New Strategies for an Old Water Problem


Eli Sabinay led a four-person mentee team composed of employees and volunteers of Cebu Leads Foundation Inc. (CLFI), a non-stock, non-profit, and multi-sectoral coalition advocating for positive change, good governance, and the livability of Cebu.  For years, CLFI had been part of a group of Cebuanos looking for a reliable source of potable water.  Their strategy had been to seek funding from the national government through the Regional Development Council.  Funds were sought specifically for construction of a dam in the Mananga watershed, which local experts thought would provide sufficient volumes of water for the growing population of several metropolitan cities and municipalities.  But there was also a mixed bag of related issues that members of Eli’s team wanted to address, like the resettlement of residents inside the watershed.

With the guidance of their mentors, the team made its first major decision in focusing on the construction of the dam; all related issues will have to be tackled once funding is available.  Secondly, they decided to look beyond the RDC for funding, and considered other sources – including Private-Public Partnership.  Third, they decided to break down the challenge of building the dam into manageable chunks – starting with funding for a feasibility study.  Currently, Eli and his team are in negotiations with the Metropolitan Cebu Water District (MCWD) to convince them to pass a resolution to open Mananga Dam for bidding and privatization.

The team and coalition partners

Eli’s CLFI team includes Claire Audrey Sy (Youth Coordinator); Diosa Marie Cuyos-Bayabos (Youth Organization Member); and Architect Socorro Atega (Lead Portfolio Manager; Chair of the Metro Cebu Development and Coordinating Board; and Executive Director of the Cebu Uniting for Sustainable Water).  They interacted with, and have partners inside the Regional Development Council (RDC VII), the Metropolitan Cebu Water District (MCWD), and the Public-Private Partnership Center (PPP) headed by Deputy Executive Director Eleazar Ricote.

Past efforts to secure a potable water source

One of the reforms that we in CLFI really need to focus on is the provision of potable water.  Cebu has several of the oldest cities in the Philippines, and for more than four decades now, we’ve ha problems with our water supply.  Our “water stress” comes from getting water from the ground, which is not sustainable in the long term.  Looking at Cebu City’s topography, we find major rivers in our mountain areas, which means that surface water is readily available in Cebu, but it’s not being utilized.   These surface water could be impounded by constructing a dam, particularly for the Mananga River, which has a large catchment area.

We had been working on this problem since 2012, before we enrolled in the Development Entrepreneurship Mentoring Program.  In fact, one of our team members, Architect Atega, started working on this as early as 1986.  Her efforts led to the creation of an organization called Cebu Uniting for Sustainable Water.  Going into the mentoring program, she knew the many inter-related problems relevant to dam construction – such as the relocation of households living in the area, the fact that many local government units who would be affected do not have a Shelter Plan, etc.

Prior to the mentoring program, CLFI and partner organizations had lobbied for the construction of the Mananga Dam.  We even talked to former Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) Secretary Rogelio Singson, and DPWH approved the project in 2017. The RDC, which is the last decision-making body before submission to the national level, approved and endorsed the construction of the Mananga Dam in the same year.  But the project proposal was filtered out at the national level and did not make it into the National Expenditure Program (NEP).   We went through the same processes in 2018 and 2019 – still no funding.

Exploring new approaches

The mentoring program started with a review of all related problems and possible interventions.  Out of that, with the guidance of our mentors, we made the first critical decision: to focus on securing funding for the Mananga Dam.  All related issues were acknowledged, but the team agreed the key issue was funding.  Once funding for the dam is secured, local governments would have to deal with resettlement of existing residents and related concerns.

Then we looked at the status of the Mananga Dam project idea.  We found out that all studies on the dam were done in 2015, and had been endorsed to different LGUs.  The cost of the dam’s construction is beyond the budget of the province.  The project needed national funding, and that was the reason for all those efforts to get funding through the RDC.  In our analysis, we theorized that the project did not have sufficient political support at the national level – we did not have enough support in the NGA (DPWH) national office, in Congress, and in the Senate.

Breaking the Project Down into Bite-size Components

So if the construction of the dam was too big to be funded (one estimate was five billion pesos), our mentors suggested that instead of looking for that kind of funding, we could break down the project into phases and look for funding for each phase.  As with any huge infrastructure project, a feasibility study would be needed.  We estimated that the cost of a feasibility study would be 150 million pesos, which could be more doable.

Exploring other funding sources

Our mentors opened us to the possibility that the private sector could finance the feasibility study.   When we agreed to explore the idea, they arranged for a Zoom meeting with Deputy Executive Director Eleazar Ricote of the PPP Center, we learned that there are a lot of investors interested in the Mananga Dam.

With that information, we approached the Metropolitan Cebu Water District (MCWD), which provides and manages water service for the metropolitan local governments of Cebu province.  We advocated for the creation of an advisory council for the MCWD board, which was created in April 2021.  With most members of the Council coming from CLF partners, we presented our recommendations to the Chairman to open the Mananga Dam construction to bidding and privatization.  This would open the doors to PPP.

We also spoke with the Mayor of Cebu City (who has been re-elected).  He gave us his commitment to support the feasibility study and open it to the private sector. The PPP Center is ready to help and assist us with the feasibility study.

Now that elections are over, we are looking forward to continuing our advocacy for funding for the feasibility study.

Key takeaways

If you have a reform, start small. Make small bets. For us, creating the MCWS Advisory Council was already a success, a milestone. We’re now part of the institution itself by being on the advisory board.

You also have to be ready for changes. Before we joined the Development Entrepreneurship Mentoring Program, we were comfortable going through the public funding process through the RDC. But we also had to ask ourselves: did we make progress? Not really.  So we had to change our strategy and consider PPP funding.

It’s important to keep the end in mind. The strategies may change, but keep the goal in mind. Ultimately, the overall impact that we want to see from our policy reform is having 24/7 water for the people of Cebu.

A personal note

One of the insights that we discovered along the way is that Cebuanos no longer consider the scarcity of water as a problem. So how do you solve the problem of insufficient potable water if it’s no longer an issue for most people? For a development worker like me, it’s sad that Cebuanos consider the traffic situation a bigger problem than the lack of water.

I always tell my students that having access to water 24/7 is a right, not a privilege. So we should demand for water.  With my reform team, we started a Facebook page where we discuss everything about water, water issues, and making it a social issue that needs to be addressed.  

Once we get a complaint– we capture it, we reshare it, and make an issue out of it so we can get the media to talk about it. We’re now dealing with the younger generation…we want them to be more aware of this decades-old problem.

Elizar Sabinay Jr., DE Mentee Cohort 1, Cebu Leads Foundation Inc.


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