Robredo urges ‘calmer’ approach on water concession deals

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, December 15) — Vice President Leni Robredo urged the government to pursue a “calmer” approach in pushing for better water concession agreements as its current track of putting water firms on blast may spook investors.

Kapag hindi natin dinaan sa mas mahinahon na usapin, ang dami nitong collateral damage,” Robredo said Sunday on her radio program.

[Translation: If we don’t pursue calmer talks, this would leave a lot of collateral damage.]

Robredo noted that the government’s tirades against water firms had caused their stocks to slump, which may negatively impact the investments of the Social Security System and the Government Service Insurance System.

Robredo added that foreign direct investments may shrink because it may appear that there is a lot of uncertainty in doing business in the country.

Kung may masamang probisyon, i-renegotiate ‘yun at ‘wag payagan na patuloy na mamayani kasi nakakasama siya sa taong bayan. Pero ‘yung paraan nang paggawa, parating iisipin,” Robredo said.

[Translation: If there are bad provisions, let’s renegotiate them and let’s not allow these to continue because it negatively affects the people. But we should always think of how we approach this.]

Why only now?

President Rodrigo Duterte has waged a verbal offensive against water concessionaires Manila Water and Maynilad ever since the Justice department found out in its review of the 22-year-old agreements between the government and the two companies that there are “onerous” provisions in these contracts.

These same provisions allowed the two companies to take the Philippine government to a Singapore-based arbitral tribunal over its blocking of a water rate hike. The tribunal said in two separate rulings that the Philippine government must pay back Maynilad ₱3.4 billion and Manila Water ₱7.4 billion.

Under continuous threats of lawsuits, warrantless arrests and even a government takeover from Duterte, the water firms have formally informed Malacañang that they will not collect the proceeds of the arbitration and expressed willingness to renegotiate contract terms.

The Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System also cancelled the extension of their supply contracts until 2037, which meant that the two firms are only assured business until 2022 unless a new deal is reached.

Duterte said he wants new water supply contracts with the private firms. Manila Water and Maynilad earlier warned that cutting their contracts short could trigger water rate increases due to the shorter period given for them to recover their investments.

But Robredo said the Duterte administration should not have waited to push for a renegotiation of water deals until the latest arbitral ruling in favor of Manila Water.

“Three and a half years na itong pamahalaang ito. Sigurado naman ako nung pumasok sila noong middle of 2016, alam na nila na mayroong arbitration case,” she said. “Bakit pa hinintay na lumabas ‘yung desisyon na to? Bakit hindi gumawa ng mga hakbang noon pang 2016 para maayos?

[Translation: This administration has been in office for three and a half years. I’m sure when they came in the middle of 2016, they already knew of the arbitration case … Why did they have to wait for this decision to come out? Why didn't they take steps back in 2016 to fix this?]

She also balked at Duterte’s plan for the government — or even the military — to take over the operations of water firms.

Parang nakakalimutan natin in the first place kung bakit nandoon ‘yun sa private. Kaya siya binigay sa private kasi nung gobyerno ‘yung humahawak, palpak nga,” she said.

[Translation: It’s like we’re forgetting why it was given to the private sector in the first place. This happened because the government failed when it was in charge of water operations.]