hike in water rates, Manila Water further warned that complying with the order would trigger huge traffic jams due to the massive diggings that would have to be done.

Manila Water estimated the rate increase at PHP26.70 per cubic meter, representing the cost to build additional wastewater facilities.

While saying that the construction of the additional facilities would not be passed on to consumers, Manila Water did not say why the humongous increase was necessary.

The company stated that it was completing the agreed wastewater programs by 2037.

The provision that caused the woes of the two water firms is the one that requires them to connect to existing sewage lines to the available sewerage system within five years after the law took effect in 2004.

Manila Water says it has fully complied with the provision. Nothing in their contract with the government states that they have to create new sewage lines.

Unlike Manila Water, the MVP group-controlled Maynilad did not issue a statement on the SC order except to say that the company would appeal the decision.