Singular rights-based approaches and monocentric institutions will not solve water conflicts

A complex layer of rights, players and interests characterize water laws in the Philippines.

To the Last Drop: The Political Economy of Philippine Water Policy traced the dramatic changes in water laws in the Philippines, from the Marcos dictatorship to post-democratic transition: the inclusion of watershed, pollution and health concerns in policy; decentralization; openness to market solutions; state withdrawal from intervention to regulatory mode; more competition from private businesses in water sourcing and distribution; and adapting market benchmarks for the performance of water districts.

But University of the Philippines researchers Rosalie Hall, Joy Lizada, Maria Helen Dayo, Corazon Abansi, Myra David and Agnes Rola reasoned that not all of these created real change. While new government mandates added more agencies that had a say on water policy, inter-agency linkages were weak, resulting in incoherence. Decentralization also simply moved power and responsibilities from regional to local bodies and did not carry with it corresponding rights-transfer to local government units (LGUs) on water as resource. A survey conducted among roughly 300 water managers likewise showed a lack of consensus on the legal linkages between surface water and land use or forest, and how rights were seen more on customary, group or government bases rather than by formal instruments like licenses and permits. 

Five cases illustrated the politics that inevitably arise when property rights to surface water are not clearly defined.

In Bukidnon and Iloilo, the LGUs were able to use other powers — mobilizing users against a fee increase and preventing the water district from undertaking projects within its political jurisdiction — to upset water district operations. In Bukidnon, the water district also accused the LGU of illegal practice: putting up a rival water delivery service without a permit from the National Water Resources Board (NWRB). To date, the conflict had not been resolved.

In Baguio, the indigenous people fought the attempts of the local government to claim a watershed and together with this claim, an order to evict them from a forest reservation. The case was groundbreaking because, for the first time in Philippine history, the Supreme Court did not recognize an indigenous group’s communal rights and instead asserted the public rights to the watershed of the state through its agent, the LGU.

In Laguna, residents in one of the municipalities found irregularities in the execution of contracts with a private business firm that would generate revenue from and rehabilitate the town’s old water system. The contracts were done without prior public consultation. The NWRB suspended the processing of water permits in the municipality until a comprehensive study on the impact of the bulk water contract has been completed by the provincial office. In another town, small-scale mining activities were seen as threats to the structural integrity of an irrigation dam, thereby pitting the National Irrigation Administration against the local mining board.

According to the researchers, these diverse contexts of water supply and local political environments point to the fact that there is no singular rights-based solution to water conflicts and that a one-size-fits-all and monocentric institution is impractical.

They further insisted that regardless of the “political flavor” of each local context, both state and private water provider have to master the skill of engaging communities and local governments in order to avoid or mitigate conflicts. Although policies for water use and provisioning have to meet the standards of effectiveness and acceptability, they are inevitably the results of political bargains and not necessarily based on optimal solutions.

They concluded: Analyzed in conjunction with the survey results, it is clear that rights have little import in the way conflicts are dealt with by water organizations [and that] pathways that involve localized social communication (dialogues, face-to-face meetings) within the LGU or its tribal equivalent allow for more flexibility and carry greater chance of acceptance.

Last year, the team held multi-sectoral discussions in Luzon and the Visayas to engage stakeholders of water management.

The paper, published in Water Policy, was produced from the Emerging Interdisciplinary Research program Towards Good Water Governance for Development: A Multi-Case Analysis which is being supported by the Office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs.