How Manila Water are embracing sustainable development

As World Water Week 2016 approaches, we spoke to Manila Water, winner of this year's Unilever Global Development Award for their Water for the Poor programme.

The theme for World Water Week 2016 is 'using water for sustainable growth'. This approach is pertinent to business, partly because of the introduction of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) but also due to increasing demands that we are placing on the planet's finite natural resources.

Manila Water have embedded both of these elements with great success, so we caught up wth Jerric Sevilla, Head of Corporate Strategic Affairs Group and Corporate Communications at the company, to find out more about its award-winning programmes.

Water is a key part of the SDGs – particularly of Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation. How is Manila Water integrating the SDGs into the business?

We are very fortunate as the nature of our business means we have a unique opportunity and advantage to align and integrate our social and environmental objectives with our business goals. 

As a matter of policy, integrating sustainable development principles in all our business operations is key. This is anchored in the belief that our business is dependent upon the communities that we serve and upon the environment that provides the resource that is integral to our operations. 

One of Manila Water’s key values is to contribute to national development. We would like our employees to embrace this and our prospective employees to relate to and identify with this value.

Tell us about the work you were recognised for by the Award.

The company’s social focus on giving greater access to the low-income communities is a major motivation given the large percentage of urban poor communities in eastern Metro Manila.

When we started, we found that 50% of our water losses came from the illegal connections that are very dominant in these poorer communities. Naturally our thrust was to reduce our losses in these areas so that water could be recovered and re-distributed to areas without water. To make this happen, Manila Water employed a combination of social and stakeholder engagement, engineering and technical interventions. 

We also restructured our organisation so our focus centred on our customers - particularly those who have less or no access to water - and determine their needs and wants.  This allows for more personal interaction with our customers which brings our services closer to the people.

What business benefits have you seen from this programme?

The programme has been beneficial to both the business and the community with varied and wide-ranging business benefits.

To start with, Manila Water has seen a reduction in non-revenue water. From a high system loss of 63%, it is now down to 11%. This is equivalent to a medium-sized dam!  In line with this decrease in non-revenue water, Manila Water has seen an increase in water supply despite no additional water sources. The water recovered from the system loss reduction programmes supplied the needs of areas without water and those who are underserved. 

The increased supply has translated into a greater billed volume and thus larger revenues. From 440 million litres per day of potable water, Manila Water now provides more than 1.3 billion litres of water to more than 6.3 million residents of eastern Metro Manila and adjacent Rizal Province.

Of course, managing this increasing supply also requires a new approach. Manila Water have increased the number of service connections in order to comply with regulation on access to water from the State’s Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System.

One of Manila Water’s key values is to contribute to national development. We would like our employees to embrace this and our prospective employees to relate to and identify with this value.

- Jerric Sevilla,
Head of Corporate Strategic Affairs Group and Corporate Communications

Key to the success of the Water for the Community Programme is strong engagement with various stakeholders, from the regulators, to the communities, to individuals including employees and service providers.

Our engagement with communities has had clear benefits in regard to higher collection efficiency - averaging 99 to 100% collection efficiency due to strong collection from urban poor communities.

Through the programme the social and environmental profile of Manila Water has improved, both locally and internationally.

Improving Manila’s 24-hour potable water supply coverage from 26% in 1997 to 99% in 2015 was an incredible feat. What was the biggest challenge you experienced?

Ultimately, Manila Water inherited a very old water system that needed replacement and rehabilitation.  Financing our capital investment programme in terms of replacing the water lines was a challenge when we started in 1997 because of the Asian financial crisis. We had to secure loans from local banks as well as get the approval of international financing institutions regarding the viability of our programmes.

Of course, there were other challenges too. People living in urban poor communities were used to getting free water through illegal connections so, understandably, it was difficult to convince them to make their connections both legal and regulated. 

A key approach for achieving this was to strengthen our engagement with different stakeholder groups by showing them the financial, social, environmental and health benefits of having legal water connections. 

We had to secure the help of town councils and organize the communities while offering reasonable payment terms for the people while keeping the cost of water affordable for them.

What new technology and innovations do you predict will change the world of water service provision as we know it today? 

In the future, Manila Water will look to various programmes and innovations that will facilitate water provision. These programmes include:

  • Cheaper technologies on desalination and less reliance on the construction of dams tapping freshwater reserves,

  • Extensive microtunnelling to lessen public inconvenience of excavating roads causing traffic,

  • More and cheaper water-saving devices that can be used within the home, not only in commercial or industrial establishments,

  • A dual-piping system for clean drinking water and grey or re-used water,

  • More extensive programmes on water re-use and water recycling.

What  tips do you have for businesses that are looking to reduce their water footprints?

At Manila Water we advocate approaches that protect water as a vital resource.

One such approach is reducing system losses through technical and social programmes. In Metro Manila we are dependent on one river system (and on one dam) to supply the needs of nearly 15 million people. It is important that losses are addressed so that water goes directly to our customers.

As well as this we are actively using information, education and communication on smarter uses of water. Demand management from the side of our customers is just as important as managing the meagre supply of water that we have.  Protecting and conserving water as a precious resource is a shared responsibility that must be borne by everyone: as individuals and as institutions.

Further to our work on managing water from its source we are also stressing the importance of used water management. Water that is discharged into waterways must be treated to ensure that pollution is minimised. This way, raw water becomes cleaner and fewer chemicals are needed to turn this raw water into potable water.

Find out more about Manila Water’s award winning programme