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The water crisis — and government influence on the media — in the Philippines

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

How does a city on an island run out of water? Well, officials in the Manila capital region of the Philippines, home to over 13 million people, have been warning of an impending water crisis for years. But if you listen to any news about it, you would think the crisis is already happening. Reporter Ashley Westerman looked into it.

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: If you consume any media at all here in Manila, you know there is an issue with the water.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: President Bongbong Marcos says there has long been a water crisis in the country.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Authorities are addressing the looming threat as millions of Filipinos still suffer from the lack of water supply.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Around a million Maynilad customers will suffer from extended hours of water service interruptions.

WESTERMAN: All of that sounds really scary, right? But when asking around for places to go and experience this shortage in water, my producer and I came up dry. So NPR visited Manila's Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewage System, a government body, and got an interesting answer.

DELFIN SESPENE: The water supply remained normal, providing 24/7. So we have enough to supply water.

WESTERMAN: That's supervising engineer Delfin Sespene.

Just to be clear, there is no water crisis right now.

SESPENE: We still maintain our earlier announcement that there is still enough water supply for Metro Manila this summer season.

WESTERMAN: Sespene says due to a combination of Metro Manila's rapidly increasing population and the anticipation of an El Nino, a climate pattern that could cause less rain to fall, a water crisis is impending, and there could be a severe shortage by 2027. So officials are taking several steps to augment the water supply. Their biggest-ticket project is a plan to build a dam known as the Kaliwa Dam in the Sierra Madre Mountains to help direct more water to Manila.

But the water crisis and the completion of the dam are years away. So why are we being made to feel like this is happening now? Danilo Arao, a journalism professor who says he's not currently experiencing any water shortages, says the Philippine media holds some responsibility in that. He says, we must remember that the dominant media in the country, outlets like GMA, ABS-CBN and TV5, are trapped by commercial interests.

DANILO ARAO: They need ratings. They need large viewerships (ph), and they are dependent on advertising. The content will be very much determined not by what the audience needs but what the owner wants and what the advertisers would prefer. So that would explain why there is a lot of commercialism, sensationalism.

WESTERMAN: But no one is really going beyond what they're being told by the government, Arao says, especially because the audience today also just wants bite-size information.

ARAO: And that would result in the dumbing down of audiences, intentionally or unintentionally, because the deeper context would take a longer form of journalism.

WESTERMAN: He says while investigative reporting does exist here, it is few and far between. Melinda Quintos de Jesus is the executive director of the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility. She says a reason for the return to the he-said-she-said way of doing news is because of the pandemic. Everyone is so reliant on government information. But another reason is because of former President Rodrigo Duterte, who was open about his disdain for the mainstream media and managed to shut down the broadcast license of the country's largest cable news network, ABS-CBN, during his tenure.

MELINDA QUINTOS DE JESUS: That left a mark on the conduct of the Philippine press in general because if it happened to the biggest major network, then it can happen to anyone. And we have had evidence of the - of journalists saying, we have to be very careful. We've been given the message, don't rock the boat.

WESTERMAN: Even Nobel Peace Prize laureate journalist Maria Ressa and her online news outlet Rappler were in Duterte's crosshairs. No one was safe, and it wasn't just intimidation. Twenty-three media workers were killed during Duterte's administration between 2016 and 2022, and two have been killed since the current president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., took office just last year. And media workers here continue to be intimidated, threatened and red-tagged as communists. So journalists are intimidated. They're scared, Quintos-de Jesus says.

QUINTOS DE JESUS: And everybody sees. So the quality, the lack of interpretation, the lack of analysis, the lack of just basic good news - I think we need to go back to some real basics.

WESTERMAN: Now, to be fair, the mainstream media here did recently report that officials now say there is, in fact, enough water to get Manila through this year's dry season. So crisis averted for now.

For NPR News, I'm Ashley Westerman in Manila, Philippines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.