Metro Manila's urban poor find creative ways to quench thirst

Every morning, from Monday to Wednesday, Josephine Manabat, a petite woman in her late 40s, walks two blocks from her home to watch over a public faucet at a street corner in the slums of Tondo, Manila.

Josephine used to be a collector for the numbers racket jueteng before going into the water business. She also used to hawk a local brand of chocolate milk drink, walking several kilometers a day under the heat of the sun all the way to the nearby province of Cavite.

Today, however, Josephine stands guard at a street corner in Manila’s Barangay 106. She holds a green hose where the cold water gushes all day. Around her waist is a purple belt bag where she deposits the coins her neighbors pay for the water – P1 for every 18-liter container. Josephine says a family of five normally consumes four containers of water a day.

She collects an average of P500 a day, when it rains, and P800 during summer. The coins are not Josephine’s alone. She only gets P150 a day, free supply of water, free snacks and a few sticks of cigarette. The rest of the money she remits to the village chief who pays the private concessionaire Maynilad Water Services Inc. for the water connection.

About 300 families or 1,800 people in the village depend on Josephine’s faucet.

Most slum dwellers, like Josephine’s neighbors, live by scavenging from the nearby dump and from the garbage bins that litter the streets of Manila. Others make money from making charcoal.

No access

A study done by the Asian Development Bank reveals that more than two-thirds of Metro Manila’s population not served by giant concessionaires Maynilad and Manila Water Co. still has no direct connection to clean water.

ADB’s Water Supply Service Market Survey, which polled 13,791 households in Metro Manila, also reveals that only 28 percent of this sample has piped water from small-scale water providers. Non-piped water sources include private wells, open wells, rivers, rain, deep wells and common faucets or standpipes. The figures show the urgent need to improve the supply of clean water in the ever-growing metropolis.

Looking for solutions

A few kilometers from Josephine’s village is a cluster of 21 low-cost buildings that sit on what used to be Metro Manila’s dump. The building houses residents displaced by government projects and those who once lived in slums. Each building has 120 units that measure 30 square meters each that sometimes hosts up to three families. Each building has only one faucet.

In Building 28, the faucet is supervised by an association headed by Mariano Callueng with the help of four others. The association charges P2 for every 18 liters of water. The money raised from the collection is used to pay the water concessionaire. The average monthly water bill for the building is about P38,000. The organization is also still paying Maynilad P13,809 a month, for the next two years, for debts it incurred in the past.

Mataas nga ang sinisingil namin pero ito ang kailangan para hindi kami magkautang uli, para hindi kami maputulan ng tubig. Ngayon na lang din kami makakaahon," Mario says.

From 2005 to 2006, Maynilad cut the water supply in the area. The residents, most of whom are scavengers and garbage collectors, had run up water bills amounting to almost P9 million. The money collected from the residents had been pocketed by their organization’s officers. For a year, the residents have to buy a limited amount of water from nearby villages until Maynilad agreed to reconsider its decision and restructure the payment of the residents’s debt.

Thus was born the idea of one water association, and one faucet per building.

Maynilad admits that providing access to water through public faucets is not the ideal arrangement. Steve Aspacio of Maynilad who is in charge of the villages where Josephine and Mario live says the arrangement is the only plausible and profitable way for the company to provide water to slum dwellers.

Hindi na kakayanin kapag lahat ng taga looban kakabitan. Malulugi na," Steve says. The slums are too crowded, the alleys separating the shanties too narrow, for the water concessionaire to lay pipes to every household. The residents do not even own the land where they live and could be removed by authorities.

Quenching their thirst

Despite having to share only a faucet, Tondo’s slum dwellers are satisfied.

Josephine is comfortable with her new way of earning a living. Gone are the days of collecting jueteng bets and walking several kilometers under the heat of the sun to sell chocolate drinks. Mario is thankful that he and his neighbors already have regular access to clean water. He was even able to save enough cash to install electric bulbs in dark corners of the building.

Ang laki talagang tulong at tipid noong nakabit ito," Josephine says, referring to the public faucet. “Dati, noong sa kabila pa kami kumukuha ng tubig, ang mahal ng binabayaran namin, lalo na sa mga taga-igib."

There is no more murky brown liquid they call water three years ago. No more rush to the public hospital after drinking the bacteria-filled liquid they used to quench their thirst.

An official from Josephine’s village used to tell of his experience when he brought 25 people suffering from stomach pain to the hospital after drinking the filth that used to come out of their water taps.

The residents of Tondo’s slums might not have heard of the ADB study. It would probably not matter to them at all.

Another ADB study reveals that the Philippines is regressing in its compliance with Target 10 of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Target 10 is the plan to cut into half by 2015 the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

In 1990, 95 percent of urban dwellers had access to safe drinking water. In 2004, the proportion slipped to 87 percent. The study points to the swelling urban population as the cause of the decline.

Josephine and Mario, however, seem not to care. The limited access they have to the gushing liquid from their faucet is already a dream come true. Let the future take care of itself, they might have said. For now, they just let the water flow. - GMANews.TV

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