POSTSCRIPT / March 14, 2006 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Aquifers are drying up, Metro Manila is sinking

REYES WARNING: Since nobody seems to have been paying attention, it was right that Environment Secretary Angelo Reyes repeated the other day the warning that the next world war would be fought possibly over dwindling water supplies.

The message is ominous: With water running out and sources drying up or vanishing, it was high time we worked overtime to conserve our water resources and the much-abused ecosystem in general.

Like many other natural resources that abound in this country, we have taken water — a free gift of God — for granted.

Wanton waste of water and the degradation of its sources have so continued that some of us in this battered country might end up fighting among ourselves over water even before a world war erupts over the precious liquid.

Or, like oil and petroleum products, water might become so scarce and expensive that it could trigger social turmoil, economic dislocation and health disasters.

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AQUIFERS DRY UP: The lack of potable water piped in 24 hours to our homes, offices and factories is an infuriating reality right in the nation’s capital.

For instance, in the crowded Las Pinas-Paranaque area south of Manila, many deep-wells dug decades ago have either dried up or have had sea water seeping into the aquifers (layers of permeable rock, sand, or gravel through which groundwater flows), eliminating the wells as reliable sources of clean, safe water.

The widely accepted explanation is that the massive pumping out of water through the deep-wells has accelerated sharply with the rise in household and commercial demand. The aquifers are thus unable to replenish fast enough the water they bear and lose.

In the case of wells that have been turning up either dirty or salty water, the theory is that with the depletion of their supply, saline water from the nearby bay has started to fill the developing empty spaces.

An alarming consequence of this is that Metro Manila has been found to be sinking 10 times faster than during the period before the 1960s. That is because, according to one theory, the underground streams under the metropolis have been drying up, leaving huge subterranean hollow space.

While I mentioned only two cities south of Manila, actually the over-extraction of groundwater and the resulting compression have been observed in varying degrees over a wider area that includes Guiguinto, Bocaue, Marilao, Meycauayan, Caloocan, Navotas, Quezon City, Makati, Mandaluyong, Pasig, Pateros, Pasay, Muntinlupa, Dasmarinas, and many areas in the Marikina Valley fault zone.

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HAULERS’ HOLIDAY: In many residential areas, such as the sprawling BF Homes and neighboring villages, water haulers using huge tanks on wheels have grown rich selling unprocessed water priced way above the regular rates of the local waterworks system.

The village water systems, alas, have become so unreliable — with faucets running dry for days because of service breakdowns traced to negligence and mismanagement.

The haulers enjoy brisk business delivering water as long as the regular piped-in supply is unavailable. This has given rise to suspicion that some waterworks executives might be in cahoots with the water haulers, a charge they deny.

Some households have in stock two sets of supply — one for general use consisting of raw water delivered to their tanks by the haulers, and another set bought from water-purifying stations used for drinking and cooking. Taking a shower has gone out of fashion in many places.

The big question in these villages is: If the situation is already beyond the ken of the local waterworks company, how come a more reliable firm (any of the two outfits that have sprung from the Manila Waterworks and Sewerage System) is not made to take over?

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PEAK OIL: That water might just run out on people abusing nature is a real possibility, what with the wanton destruction of wooded areas and watersheds, the pollution and siltation of bodies of water and streams, and our laggard adoption of conservation measures.

Statistics have shown that even the production (extraction and refining) of oil, also cited by Reyes as another fuse for other wars, has been dwindling in relation to the actual amount of oil used worldwide. I have seen data tending to show that that lately we have been using more oil than we are extracting.

This, plus the observation that the production in an oilfield starts to decline when half of its measured potential has been extracted, has many researchers concluding that the “peak oil” (the production point at which output starts to drop) would come before 2010!

Even assuming some statistical error, we can conclude for precautionary planning purposes that production from the world’s conventional or known oilfields will start to drop within 10 years.

With that, it is possible that Peak Oil might rear its ugly head toward the end of President Gloria Arroyo’s term. Is she ready for it?

To clarify: The peak or the start of the production decline does not mean the world’s oil has run out. It simply means that the output of the wells, with half of their reserves still intact, will start slowing down at that point.

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GMA PROGRAM?: I have not heard of any long-range and integrated all-encompassing energy program of the Arroyo administration that takes this Peak Oil phenomenon into account.

During the Marcos regime, there was a farsighted energy program with reasonable annual targets for gradually reducing the country’s dependence on oil partly by cutting usage as well as tapping and developing other (non-oil) sources of energy.

Before the Marcos regime fell in 1986, the country’s dependence on oil had dropped to less than 50 percent, if memory serves. But the EDSA revolt swept away not only the dictator but also his energy program.

Now we are back to a high dependence on imported crude and oil products, and the continued neglect of research and installation of alternative systems for generating power.

We are using an old system whose backbone is a nationwide grid connecting various power plants of varying grades and age using crude oil, other petroleum-derived fuels, and coal.

We seem to excel in improvising from one power crisis to another, with one eye focused on politics and some business on the side.

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ENGINE DESIGN: As everybody knows, oil is a finite and non-renewable resource. Sooner or later, this hydrocarbon fuel will run out — with peak output or the start of the decline in production expected within the decade.

Facing such a dire situation, one reflex reaction is to look for ways to reduce drastically the use of oil and petroleum-based fuels and products.

We have had motor vehicles retooled to use diesel mixed with coconut oil, or some engines that run on natural gas extracted from the Malampaya sea off Palawan. That is a logical move calculated to add to our savings on our oil bill.

Research and development should also focus not only on fuel but also on the engines and machines themselves. The Philippines is not in the big league, but other nations such as Japan , the United States and some European countries can break away from the straitjacket of the engine run on gasoline or diesel, which are derived from oil.

Aside from retooling existing engines, engineers should totally rethink also the design of auto engines, as well as motors and machinery for various industries, so these equipment can use non-oil fuels found in great abundance.

Let us not change only the fuel, but the engine itself.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 14, 2006)

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