THE water crisis that hit Metro Manila bewildered the government on what approach to take to avert, if not eradicate, the problem.

Water rationing, pipeline repair, supply augmentation from other sources were among the solutions the government immediately executed to address the predicament. Until, out of nowhere, a Jesuit-run school proposed: "Let's recycle wastewater."

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Unpopular as it can be, the Xavier School in San Juan City had been in wastewater recycling, including those collected from drainages, drainpipes, and toilets, since November in 2009.

For eight months now, the institution had been using recycled water for non human purposes, cutting its water consumption from commercial water supplier, in this case the Manila Water, by 60 percent.

“However, if you drink it, it’s not going to kill you anyway,” said Arnold Acero, executive vice president of environmental engineering firm TechnoTest, in an interview with Sun.Star.

As the National Capital Region struggled to survive in the looming crisis, the idea of wastewater recycling is truly worth pondering.

Missing the mark

Last Tuesday, the Department of Public works and Highways tapped water rationing as its foremost response to the predicament.

All in all, including those from the volunteer groups, the government fielded 147 trucks to distribute water all around Metro Manila.

But the truth of the matter is, rationing is not the "bulls eye" solution, In fact, it will only accelerate the consumption of the remaining supply.

The approach can only be considered as the ultimate solution if the problem was caused by technical glitches on water distribution facilities of Maynilad and Manila Water.

But the facilities of these concessionaires are functioning well.

The root of the problem, as admitted by the water distributors, is that the source could not sustain with the demand anymore. While the population of the Metropolis is increasing, the available supply is decreasing.

The Angat Dam Reservior, which is now fully dependent on rain because its supporting watersheds were greatly affected by illegal logging activities, plunges way below its critical level.

The Angat, being the major source of water of Metro Manila, could not sufficiently sustain the water needed by the populace.

As of July 23, it water level it at 159.66 meters, way beyond its critical level of 180.61.

It is not only Angat that is suffering from water depletion.

All of Luzon's major water reservoir are suffering the same -- Ambuklao Dam, current level 741.75, critical level 745.00; Binga Dam, current level 567.30, critical 565.00; San Roque Dam, current level 230.41, critical level 246.77; Pantabangan Dam, current level 183.34, critical level 200.09; and Magat Dam, current level 177.35, critical level 177:66.

Ipo, La Mesa, and Caliraya Dams, which are all dependent on other bigger basin, also registered receding water supply.

The rains brought about by Typhoon Basyang and Caloy were not enough to augment the thinning supply. It is very ironic that as the country entered the rainy season, with two weather depressions so far, is suffering from water crisis.

With water rationing, the government is only hastening for the drought to come.

The state weather bureau predicted that the country needs at least three typhoons to normalize the water level in Luzon's major reservoirs.

It becomes clearer that the region need another source of water supply, other than Angat. With the way many Filipinos treated our forest, dam-dependent water supply cannot guarantee sufficiency.

The government also posts to utilize the waters of Laguna de Bay as one of the means of suppressing the crisis.

The lake can supply up to 50 million liters of water per day. But it is only a fraction of the 4,000 million liters water requirement of NCR in a single day.

The ugly side of the proposal is that it is at the same time killing the fishing industries in the area which feed thousands of residents in the lake's coastal villages.

And of course, doing it is cutting a vital food-supply link of Metro Manila.

How about wastewater recycling

Wastewater recycling is one viable option that will maintain the ecological balance as exemplified by the Xavier School.

“It was actually the idea of Xavier School to find a way to save water because raw water consumption would be costly if we don’t find a way to re-use it,” Acero pointed out.

He explained that the recycling plant works by collecting wastewater from drainages, drainpipes, and toilets, and through a membrane-based process, treats the water for reuse for irrigation of the football fields, general cleaning, and toilet flushing.

Though he refused to disclose the cost of the project, he however hinted that the capital investment, based on the projected savings in the school's monthly water bill, will be recovered in the next three years.

The most notable effect is, while the entire Metropolis is bewailing for the ill-effect of water problem, the school never runs out of supply, especially that the classes has just started.

Recycling used water, including urine, is truly a practical alternative.

On the average, adult humans discharges about one to two liters of urine per day, depending on numerous factors including state of hydration, activities, environmental factors, size, health, and drinking habit.

Data from the National Statistics Office disclosed that the NCR has close to 12 million populations. At two liter per person per day, NCR can generate 24 million liters of raw materials every day, not to mention wastewaters other than urine.

Much more, it is a very stable source, irrespective of any weather condition.

Turning urine into water

In its move to cut the cost of shipping of fresh water into space, which is $15,000 a pint, the National Astronomical Space Administration (NASA) have to recapture every possible drop of water to save it.

Such includes water evaporated from showers, shaving, tooth brushing and hand washing, plus perspiration and water vapor that collects within the astronauts' space suits.

Until NASA tapped one major potential source of water: urine.

In his 2008 NASA report, lead researcher David Hand explained that in the new system, urine undergoes an initial distillation process and then joins the rest of the recovered fluids in the water processor.

The processor filters out solids such as hair and lint and then sends the wastewater through a series of multi-filtration beds, in which contaminants are removed through adsorption and ion exchange. The process is nearly identical to the system used in the Xavier School water treatment facility.

"What's left over in the water are a few non adsorbing organics and solvents, like nail polish remover, and they go into a reactor that breaks them all down to carbon dioxide, water and a few ions," said Hand, a professor of civil and environmental engineering.

On its November 14, 2008 flight, Space Shuttle Endeavor left Kennedy Space Center with a new Water Recovery System which can transform ordinary pee into water so pure it rivals the cleanest on Earth.

So wastewater recycling, especially urine recycling, is not really an impossible venture because somebody did it already.

The technical relapsed of the country is not excuse because there is already an institution that is implementing it here. It is just a matter of strong political will.

Victim of inaction

The water problem would have been averted, if not minimized, if our political leaders would have implemented Republic Act 6716, mandating every barangay to have rainwater collection facilities.

Sadly, from the law's approval in 1991 until today, only four rainwater catchments were established across the nation.

No less than the League of Provinces of the Philippines (LPP) protested the implementation of the law, prioritizing its basic local autonomy over environmental concern.

In its June 2010 petitions to the Supreme Court, seeking to block the R.A. 6716, the governor's league said: "While the LPP admits that the intent of the law is laudable, the it itself violates the clear mandate of the Constitution and the basic autonomy law, the Local Government Code.

The government reaction into it simply reflects how deep its understanding on the looming water crisis.

Another version of waste management

Among the laudable program of the government in relation to environmental concern is the 2000 Solid Waste Management Act.

Though there were few glitches, the SWMA proved to effective and helpful in easing garbage problems that beset the nation a decade ago, especially Metro Manila, a move greatly protested and considered impossible by the local government units itself.

After 10 years since enacted into law, the SWMA attested the benefits of segregating solid waste, not only among LGUs but also the populace.

This is now the dilemma to address the recent water crisis. While we are urging the reuse of plastics, papers, metals, among others, why not begin the recycling of wastewater?