Special Report: Communicating Water in Metro Cebu

How agencies tap digital to warn about water realities and campaign actions


Even before the El Niño’s heat was felt at the start of the year and its impact drained the Jaclupan and Buhisan Dams, parts of Cebu were already in an outcry over low to zero water supply. Last year, stories abound and complaints aplenty, manifesting how water scarcity is far from the norm in the people’s lives. 

A family of five living on a highland in Lahug, Cebu City in Cebu, Philippines waits for midnight to store water. For years, they have always been patient, understanding that because of their elevated location, water only arrives after neighboring businesses (a laundry shop, a water refilling station, a fast food restaurant, and several eateries) at the foot of the hill by the main road, close after dinnertime. 

In Liloan town, a household competes with neighbors for water when it comes around 7 a.m. In Cabancalan, Mandaue City, another household turns to bottled water to replace the lack of supply they get from the Metropolitan Cebu Water District (MCWD). For residents in Metro Cebu who heavily rely on MCWD for their source of water, who have no deep well pumps, these are all-too-familiar scenes.

This year, their issues with water supply is exacerbated by the phenomenon that affects rainfall and warms the central to eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. The families from Lahug and Cabancalan consider themselves lucky to be able to use and store water for two hours, four days a week. Often, they turn to vended water to replenish what they need for drinking and cooking.

The heat has also aggravated public behavior, forcing MCWD to urge consumers to remain sober and patient after the agency received reports of some residents harassing and threatening volunteers manning water trucks or firetrucks dedicated to deliver water to to affected barangays for free (Bongcac, 2019). 

This has spurred the blame game, with one official, Cebu City Councilor Joel Garganera, pointing to MCWD and the Cebu City government for their failure to establish infrastructures to store rain that could have been used to address the city’s water shortage during dry spells (“MCWD, City Government,” 2019). 

Old issues

However, before this year’s El Niño even struck the country, serious concerns over low water supply in Metro Cebu have already been brewing for decades. In a study (David et al. 240) published in 1998, 21 years ago, the following concerns have already been recognized and placed on the table demanding policy and institutional reforms and actions:

  • crucial state of water resource management and quality of the water utility service
  • watersheds around Metro Cebu have long been considered in a critical state
  • access to piped water connection is limited
  • groundwater pumping is virtually unregulated
  • lack of sewerage collection and treatment efforts
  • poor regulation of industrial effluents and nonpoint sources of water pollution 

Fast forward, in The Roadmap Study for Sustainable Urban Development in Metro Cebu conducted by the Metro Cebu Development and Coordination Board (MCDCB) and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and published in June 2015, the current water supply system in Metro Cebu is challenged by:

  • salinity intrusion,
  • Nitrate and E-coli contamination,
  • peripheral urbanization of the watershed areas,
  • active faults in Cebu, and
  • hardly any access to water by the poor.

These can be considered the pitfalls of urbanization, the other side of economic development, as more and more people flock to live, study, work, and build businesses in the cities. The migration to Metro Cebu is a microcosm of a national and global trend. 

In the Philippines, “as of 2010, about 45 percent of Filipinos were living in the urban areas, indicating a pattern of rapid urbanization in the country,” said Commission on Population Executive Director Dr. Antonio Juan Perez III during the 48th Session of the Commission on Population and Development in the UN Headquarters in New York City in April 2015.

Globally, two out of every three people are likely to be living in cities or other urban centers by 2050, “highlighting the need for more sustainable urban planning and public services,” according to the UN’s 2018 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects.

With this migration trend comes the public demand for one of the most basic needs: water. 

Supply and demand gap

This shows that as population increases, demand for water increases. In 2015, Cebu registered a population of 2.94 million (Census of Population, 2015). This is a 12 percent increase from 2.62 million in 2010. 

According to Mega Cebu, in a presentation during World Water Day 2016 at the Cebu Provincial Capitol, the population has been growing at a rate of 3.3 percent every year, which is larger than the 1.4 percent population growth rate per year of the entire country (Castro, 2016). Also, in Cebu, the Big 4--Cebu City, Lapu-Lapu City, Mandaue City, and Talisay City--collectively has 69 percent of the population occupying 38 percent of land area in Metro Cebu. 

Mega Cebu is an MCDCB program that envisions a wholesome, advanced, vibrant, equitable, sustainable Cebu in 2050. It promotes long-term and collaborative planning and action toward a more sustainable city-region.

The increasing number of residents and economic activities in Cebu, with their varied demands for water, has far surpassed the availability and accessibility of potable water. MCWD, which is in charge of water supply and distribution in Metro Cebu, produced more than 214,000 cubic meters a day in 2016, but the demand in Metro Cebu has reached more than 385,000 cubic meters a day (MCWD, 2018). 

Now, MCWD is producing about 234,000 cubic meters of water a day, but the demand has now reached 400,000 cubic meters a day (Palaubsanon, 2018). This is beyond what MCWD in its 2005 Water Demand Survey has projected, that the demand will reach 350,000 cubic meters in 2017 and 490,000 cubic meters by 2028. 

“To ensure sustainability, there has to be a balance between recharge of the resource (water) and extraction. If the recharge of the aquifer (groundwater source) is less than what is extracted, the result is mining,” said Evelyn Nacario-Castro, former MCDCB project management head. See Fig. 1 for the existing water sources in Metro Cebu.

In the same roadmap study by MCDCB and JICA, the latter forecasts that by 2050, the demand for water will reach 800,000 cubic meters a day and the supply required of MCWD will be at 651,825 cubic meters a day. 

Water scarcity persists

With supply not catching up to the demand and water not reaching all households, the under-served sector turns to private wells and water vendors while some establishments install their own water pumps, water purification, and desalination facilities (Castro, 1). Some of these deep wells are illegal because they are extracting water in prohibited areas and others have not been approved by or registered with the National Water Resources Board.

In Metro Cebu, there are 19,000 private wells, based on a 1986 University of San Carlos-Water Resources Center Foundation Inc. Study. In Mactan island alone, there are 15,000 private wells, according to a 2009 MCWD survey. When there is over extraction, there is increase in saltwater intrusion, which can force the shutting down of drinking water supplies. The USC-WRC had repeatedly warned that just 50 liters of seawater can already make 1,000 liters of freshwater brackish (qtd. in Mercado, 2011). 

“MCWD’s inability to supply water not only stems from infrastructural and institutional deficiencies, but also from limited availability and access to new water resources,” wrote Castro who was also the executive director of the Eduardo Aboitiz Development Studies Center at the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc., in her paper “When the Well Runs Dry: A Civil Initiative in Watershed Planning and Management in the Philippines.”
JICA pointed out that only 10 percent of wastewater is treated in the Philippines. The rest is disposed to rivers and seas, resulting to pollution of ground water where MCWD mines about 80 percent of its water supply to distribute across Metro Cebu. 


The realities about water supply in Cebu should give residents the right and ample motivation to break away from the wrong idea that water is unlimited. They should also be inspired to protect and conserve their limited resources. This prompts the question: How are the realities of Metro Cebu’s water supply communicated to the public? 

Water message

These realities has long prompted institutions, advocates, and government agencies to emphasize that water is a limited resource. 

“A new mindset is needed today about the ownership and use of water. Both the water agency and the customer must come to realize that water is a limited resource and that the agency only loans the water to the customer who after use must then return it to the agency for refurbishment and reuse. The customer pays a fee, not to buy the water nor to own it, but for the loan of that water,” wrote expert Arthur C. McIntosh in his 2014 book, Urban Water Supply and Sanitation in Southeast Asia: A Guide to Good Practice.
Francisco M. Largo, Arlene B. Inocencio, and Cristina C. David, authors of a 1998 discussion paper for the Philippine Institute for Development Studies also highlighted this message, saying, “Freshwater has ceased to be plentiful and thus should not continue to be treated as a free good. And consumers of water must, in principle, be responsible for the cost of mitigating the negative externalities incurred in the production and consumption of water.”

Ruben Almendras, former MCWD chairman, said that the water situation in Metro Cebu is precarious and has to be addressed to avoid a crisis.

Communication interventions

Subscribing to the reality that environmental programs have a “high order of complexity” that requires “a set of high order communication interventions” (Flor, 100), MCDCB, the coordinating body for metro-wide planning and development in Cebu, has adopted an integrative operational framework in communicating the issues that severely affect the daily needs of the residents in Metro Cebu, including:

  • producing promotional and instruction materials, 
  • organizing information, education and communication activities as social interventions,
  • engaging the public and private sector in their communication campaigns, and
  • mobilizing groups into collective action.

MCDCB is composed of various strategic members (see Ill. 3): 14 local government units, 20 national government agencies and government-owned and controlled corporations, and seven private sector organizations, who committed to the Mega Cebu vision of “a vibrant, equitable, sustainable and competitive environment that embraces Cebu’s creativity and its cultural, historical, and natural resources, with strong citizen participation and responsive governance.” 

Among the Mega Cebu members and/or partners are the MCWD, Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Region VII, and Cebu Uniting for Sustainable Water (CUSW).

Water on social media

Facebook is a promising platform to advocate causes and create a movement. In the case of charity: water, the non-profit organization that provides clean drinking water to people in developing nations targeted video ads to lookalike audiences to grow its monthly donations program and increase awareness of the global water crises. The two-month ad campaign generated $470,000 in annual recurring revenue, assuring 15,666 people clean water in a year. 

In the Philippines, 76 million are active social media users, spending an average of four hours a day on social media, based on the Digital Report 2019 by global conversation agency We Are Social and social media management platform provider Hootsuite. Facebook remains to be the most active social media platform in the country, with its advertisements reaching around 75 million people. 

Are agencies and organizations in Metro Cebu tapping digital opportunities found in, for instance, Facebook, and strategically communicating about water realities to the public?

This report inspects the Facebook pages of Mega Cebu, MCWD, DENR, and CUSW in the first quarter of 2019, especially when the country celebrates Philippine Water Week and World Water Day in March, to find any informational messages or campaigns related to water supply and management.

There were no Facebook posts on Mega Cebu, which currently has 57,127 page likes, during the first quarter this year, except for event announcements in March on a series of Candidates’ Forum weeks before the midterm Philippine election. In the same period in 2018, there was only one post by Mega Cebu that is related to water, which is also about solid waste management. 

Caroline Ballesteros, past communication and stakeholder relationships manager for Mega Cebu, pointed out last year that the Mega Cebu’s Facebook page is venue to disseminate updates on issues that have been discussed in regular MCDCB meetings and best practices on these same issues. 

Other Facebook pages are not able to supplement Mega Cebu’s efforts in communicating water-related problems to the public. A Facebook page for the Cebu United for Sustainable Water, a multi-sectoral coalition of institutions and individuals concerned with the sustainability of Cebu’s water supply, could not be found since last year.

MCWD’s Facebook posts in the first three months in 2019 are about notices of water interruptions, save for one advisory on how to boil water. Charmaine Rodriguez-Kara, MCWD spokesperson, explained that MCWD currently lack the staff who can dedicate time, focus, and energy to use Facebook to communicate important messages about water. 

DENR’s Facebook page is more active, although posts are limited to announcements on clean-up drives of rivers in Central Visayas. In Cebu, these initiatives happened in March, cleaning up Lahug River, Guadalupe River, and the river stretch of Barangay Tinago, all in Cebu City. 

What should be considered, however, is that behind the public posts on their Facebook pages are collaborative programs and initiatives designed to raise awareness, generate interest, enable decision making, and empower communities to act to address issues related to water, which may not have reached the mouthpieces of the social media landscape due to program priorities and organizational structure. 

Communicating water

Putting up Facebook posts about water issues in an erratic schedule is guaranteed not to reach as many people as they are ideally hoped to or to achieve social transformation. 

Alexandar Flor, professor at the University of the Philippines Open University and author of Environmental Communication: Principles, Approaches and Strategies of Communication Applied to Environmental Management, said that environmental communication should be a “deliberate exchange of environmental information, knowledge, and even wisdom.” 

He pointed out that “environmental communication should not be source-oriented or media-centric. It should allow for greater participation of the public. In fact, it should enable and empower the audience not to stay as passive receivers but to become active sources of information as well.”

Cecille-Guidote Alvarez of Earthsavers emphasized “the need to design a creative communication strategy and described as catastrophic the fact that media has not been used as an education tool (qtd. in Flor, 2004).” 

Flor added that environmental communication programs are not participatory enough.

As a media platform, Facebook offers that exchange system or venue for transparent dialogue and participation. However, that deliberate exchange is not clearly manifested on Facebook through an environment communication program or communication campaign by the selected pages checked by this report. 

These organizations are missing out on the digital opportunities to use social media as a “pressure point to prompt and encourage support during specific campaigns” (Dosemagen, 2016), especially when many people in the Philippines spend so much time on Facebook.

In 2017, the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc. and Mega Cebu broadcast on Facebook Live the series of Understanding Choices Forum they organized, which tackle various urban development issues, such as water and waste management. 

In the same year, Mega Cebu launched its campaign, Mega Cebu, Pwede Kaayo! featuring short videos that encourage positive behavior and norms, such as consciously turning off the faucet when not in use. The videos can be accessed on Youtube and have been shared on Facebook. MCWD also released short water conservation videos six years ago. 

Participatory communication

Some residents in different parts in Metro Cebu, however are not aware yet of any long-term campaign online to get people to talk about and act to solve Cebu’s water programs. 

Still, Mikodaemus Mamac, a resident of Liloan town; Marie Ferleine Maderazo, a resident of Mambaling town; and Karla Grengia, a resident of Cebu City, and their families practice water conservation daily and, in their own capacity, remind others on the importance of water or participate in beach clean-ups. 

But apart from these pro-water habits, they have no idea about what more they can do to help solve the water issues in Cebu. As a result of this knowledge gap, these three individuals, who are all college students, developed different attitudes toward the water problems. 

Grengia is inspired to do something about the situation and occasionally participates in clean-up drives. Maderazo, a mother, constantly worries over the daily water supply needed to care for her children. Mamac, as someone who witnesses disorder almost every morning when his family and neighbors race to the public water pump to store water, admitted feeling fatalistic and helpless about the situation. 
In spite of these feelings, they do not deliberately seek information in the media or actively engage with institutions like MCWD, DENR, or Mega Cebu.

Communicating problems on water in Metro Cebu can take the form of a creative “communication campaign that is planned, designed, and implemented with specific audiences, messages, media, strategies, and timetables,” and the form of cultural interventions that “involve tapping and nurturing existing or spontaneously occurring cultural phenomena” (Flor, 7). 

Through these ways, communicating water issues can become a large-scale social change initiative, featuring a participatory structure as one of its key components. 

Professor John Barry of the Queen’s University Belfast pointed out (as cited in Brulle, 2010) that through participation in collective decision-making processes, citizens acquire the necessary technical and cultural knowledge to make a meaningful contribution. Because “public participation and environmental communication is a process that cannot be forced or accelerated” (Flor, 195), communicating water issues then requires time and flexibility. 

According to Brulle, an environmental sociologist, “what is needed is a new social vision that engages citizens and fosters the development of enlightened self-interest and an awareness of long-term community interests.” 

The residents of Metro Cebu need to know and understand the interconnected realities about water so that they will learn to better control their water usage, improve their lifestyle, and contribute to the sustainability of water resource. 

They must also always remember that water is limited and that “water is the central resource. It is essential to life and to human civilization and development. Water defines the archipelagic and geologic nature of the Philippines, and determines its culture, agriculture and industry. The many threats to water therefore should be seen as threats to society” (Dayrit, 1). #

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