In the 1800s, water was delivered by bearers in big pots called tapayan.

It is often said that water is life, and there is no truer testament to this than when Metro Manila experienced a severe water shortage a few months ago due to both environmental and human reasons. But has water always been easy for the nation’s capital in the earlier times?

Before the construction of an adequate water supply system, Manila in the 1700s sourced its water from freshwater bodies such as rivers, lakes, and springs. Believe it or not, Pasig River was the primary source of water for Manileños, and each family had a cistern or aljibe to collect rainwater.

Water was sold and delivered to households by carriers called aguadores. Prices varied a lot depending on the source: water from the springs of San Juan was the most expensive at 12.50 cents per 25 gallons, and water sourced from the Makati portion of the Pasig River was the cheapest at 2.5 cents. As expected, water was most expensive during summertime, and generally, water was too expensive for the poor.

While bodies of water in the 1800s were much cleaner than they are today, water sourced from these was unsafe for drinking. The physical nature of collecting and delivering water, as well as the lack of capabilities to treat water to make it potable, led water-borne diseases. The 1820 and 1843 cholera epidemics were so severe that the Spanish colonial government had to construct and strictly manage artesian wells, and required that water be filtered and boiled before it is drank.

The El Deposito in the late 1800s, a reservoir where Manila’s water was aerated before being distributed.

The most significant contributor to the epidemic was water sourced from Pasig River, so the government commissioned a study to find an alternate source. Among the water bodies studied, the San Mateo River in present-day Rodriguez, Rizal, was identified as having the most potable water. With this, a dam and reservoir project was slated but was later shelved due to budgetary issues.

Earlier on, the government had earmarked a certain amount of money from an endowment from Francisco Carriedo, general of the Santa Familia galleon. This endowment had grown in the past century due to interest earnings. Carriedo had willed that the money only be used for Manila’s waterworks system and that this should provide free water for the poor and the Clares and Franciscan nuns.

The waterworks system was completed in 1882. It was designed by Genaro Palacios, an engineer also known for designing the San Sebastian Church, the oldest steel church in Asia. Water was pumped from the Marikina River in Santolan and deposited to the El Deposito in San Juan, where it was treated and aerated. San Juan was chosen as the site for the reservoir because of its suitable distance from Manila. The elevation of the area was also necessary to direct the water to different areas of Manila using gravity. A symbolic water fountain was inaugurated in Sampaloc, Manila, which was named after the biggest donor to the waterworks system, Carriedo.

The El Deposito, which was built of igneous rocks and occupied almost five hectares, and provided 15 million gallons of water for Manila, Marikina, and nearby areas, was a civil engineering marvel. It is also a historical place, having been seized by Katipuneros to create a water shortage that could help them defeat the Spaniards during the Philippine Revolution.

The Americans took over El Deposito when they arrived in the 1900s. They converted it first into a military camp, then into a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients because of the fresh air in the area. Later on, it was converted into an armory. During World War II, the Japanese took over the facility and used it as an ammunition dump, until the Americans retook it. The El Deposito, however, was heavily damaged, and later on, the area was used as a public space, until it fell to local government neglect.

Today, the site of the El Deposito in San Juan has been transformed into a museum by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines. Named Museo El Deposito, the establishment now stands for Filipinos to know more about the importance of a water system and how our forebears accessed water in the past. This unique modern museum tells the story of Metro Manila’s waterworks system and features the El Deposito as an important site in Philippine history.

Today, Museo El Deposito, a museum on the history of Manila’s waterworks, stands in San Juan.

Learning about the water situation in the past gives us a better appreciation of how we should conserve and manage our water sources. The need for potable water led the colonial government to establish a waterworks system. In the face of present water issues, it is not enough that we conserve water, but more importantly, to support and lobby for legislation to ensure that the government continues its strict regulation of the country’s water supply, the majority of which is privatized. As an essential public utility, water should be ample, clean, and accessible, just like how Carriedo envisioned it to be. — JOHN LEE CANDELARIA


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