Pipe dream no more
"We used to buy water from water sellers at 12 to 40 pesos per 20 liters. Now, we only pay 5 pesos", enthused Catherine, a housewife from the small village of Tambongon. Tambongon is one of the peri-urban villages within the Davao City jurisdiction that has been receiving water from the utility since 2008.
The Davao City Water District (DCWD) has always lamented the big gap in its service. Its 1,300 kilometers of mainlines provide piped water service to only 58 percent of the city's inhabitants, most of whom are in urban centers. The rest of the residents are left to fend for themselves, buying water of poor quality at exorbitant prices from small water providers, e.g. water trucks and other sellers, or relying on hand pumps, spring water, and surface water.
To bridge this gap, DCWD developed a strategy to deliver potable water to the city's urban fringes. The plan was to set up water kiosks in strategic areas and supply them with DCWD water via trucks. Water for these kiosks would come from the Dumoy system, the utility's largest water system. DCWD aimed not to drive the small water providers out of business but to give the residents a better choice in terms of cost and quality.
It took years before the strategy got off the ground. These days, communities in the peri-urban villages of Cabantian and Lasang are thankful that it has.
Bridging the water gap
Davao City, a modern urban sprawl in the southern part of the Philippines, is one of the world's largest cities. Its 1.4 million inhabitants are spread over the town's 2,443 square kilometers, with about 30 percent residing outside the urban centers.
Providing adequate and potable water supply to residents poses numerous challenges to the DCWD, the utility mandated to provide water service to the city. Not only are huge financial resources needed to invest in service expansion programs, but return on investments in sparsely populated peri-urban villages is questionable.
With this new project, DCWD sets up water kiosks in strategic places within selected peri-urban villages and authorizes local associations or cooperatives to operate them. DCWD provides and maintains stainless steel tanks where water is stored, although the operator is responsible for repairing damages due to negligence. Using a water tanker, DCWD also delivers water from a fire hydrant or water discharge line nearest to the target villages. Finally, DCWD ensures that the water is of high quality by regularly testing for chlorine residual and disinfecting the water tanker.
The operators then sell this water to customers at minimal fees, with a profit margin not exceeding 200 percent of DCWD's delivery rate. They also reorder water when water level is down to a quarter of the steel tank's capacity.
Two villages became the early recipients of this new DCWD service: Cabantian and Lasang. The water kiosks are being operated by two nongovernment organizations: Holy Trinity GKK in Cabantian and Tambongon SEA-K in Lasang. DCWD is actively promoting this service to other villages and several associations are now in various stages of complying with DCWD's requirements for operating the kiosks.
Ups and downs
"This project has helped our organization a lot", says Fe Soria of Tambongon SEA-K. "With the income from the kiosks, we were able to meet our loan obligations plus save funds to sustain our organization's other activities".
Catherine, the Tambongon housewife, rejoins: "Not only do we get cheaper water, we also get Dumoy water". For households without DCWD piped connection, Dumoy water means very high quality water. Catherine lives near the water kiosk so the water is always accessible to her family. "We can even buy this water late at night since the kiosk closes very late", she adds.
"Given the newness of the project, though, we can't get away from a few operational headaches", says DCWD General Manager Rodora Gamboa. She's talking about the difficulties prospective operators face in complying with DCWD requirements for operating water kiosks. DCWD's Commercial Department, which runs the project, is now studying the possibility of relaxing the requirements without compromising the quality of service.
Another problem is the occasional breakdown of the tanker, which sometimes coincides with the scheduled delivery. Normally, when an operator orders a refill of the water tanks, DCWD can deliver within the day. But when the tanker is not in good condition, delivery can take up to three days. This prompts the operator to refuse sale to customers outside their immediate vicinity in order to save the water for their people. "There should be an additional water tank", suggests Ms. Soria, "so that we'll have extra supply in case of truck breakdowns".
"We're also looking at improving our method of collection from the operators. Our tanker driver doesn't have the authority to collect payments yet so we're working on that", says Ms. Bernadette Dacanay, head of DCWD Commercial Department. At the moment, operators pay for previous deliveries at the DCWD office before they can reorder. "We spend 100 pesos just for the trip", laments Ms. Soria, "so we're requesting that payment be done on a monthly basis, instead of per delivery".
Full steam ahead
Despite the challenges that DCWD and the operators are experiencing, the promise of the peri-urban project remains.
With perhaps the exception of small water businesses that see the DCWD initiative as formidable competition, the project benefits all those concerned. Consumers get safe drinking water at reduced costs, operators can earn up to 200% profit, and DCWD can recover its investment and operating expenses when the project is fully implemented, that is, when the demand for drinking water within the areas is fully served.
"We're working hard to iron out all the kinks in this project. We're looking forward to the day when we all provide safe and affordable water to all the residents of Davao City", says Ms. Gamboa.