Manila Times


  • A Department of Water is critical for the nation

    THIS week, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) hosted the Asia Water Forum 2022, a three-day virtual event that examined the challenges, prospects and opportunities for water security and development throughout the region. It is thus a good time to revisit one of the most disappointing failures of the previous Congress, the lack of action on the creation of the critically needed Department of Water Resources (DWR).

    The failure was not for lack of an enthusiastic start. In 2019, representatives filed 35 separate bills that would create the DWR, resulting in a consolidated bill — House Bill (HB) 4944, authored by Albay Second District Rep. Jose Ma. Clemente "Joey" Salceda — that was approved by the House committees on government reorganization and public works and highways in November 2019. Similar measures were introduced and sent to committees in the Senate as well, but that was as far as the effort went. The 18th Congress ended with no DWR being born, obliging legislators to go back to square one and reintroduce the measures.

    Fortunately, several members of both the House and Senate have expressed the intention to do just that, and we hope that their colleagues will treat the matter with the urgency it deserves this time.

    Currently, water resources in the Philippines are governed by a scattershot, disorganized framework; there are at least 39 different agencies involved, with much competition for funding and jurisdiction. This stands in stark and uncomplimentary contrast to the examples of just about every other organized country on earth, where water management is accorded ministerial status; either through a stand-alone, dedicated department, or through concentrating regulatory authority within another relevant department, such as the Department of the Interior in the US, or other countries' public works departments.

    According to the terms of the aborted HB 4944, the number of agencies dealing with water policy and management would be reduced to just two, the new DWR, and the National Water Resources Board (NWRB), which is primarily responsible for allocation of water resources and would continue in its current form. At least 10 other agencies would either be transferred to the new department, or have their functions absorbed by it, including the River Basin Control Office; the Manila Bay Coordinating Office of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR); the flood management planning and sediment functions of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH); the water supply sanitation unit of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG); the water quality management section of the Environmental Management Bureau of the DENR; the Metro Manila Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS); the Local Water Utilities Administration (LWUA); the Laguna Lake Development Authority (LLDA); and the National Irrigation Administration (NIA).

    There were a couple of things about the proposed DWR under HB 4944 that were appealing. First and most importantly, the new department would greatly streamline management of the critical water sector. Philippine governing style has always favored inefficiency, creating an endless number of separate agencies to handle similar activities, multiplying budgets and creating unnecessary overlapping jobs. Streamlining this — which, significantly, would be clearly within the Marcos administration's "rightsizing" objectives, would reduce costs and improve performance. The proposed DWR could also help to improve regulation of privatized water infrastructure, since resources among different areas of responsibility could be shared and indirect impacts quickly identified.

    The recent Asia Water Forum, however, revealed one key consideration that should be made part of any bill reintroducing the DWR. There is a close and inseparable relationship between water, energy and food production, such that any development in one should take into account the impact of the other two. Here in the Philippines, for example, energy and agriculture combined account for just over 91 percent of water demand; conversely, water management accounts for between 2 percent and 3 percent of the country's electricity demand. Thus, one improvement that we would recommend is that the organizational structure of a new proposed DWR should have close cooperation with the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Energy built into it, in whatever manner is deemed most practical.

  • Our basic education emergency

    IN less than two weeks, students will return to class for the new school year, and it is not an exaggeration to say that most students and parents are looking at it with a great deal of apprehension after nearly two years of disruption due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, a recent global study on education by the World Bank is only going to increase those worries.

    The report, "The State of Global Learning Poverty: 2022 Update," was published by the World Bank at the end of June, but had not received much public attention until this week.

    We'll cut to the chase, because this is a crisis situation: the report has found that the Philippines is among the worst countries in the world for "learning poverty," and what is even more alarming, this sad state was the situation prior to the pandemic.

    "Learning poverty," the report explains, is a combination of two factors. The first is "learning deprivation," which is the percentage of primary-age students who are in school, but read below the minimum proficiency level for their age. The second is schooling deprivation, which is the percentage of primary-age children who are out of school; these children are assumed to also be deficient in reading skills. Putting the two factors together results in a percentage of primary-age children who are experiencing "learning poverty."

    The report focuses on reading, because without basic competency in reading, a student will fall behind in other basic education subjects as well. The study also used the latest available data prior to the onset of the pandemic, in order to establish a sort of pre-pandemic benchmark for each country's educational state; for the Philippines (along with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia and Vietnam), the study used the Grade 5 reading results from the SEA-PLM 2019 assessment.

    The findings for the Philippines are frankly terrible; even though the country has a relatively low percentage of children (5 percent) out of school, learning poverty here is at 90.4 percent. Even though 95 out of 100 school-age children in the Philippines are actually in school, 90 out of those 95 are deficient in learning. To put it in a different perspective, countries with similar scores to the Philippines include Cambodia, Ethiopia, Mali and Niger. Among Asean countries — although Brunei and Singapore were not assessed — only the Lao People's Democratic Republic has a worse learning poverty score than the Philippines.

    There are a couple of caveats, at least as far as the Philippines is concerned. The country is not necessarily being singled out for the poor quality of its basic education. The World Bank stresses that learning poverty is a global problem, with an overall average of about 76 percent, and expresses fear that the disruption of education due to the pandemic has almost certainly made the problem much worse. The report also notes that the Philippines has taken action to try to improve education with the publication of the Basic Education Learning Continuity Plan, which streamlined the K to 12 curriculum into essential learning competencies for the 2020-2021 school year. However, the impact of that, for better or worse, is not yet known.

    The last time the World Bank produced a report critical of the Philippines' education system under the Department of Education (DepEd), which was in 2019, the reaction of the then Education secretary Leonor Briones and other government officials was to publicly take offense at being made to look bad, rather than to address the issues. That was not a helpful reaction then; it would be a totally unacceptable reaction now.

    While it is certainly challenging for the DepEd, particularly led by a new and inexperienced secretary in Vice President Sara Duterte-Carpio, to simply organize and launch a new school year in what (we hope) is our first "post-pandemic" year, the evident deficiency in the quality of education must be treated as the emergency it is, and confronted head-on. With the pandemic already having set our young learners' education back by a year or two, there is no time to waste to protect the country's future competence and opportunities.

  • Let filmmaking and reading flourish

    THE tempest in a teapot regarding the showing of "Maid in Malacañang" and "Katips" has had an unintended consequence. It brought droves of people back to the cinema houses, to watch either the last 72 hours of the Marcos family before they fled the presidential palace, or a flaming film about martial law activists.

    We will not wade into this controversy, except to rap the knuckles of the "MIM" director when he blithely stated that research was not needed in filmmaking. We still remember the copious research that went into the making of several Jose Rizal films to mark the Philippine Centennial in 1998. Tikoy Aguiluz, Mike de Leon, and most certainly, the late Marilou Diaz Abaya, devoted much time in research for their respective Rizal films even before the cameras rolled. Abaya did the same detailed research before she helmed Bagong Buwan, which was about the Muslim struggle for autonomy in Mindanao. And that was why, among other reasons, she was recently proclaimed a National Artist for Film.

    But the people came in droves, whether on their own or given free tickets, and that is well and good. It only affirms the fact that Filipinos love to watch a good show.

    It also underscores the fact that we need to do more for our film industry. One way is to reduce the enormous taxes imposed on on movie tickets. The film producers must still contend with the flood tax, the cultural tax and other taxes that the state has been imposing on the industry in the last 50 years.

    Another impetus would be a higher budget for the Film Development Council, which under its former director general, Liza Diño, put the Philippines back in the world filmmaking map. We need funds to send our best movies yearly to the major film festivals (Cannes, Berlin, Venice and Tokyo). We need funds to send bright filmmakers to study their craft in the centers of film education. We also need funds to subsidize the local film festivals that provide platforms for our short films, documentaries and feature films.

    Along this line, the state should also flesh out the National Book Development Law, which mandates the creation of a library in every town and city in the Philippines. This law has been in existence for close to 30 years, but it has not yet been fully implemented. Let us look at the business model done by The Library Renewal Partnership (LRP), which sets up libraries in the poorest places. Writer and social development guru Quintin Jose Pastrana has done an excellent job setting up more than 2,000 such libraries in the Philippines.

    The local government provides the space, the physical facilities and the salary for the librarian. LRP donates the books and magazines, sourced from donors like the Asia Society, National Book Store and Adarna Books, as well as our Filipinos living overseas.

    If the location of the library is in a place where the Indigenous people live, then they hire a member of the IP themselves who are college graduates to run the library. The IP librarian curates the holdings to ensure that they respect the culture and heritage of the IPs. The libraries also serve as study areas, since they have Wi-Fi connections that students need for their online learning platforms. Lastly, the libraries have been configured to become community hubs and third spaces, where the community meets and discusses matters that affect their lives and livelihood.

    Recent reports have placed Filipino pupils at the bottom rung in Asia in reading comprehension, mathematics skills and science knowledge. The libraries in far-flung places — along with a more coherent curriculum and better-trained teachers — could still turn the tide in our favor.

    We should shun ignorance and neglect in all its forms — whether in shoddy filmmaking, or the lack of learning spaces for our youth.

  • Campaign against illicit drugs should be holistic

    DESPITE six years of a brutal war against illegal drugs waged by the previous Duterte administration, the menace still exists today. And so it was reassuring to hear the new Marcos administration commit to the campaign and improve its approach.

    At a press briefing last week, Secretary Benjamin "Benhur" Abalos Jr. of the Department of the Interior and Local Government said, "The drug war will be pursued relentlessly in accordance with the oath I will be taking and the basis of the Constitution." He added that he also planned to join some raids, to show his support for law enforcers.

    The police are likely to face stiff resistance as they had before. When Rodrigo Duterte won the presidency in 2016, the Philippines was at the cusp of becoming a narco state. Back then, nine out of 10 barangay or villages had been infiltrated by drug syndicates. Even though Mr. Duterte failed to eradicate the illicit drug problem during his term, the war on drugs did make a noticeable dent. But as has been said in this space, what happens after he steps down?

    Obviously, large drug busts remain common in news reports these days. And according to data from the Dangerous Drugs Board, 1.67 percent Filipinos between ages 10 and 69 use illegal substances. The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) said 36.6 percent of the 42,045 villages have yet to be cleared of illegal drug operations. That comes out to 15,388 barangay, which is still a lot but fewer than in 2016.

    Worldwide, 5.5 percent of people between 15 and 64 years old have used drugs at least once a year, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. It also estimates that drug trafficking is valued at about $32 billion.

    For its part, the Philippines is considered as a critical transshipment point, as well as a destination for large shipments of illegal drugs, mostly shabu, or methamphetamine. Also, smuggling remains rampant in the country because of its long coastlines and weak border control.

    On the positive side, the Marcos government has announced its plan to continue the campaign against illegal drugs. Those substances not only ruin the youth and derail their lives, as the previous president used to say. Illegal drugs also sap labor productivity, primarily because of lost labor participation, taking time out for treatment, imprisonment and premature death.

    Enhanced approach

    The government hopes to mix things up. For starters, Mr. Abalos said there should be more convictions in drug cases. He added that in many instances, courts dismiss cases because of some technicality. He said that simple changes can be done, citing a practice in Mandaluyong City where his wife is the current mayor. The mayor assigned a city hall official to be a designated witness to assist in drug cases, which has contributed to the prosecution of drug dealers there, the secretary explained.

    "Aside from the law enforcement aspect, we should get to the root causes of the anti-illegal drugs problem and address all of these things in collaboration with other agencies of the government and stakeholders–—unemployment, education, family and a host of other issues." Mr. Abalos even suggested that there should be more sports programs and other activities for young Filipinos to make them less accessible to illegal drug peddlers and other criminals. He also said that he was looking at other preventive measures. These new methods should resonate with the critics of the previous government who have been calling for an alternative to hard measures.

    To be fair to Mr. Duterte, however, most Filipinos supported his campaign against illegal drugs, even though many were troubled by the vigilante killings. In fact, the former president left office with unusually high approval and job satisfaction ratings.

    Those survey numbers still baffle political pundits and journalists, but there may be a simple explanation. Perhaps most people were just exasperated by the drug crimes and incidence of abuse that they became tolerant of extreme measures.

    Hopefully, Mr. Abalos and others in the new government can back up their public statements by continuing to press forward. Because clearly, the drug syndicates are still in business.

  • Government should exit gaming business

    IF the Marcos government is still looking for sources of funds, it should consider selling the casinos owned and operated by the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor). It is a government-owned and -controlled corporation that also regulates the gaming industry.

    Granted, Pagcor's charter does allow it to operate casinos, but as many have asked over the years, how well can a regulator regulate itself? And with a private gaming industry thriving in the country, can a regulator ensure a level playing field when it is also a competitor?

    Years ago, some already suggested the privatization of Pagcor's gaming business based on moral grounds. They argued that the government itself should not be in the gambling business, but at the same time, they conceded that Pagcor's earnings were an important source of funds for social services.

    More recently, Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, who heads the Senate ways and means committee, suggested privatizing some public corporations to help the fledgling administration. Apparently, the previous government had frontloaded public spending before leaving office. That left the Marcos economic team scrounging for funds for new initiatives and other government projects scheduled in the second half of 2022.

    Some of the options reported in media include imposing new taxes, and Mr. Gatchalian added privatization, particularly of Pagcor, as an alternative. That idea deserves to be studied and not merely to address the government's needs at present. Doing so positions the government on high moral ground, from which the authorities can convince people to shun vices and embrace the virtues that could propel them to success and happiness in life.

    Cash cow

    To be realistic, however, this idea is a tough sell. Pagcor simply makes too much money for the government. Still, that does not make the idea a bad one.

    According to the law, 5 percent of Pagcor's winnings go to the Bureau of Internal Revenue as franchise tax. Then, half of the 95-percent balance is remitted to the national government as its share.

    Earlier this month, Pagcor reported that its total income for the first half of the year was P26.7 billion. That was a significant improvement compared to the same period in 2021, when income was P15.88 billion. Plus, the new income report exceeded the forecast for the first six months of 2022 by about P2 billion.

    The government's share benefits the Philippine Sports Commission, the Dangerous Drugs Board, other national agencies, as well as a few socio-civic programs. Pagcor itself also has corporate social responsibility projects funded from its earnings.

    All of that can continue, even if Pagcor sells or privatizes its gaming operations that include nine casinos located in major cities and 32 other satellite gambling sites across the country. The government could negotiate to keep on receiving its proportional share of taxes and profits from any company that buys those casinos.

    In fact, the public's earnings could be higher if another firm runs those Pagcor casinos, given the general view that the private sector does better than the government in running enterprises. Those currently employed by Pagcor should not worry either. More of them would be in demand when the business thrives.

    Also, the government could be confident about the possibility that private buyers will line up to acquire Pagcor's casinos, if they are ever put up for sale. As mentioned earlier, they make lots of money.

    The bonus, of course, is that Pagcor can focus on its primary role as a regulator. As it is, it has its hands full guarding against illegal activities typically associated with casino operations, like money laundering and other crimes perpetrated by syndicates.

    To be clear, we are not criticizing Pagcor's management team. Based on the revenues, they are doing a good job. But that is not the point. There is just something fundamentally wrong about any government making money from a vice.

    Regrettably, not all good ideas take root and prosper. That may be the case here, because this particular suggestion requires, to use a cliché, political will. Then again, perhaps the new government has the resolve to do the hard stuff.

Feed by Manila Times.