Home / Points of View & Perspectives / Two decades of onerous water deals

Two decades of onerous water deals

By Water for the People Network

The 20th anniversary of the privatization of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) in August was considered a milestone by privatization proponents. The MWSS has often been used to showcase the supposed benefits of turning over water supply services to private corporations. But the start of government-declared Consumer Welfare Month is an opportune time to note that two decades of MWSS privatization has harmed the interests of the consumers and the general public. While ensuring huge profits for Manila Water Co. Inc. and Maynilad Water Services Inc., it has violated the people’s right to water, the various ways by which are listed below:

MWSS privatization has resulted in soaring water rates as private concessionaires rake in massive corporate profits

Between August 1997 and August 2017, the basic tariff of Manila Water has soared by 969 percent. The basic tariff of Maynilad, meanwhile, has ballooned by 596 percent. The all-in tariff, which counts the basic tariff plus add-on charges, for Manila Water has increased by 762% during the same period. For Maynilad, it has jumped by 548 percent.

This translated to enormous profits with a combined accumulated income of Php94.5 billion from 2000 to 2015. Such soaring rates and massive profits for Manila Water and Maynilad were made possible by the concession agreements (CA) they signed with MWSS. Tariffs reflected the impact of inflation, adjustments in the foreign exchange rate, and the concessionaires’ petitioned basic charge which would allow them to supposedly implement their business plan and achieve a guaranteed rate of return in the succeeding five years.

Privatization guaranteed the profits of Manila Water and Maynilad not only by allowing them to pass on all the risks of running a business to the consumers. Privatization also legitimized the collection from the consumers of onerous and questionable charges by MWSS concessionaires.

During the last rebasing in 2013, it was exposed that Manila Water and Maynilad had been including questionable items in their application for new rates. As in previous rebasing exercises (2002 and 2007), they passed on to clueless customers the costs of their corporate income tax (CIT), unimplemented projects, advertising, donations, and recreation.

MWSS privatization has seriously undermined the power and mandate of government to regulate the private concessionaires to protect public interests and welfare

The last rebasing also exposed a key feature of MWSS privatization which is how the power of the state to regulate businesses to protect public interest is greatly undermined. When the Regulatory Office (RO) prohibited the concessionaires from passing on their CIT and other questionable charges to the consumers, Manila Water and Maynilad promptly challenged the decision through international arbitration. This is a mechanism provided by the CA to settle disputes between the concessionaires and MWSS on the interpretation and implementation of the contracts’ provisions, including on the setting of rates. It is a secretive and undemocratic process that includes only representatives of MWSS and the concessionaires and without any public participation. It is being chaired by an unaccountable foreign third party that also represents big business interests.

Filipino taxpayers now face the possibility of shouldering as much as Php82 billion in additional burden if the concessionaires are able to secure favorable decisions from international arbitration. Already, the arbitration panel that heard Maynilad’s case ordered government to pay Php3.4 billion. These amounts represent the supposed losses of the concessionaires when the RO disallowed the continued collection of the CIT and other questionable charges. As stipulated in the CA, government has committed to pay for these supposed losses through what is called sovereign guarantee.

As early as 1998 or a year into privatization, Manila Water had already sought international arbitration to compel the RO to increase the firm’s rate of return contained in its original bid. Aside from the arbitration mechanism, concessionaires also resort to blatant arm-twisting to force favorable decisions from government. In 2001, the original investors of Maynilad blackmailed government to amend the CA to allow it to increase rates or else it would terminate the contract.

MWSS privatization has further weakened the people’s right to water amid questionable claims by the concessionaires of improved water services

The soaring water rates and onerous charges being imposed by Manila Water and Maynilad have effectively marginalized poor households from enjoying the right to access water for domestic use. Amid depressed wages and chronic unemployment, water services along with other basic daily necessities, have put increasing pressure on ordinary families’ budgets.

While both concessionaires claim almost universal water supply coverage, poor communities in their service areas do not enjoy the same quality of service that well-off customers like richer households and commercial areas have. Instead of individual connections, poor communities have to make do with bulk meter connections. Aside from compromising the safety and quality of water, it is also not unusual that the water supply in these poor communities is not available 24/7.

Based on the latest available data, the number of persons per connection for Manila Water is seven, and nine for Maynilad, indicating the prevalence of bulk connections – mainly among urban poor communities – in the MWSS concession areas. Thus, while the concessionaires claim outstanding performance (which the RO apparently could not even independently verify), the truth is that many households, in particular the poor, are not individually connected to the water supply system, which is supposed to be the standard. The poor also end up paying more as block tariff rates apply on these bulk connections.

Aside from universal and 24/7 supply coverage, the concessionaires also promised to provide improved sewerage coverage, which they substantially failed to do amid limited investments despite skyrocketing water rates. In their original service targets, Maynilad committed to achieve 31% sewerage coverage by 2016 and 52% for Manila Water. As of December 2013 – the latest available data – Manila Water has only achieved 12% and Maynilad, 11 percent.

MWSS privatization has deepened corporate and foreign control over vital infrastructure and key services in the country

From the onset, MWSS privatization has been an agenda of big corporate and foreign interests. Foreign creditors World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB), and Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) pushed for the privatization of MWSS, which then owed them some US$800 million in debt. The World Bank’s International Finance Corp. (IFC) served as government consultant in MWSS privatization and designed the concession agreement.

The IFC is now an investor in Manila Water, raking billions of profits from a contract it designed itself. Manila Water is led by Ayala Corporation and United Kingdom (UK)-based United Utilities. Aside from the IFC, other foreign investors include Japanese giant, Mitsubishi Corp. as well as First State Investments of the UK, Singapore-based global fund manager Aberdeen Asset Management plc, and US-based equity mutual fund Smallcap World Fund Inc.

Meanwhile, Maynilad is currently controlled by Manny V. Pangilinan through the Metro Pacific Investments Corp. (MPIC) and DMCI Holdings of the Consunji family. MPIC , of course, is backed by Indonesia’s Salim group. Other foreign interests in Maynilad are MCNK JV Corp., a unit of Japanese giant Marubeni Corp., and Lyonnaise Asia Water Limited, a unit of French firm Suez, one of the world’s largest water companies.

Water privatization is being challenged worldwide – from France where some of the first water privatization took place and where the world’s largest water firms are based – to Jakarta, Indonesia which privatized its water system the same year as Metro Manila and used the same model.

Water privatization must be reversed. There is no way out of the trap of exorbitant water rates and unreliable service for the poor unless the concession agreements with Manila Water and Maynilad are junked and the operation of the water supply system is taken over by a reformed public sector.

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