Seares: Can governor, mayors be blamed for water crisis? MCWD’s autonomous

Pachico A. Seares

WHEN in September and October of 2019, local governments in Metro Cebu--whose residents are served by MCWD--publicly complained about the worsening water crisis, people wondered why the local government unit (LGU) leaders spoke out late in the day.

They speculated that the delayed prodding by public officials was being orchestrated to justify the eventual sacking of the water district’s directors, who were all, except one, appointed by a rival politician, then Cebu City mayor Tomas Osmeña.

For more than four decades since MCWD was founded in 1974, the water district had been mostly left alone by the governor and the mayors.

Governor’s lawsuits

Except for two lawsuits filed by two Cebu governors over the right to appoint MCWD directors–-one in 2002 by Pablo Garcia and another in 2008 by Gwen Garcia--there has been little interest in the water district by the LGU heads. After the Supreme Court upheld the Cebu City mayor’s right to appoint the directors, local government leaders haven’t been heard squawking over how the MCWD board performed--until last year when the collective uproar exploded.

Many of us didn’t know the legal reason for LGUs to keep away from MCWD operations. I suspect that even the governor and mayors were clueless because when they were chided in 2019 by news media for neglecting the water crisis, no local elected leader snapped back to say, “We were told by DILG not to meddle with the water district.”

I stumbled on that bit of information Wednesday (Jan. 22) when I read Memorandum Circular 2019-03, issued on Jan. 15, 2019 by the Department of the Interior and Local Government.

Año’s “Keep off” order

That memo, signed by DILG Secretary Eduardo M. Año, wasn’t new but was already a reminder for LGUs to keep off MCWD, prompted by “rampant and persistent” violations of the policy that were reported to his department.

Bluntly, Año ordered in writing that “local officials should not poke their noses into operations of local water districts because they are autonomous.” Meddling would “defeat the purpose and intent,” he said, of Provincial Water Utilities Act of 1973 (Presidential Decree 198 as revised in 2010), under which the water districts were created.

Once MCWD was created, the law states, the memo-circular said, “a local water district is not under the jurisdiction of any political subdivision.” The agency tasked to oversee local water districts is LWUA or Local Water Utilities Administration, DILG said in its directive. It is a “mandate of law and public policy,” it said.

It appears, basing on the DILG’s position, that LGUs’ involvement in MCWD is limited to the appointment of its directors and the resolution on joining the water district.

Is LWUA to blame?

Two questions:

[1] Does it follow then that the local governments, particularly their governor and mayors, are not to blame for the water crisis in Metro Cebu and the responsibility must be laid at LWUA’s door for its failure of direction and oversight on MCWD’s directors?

[2] Does it mean the LGU leaders, whose constituents are MCWD consumers, may count out water as their concern since they cannot and must not, as Año admonished in his memo-circular, “poke their noses” into MCWD affairs?

When it’s not meddling

Not all the facts for an informed answer are available. We don’t know how much the Cebu LGU heads interfered with MCWD operations and how such meddling affected its performance.

The public doesn’t know because it was not publicized if ever any local official actually meddled. What the public knew was that the local leaders hadn’t done enough to push the directors to solve the water shortage.

From here, among the consumers, I don’t regard it as meddling, if the involvement is to spare constituents from the horrid experience of not having enough water.