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Oct 19 2004
Supplied or written by Frances TC Lo, Bantay Tubig

Making the Public work: Alternative to Manila Water Privatization
Frances TC Lo
Bantay Tubig/Philippine Water Vigilance Network*

ASEM People's Forum5 in Hanoi,Vietnam 6-9 September 2004

Brief History

The Metro Manila water privatization in 1997 was considered the biggest private venture in the world, with 11 million consumers in the coverage area. The size of the concession area alone caught the interest of four big international water companies to bid for it in partnership with Filipino firms. United Utilities and Bechtel in partnership with the Ayala Corporation (Manila Water Company, Inc.) and Suez/Ondeo in partnership with the Lopez group (Maynilad Water Services, Inc.) won the 25-year concession by submitting two of the lowest bids. These bids were even lower than the tariff of the Metro Manila Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) of P8.78/cubic meter at that time.

The contract entered into by these companies committed to 100% coverage of their concession areas within the first 10 years of operation, capital inflow of $7.5 billion during the life of the contract, reduction of non-revenue water (NRW) from 56% to 32% in the first 10 years, and providing high quality water to consumers, meeting the standards set by health agencies. With the assurance that there would be no unnecessary price increases other than the automatic adjustment of the basic rate for inflation every year, the public got excited with the possibilities presented by the concessionaires. However, after only two years of operation, both companies already petitioned for a price adjustment blaming the 1997 Asian Financial crisis for their woes. There was a 100% depreciation of the peso during that period which affected the companies’ capacity to service the loans they inherited from MWSS.

The government gave in by allowing the companies to increase prices in 1999. It also accepted the proposal to include a mechanism that allows the companies to recover foreign exchange losses, called the Foreign Currency Differential Adjustment (FCDA) even if this is not part of the original contract. To this date, Manila Water increased its tariff to a total of 700% while Maynilad had a 500% increase. This package of “assistance” from government constituted Amendment No. 1 to the concession agreement. Included also in the first amendment is the early resetting of prices (schedule for rate rebasing was moved from the first 10 years to first 5 years of the concession) and a lowering of service targets (scaling down of coverage schedule as originally committed in the contract).

Maynilad: The case of the West Zone

Despite the accommodations made by the government at the expense of consumers, Maynilad Water, the West Zone concessionaire still could not manage to keep its company afloat. Since March 2001, Maynilad has unilaterally decided not to pay the concession fees it owes MWSS because of financial constraints faced by the company. Getting the bigger slice of the two zones, Maynilad agreed with the provision in the concession agreement that it should shoulder the payment of 90% of MWSS’ loans to its creditors. These concession fees pay for part of the operation expenses of MWSS and the Regulatory Office and the old loans of MWSS. Because of this unilateral decision, MWSS was forced to borrow money to pay the maturing loans with its creditors namely the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation. In May 2002, MWSS acquired loans amounting to $100 Million from Deutsche Bank to cover up for the unpaid concession fees. The government through the Department of Finance has already issued a sovereign guarantee cover for these MWSS loans.

Not content with this default, Maynilad sought to terminate the contract in December 2002 by filing a case with the Arbitration Court, claiming that MWSS failed to deliver its part of the concession agreement. MWSS filed its counter-suit in January 2003 which led to the convening of the International Arbitration Panel. In November 2003, the Arbitration Panel found no merit on the case filed by Maynilad and issued a decision for the continuation of the concession agreement and for the water firm to pay the concession fees including interest amounting to P6.77 Billion as of September 15, 2003. Maynilad, however, did not adhere to the decision and instead, filed a petition for corporate rehabilitation (temporary debt relief) at the Regional Trial Court. The Court granted the petition by placing the company under receivership thereby preventing its creditors from collecting payment of its maturing debts.

In the middle of all this, MWSS tried to collect $98 Million on the performance bond of Maynilad deposited at Citicorp International as payment for the unpaid concession fees. This, however, was not done because Maynilad filed a petition to the Court to stop MWSS from drawing on the bond. The MWSS, on its part, filed a petition with the Supreme Court asking for an interpretation of whether the performance bond is covered by the halt order of the regional trial court. The petition was still being heard when Maynilad and MWSS officials filed a joint statement declaring that they are trying to look into an “amicable” settlement that would be beneficial to both parties. In June 2004, the Supreme Court came out with the decision ordering the MWSS to draw on the performance bond.

The amicable settlement

Both Maynilad and MWSS officials were busy drafting a rehabilitation plan for the private company that would allow the majority stockholders to get out of the “mess” alive. This rehabilitation plan would be considered Amendment No. 2 to the contract and had the rehabilitation court approved it earlier than the Supreme Court decision, the following would have happened:
MWSS will draw only $50M of $120M performance bond
Convert P5.25B of uncollected concession fees into equity in Maynilad
Forego $70M of performance bond
No further legal action should Supreme Court decide favorably or unfavorably towards its petition
Receive concession fee payments from Maynilad on a regular basis beginning May 2004
Government to assign its shares in Maynilad to the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP), who will act as its trustee

By doing this, the government would have given the Lopez family the following concessions:
Freed from P8B of contingent liabilities
No payment of guarantee on performance bond
Retain P167M in equity, with Metrobank as trustee
Freed to resolve its debt woes with all its other creditors

Government claims that the reason why they want to “settle” the issue quickly without waiting for the Supreme Court decision was because of the threat of service interruptions in the West zone. The government negotiators argued that since the Supreme Court usually takes a long time to decide on cases, it would be beneficial for everyone to enter into this settlement so as not to disrupt the operations of the West zone. However, the June 2004 decision of the Supreme Court refutes the assumptions of the government and therefore, Amendment No. 2 is with no basis anymore.

Series of “Bailout”

This is not the first time, though, that the government tried to bailout the Lopez-owned Maynilad. In 2001, after intense lobbying and pressure from Maynilad, the government allowed Amendment Number 1 to the concession agreement allowing the company to:
a) recover losses and increased costs of operations resulting from devaluation, over a shorter period of two years rather than spread it out in the remaining life of the contract (referred to as the Accelerated Extraordinary Price Adjustment);
b) impose a foreign currency differential adjustment (FCDA) which is a continuing adjustment in water tariffs due to fluctuations in the peso-dollar rate;
c) hasten the rate rebasing in the fifth year of the contract, instead of on the tenth year; and
d) revise the service obligations.
All these meant an increase in water tariff being paid by consumers to as much as 500% (from P4.26 per cubic meter to P26.76) despite the inefficient services the company provides. With this rate, “Manila has one of the highest costs of piped water in the region, and relative to average per capita income of consumers, the cost of water outranks Singapore and other developed countries signifying the greater burden shouldered by Maynilad consumers in proportion to their income.” Maynilad was also found to be overcharging its customers when it continued to impose foreign exchange loss recovery beyond the allowed period. Yet, even with over-collection of fees, Maynilad failed to keep its finances back on track and has stopped paying its loans – it is estimated that the water firm owes its creditors P7-8 Billion, its suppliers P2 Billion, and the government P8 Billion (as of this writing, total unpaid concession fees to government has reached $180 Million).

Decisive Intervention

Given this scenario, Bantay Tubig has already come out with its proposal to the government, calling on them to draw on the entire performance bond immediately and to desist from entering into another deal with Maynilad. This would entail that the Lopez group should pay up its liabilities to the government and guarantee to the performance bond. The Supreme Court decision has given the government a strong leverage to deal decisively with Maynilad with regard to their concession fees. Bantay Tubig also calls on the government to: a) terminate the contract with Maynilad Water Services Inc. and b) blacklist the Lopez group from any water concession in the future (including areas outside Metro Manila).

But these calls do not substantially answer the question that is hanging on the air: how is the west zone going to look like and who will run it? To these questions, Bantay Tubig believes that a public takeover is the answer. Government should intervene by making sure that a public agency should take on the reins and immediately implement a program to revive the west zone to the level of service that it should be providing. This should be done in the immediate even as MWSS is exploring new institutional arrangement(s) for the west zone.

Challenges for a viable public set-up

Clearly, the west zone or for that matter, the entire Metro Manila, could not go back to the pre-1997 set-up where MWSS ran it inefficiently – limited water supply to households, no service improvements, high NRW, and delayed coverage expansion of household connections – a situation that led some urban poor communities to welcome Maynilad with open arms rather than continue to wait for MWSS connection. These are the constituencies who buy water from private vendors at a very steep price, more expensive than the water paid for by residents in upper class subdivisions.

The challenge posed to civil society organizations and consumers then is to ensure that a public company or agency should meet a minimum set of standards, namely:

1. Operational Viability – It is assumed that government/ public company has a longer financial capability than a private firm, with its access to national funds and other sources, it would be logical to institute the following:
There should be a clearcut capital expenditure program which should not be postponed (Maynilad has not spent on capital expenditure for the last two years) to ensure that targeted households will have their connections. In line with this, there should be a required mapping of vulnerable areas (cholera- and other waterborne disease prone areas) and should get priority investments for rehabilitation or service improvements.
To ensure efficiency and so as not to repeat the previous dismal performance of MWSS, there should be a clear performance target that managers should meet. If these targets are not sufficiently followed, sanctions have to be imposed. Incentives and disincentives have to be credible: the threat of removal from office and replacement of qualified and highly-motivated managers must be used whenever targets are not met; inversely, provision of merit bonus or other benefits should be part of the incentives to encourage above-level performance. (This provision could either be stipulated in the contract or by an enabling law.)
If and when needed, water tariff may be adjusted upward, to ensure that the capital expenditure program is undertaken according to schedule. Cross-subsidies can be used in the computation of tariff structure so as not to overburden the poor households – richer clients should pay more than urban poor consumers.

2. Legitimacy – As in any other set-up, it should pass the test of acceptability to its consumers by ensuring that it caters to its constituents with integrity and accountability. To this end, there should be:
Participation of all stakeholders in both MWSS and the water distribution utility in policy and decision-making; stakeholders include the local government officials of the areas covered, consumers groups, and other relevant players in the area.
Explore various mechanisms and incentives that would ensure that different stakeholders act as checks and balances on each other in order to avoid conflict of interests and ensure the desired quality of service.
Service-oriented institutional culture
Developing community organizers in the field that would ensure that consumers know their obligations and can draw responses from the constituents in the form of community participation in water resource management, prevention of leakages and illegal connections, efficient collection of payment, etc.

3. Financial sustainability – Considering the magnitude of investment needed to ensure universal access to households, financing possibilities and options should be well studied and explored. This could take the form of co-financing arrangements where the national government and local government unit jointly spend for infrastructure and other investments while the share of consumers can take on the form of tariff adjustments as long as this would redound to service improvements and expansion. A further study should also be made to explore possibility of converting whatever tariff increases into consumer shares to strengthen their say in policy and decision-making processes.

4. Legal Framework – There should be a clear set of rules and guidelines that must be followed in order for a public set-up to fulfill its responsibility. One proposal is to craft a bill/pass a law that will require certain performance standards and obligations, including penalties for failure to comply with such, in whatever new contractual/institutional arrangement(s) the MWSS decides to enter into. These performance standards should have the necessary incentives whenever they are met or even perform beyond target, and penalties when they are not complied. Concretely, there should be provisions for the following:
Universal access to water in five years, following President Arroyo’s commitment in her 10-point program. This should prioritize poor households and should be household-level connection, and not bulk selling.
Zero connection fees for poor households .
Non-revenue water should be decreased progressively, depending on the computations done by the regulators.
Water pressure should be at a proper level so as not to repeat the outbreak of water-borne diseases in urban poor communities.
A law creating an independent regulator that will not be subject to the whims of politicians and should impose the international standards of best practices.
For those communities in the “periphery” that cannot be served by the company (due to distance, terrain difficulty, or other so-called “non-viable” factors), community participation in setting up water associations or cooperatives should be encouraged and should not be viewed as competition or with hostility. Cooperation between the company and these associations can be done through a contract or a law where provisions for benefits and incentives are part of the deal. In cases where these areas will already be connected to the main system, the investments of these associations should be paid before taking over or explore options that can either maintain the set-up or other mutually beneficial arrangement.

Government should know that the option to bailout the Lopez family is not acceptable and must not even be considered. Certainly, Maynilad’s scaling down of service targets cannot meet even Goal 1 of the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) where it calls for decreasing in half “the proportion of people with no access to safe drinking water or those who cannot afford it by 2015.” Rehabilitating Maynilad in its current structure runs counter to the avowed goals of President Arroyo of bringing water to all within the next six years, an even ambitious target than that of the MDGs. Calling on the government to provide water for the people requires that civil society organizations and consumers exact the best deal available, and this could only be done with the implementation of the right structural and organizational reforms and changes in the water sector. The challenge is to formulate the steps that would lead to strategic and far-reaching reforms beneficial to the people.

*Bantay Tubig (Philippine Water Vigilance Network) is a citizens' coalition for adequate, accessible and affordable water in the Philippines. Organized in April 2002 in response to the worsening water crisis in the country, Bantay Tubig started as a collaborative effort among civil society organizations.

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