SUCCESS STORY: Crying a river for water in the Philippines

Posted: 28 April 2004

Author: Chona Lasaca-Mapano

In the village of Cebulin, daily life is usually hard - more so for women - because most people depend on upland farming. But today, the women of Cebulin (on the northern coast of Mindanao Island) have more than one reason to celebrate. After crying a river, they set up a water supply system, and improved their lives in many ways. Chona Lasaca-Mapano reports.

In 2001, life in Cebulin was almost a nightmare, mainly because of the lack of a water supply system. Members of the village's 186 households had to walk four kilometres to buy drinking water at three Pesos per gallon. For those who could afford it, a roundtrip for 20 litres of water cost eight pesos (1US$=56 Pesos). To bathe or wash clothes, people walked down a steep path to the river. A slippery path during the rains, it was tough for everyone, but most treacherous for pregnant women.

For the women of Cebulin today, the newly completed water system - referred to as Level 2 - is a triumph. The project provides water through 55 communal taps regularly, if not daily. The village, with a population of 914, falls within the municipality of Plaridel, Misamis Occidental, where the Women's Health and Safe Motherhood Partnership Project is being implemented.

Water works

Among the basic social needs of the community, women gave top priority to water - to wash clothes, bathe their children, clean their homes and prepare food. Apart from the tedium of fetching water, when children or others in the family were sick from water-borne diseases, it was the women who had to look after them.

Helped by community organiser Estefania Parohinog and municipal engineer, Nilda Tuastumban, the women and men of Cebulin joined forces to prepare a proposal for a water supply system, and identified the community resources they needed to mobilise.

"We cried a river," says Tuastumban, the municipal engineer assigned to oversee the working, describing the long-drawn out process of construction. Drilling for a water source, for instance, met with a lot of delays. At one point, the boring instrument broke down and it took a long time before a replacement to come from the provincial government. With constant rains, the road leading to Cebulin was almost impassable, and work slowed down further.

Taustumban recalls that after several weeks of digging, the residents finally hit the water source. "This excited the people. Their excitement turned to nervousness when what came out was yellowish liquid. They heaved a sigh of relief only after several days, when the water turned clear," she says.

"During that time, it was not easy to organise the women," says Helen Maquiling, 47, a leader who is now the project manager. Community organising activity was generally viewed with mistrust, given the background of armed conflict between the government and the New Peoples Army (NPA) during the 1980s and its impact on local life.

Women's group

The painstaking house-to-house visits by a core group of women, explaining the need for them to organise themselves finally brought results - a group of 60 women came together to form the Women's Organisation for Total Health.

Building the organisational capabilities of the women and setting up the water supply system moved as a parallel process. The efforts of the women resulted in financial assistance from the project partnership and from the the provincial and municipal local government units. For its part, the community contributed free labour, with men and women from every zone digging trenches to place the distribution pipes.

The Women's organisation in Cebulin now manages the community's water system. In each zone, women members hold regular meetings to discuss the maintenance and repair of the well and pump, the collecting of water and its protection from sources of contamination. A schedule of fair distribution of water to each of the seven zones is agreed, and each zone monitors its own members' water use.

Water taps

Currently, the zones have communal taps with one tap serving the needs of at least four households. From 17 taps in the initial stages, there are now 55. The additional taps have been financed through the income of the project. While each household is charged Pesos 10 (18 cents) per cubic metre of water, Pesos 7 (12.5 cents) per cm is charged for excess consumption.

The water project now provides safe water to all households of Cebulin. Apart from having reduced the water-fetching burden of women, Cebulin members claim that personal hygiene and sanitation among the residents has improved. Besides, families now engage in raising pigs and vegetable gardening.

Beneath these materially beneficial changes is the change in women's perception of themselves. Their participation and their leadership in planning, decision-making and managing this water project has brought confidence and a realisation of the need to work with other women as well as men. "Before, our husbands planned for the family. Now, we are being consulted," says Helen Maquiling.

In addition to managing the water project, women are now tending herbal gardens, working on communal farms, pursuing income-generating activities, and ensuring better nutrition for their families. The current organisational fund of the Cebulin women now stands at Pesos 100,000 (US$1,785). They lobby actively with the municipal and provincial governments, and have helped formulate a policy to address violence against women and children.

Chona Lasaca-Mapano is a freelance journalist based in The Philippines, with a special interest in environment and development issues.

Source: Women's Feature Service