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PAGLAT, MAGUINDANAO: Fatima Salik holds up a plastic pack of foggy water and transfers a few drops of it onto a small card with a round middle section. She asks one of the persons gathered around her to move closer and observe the center portion of the card which is now slowly turning into a dark rosy color.
Fatima is a public health promoter from the organization A Single Drop of Safe Water (ASDSW). It has joined Unicef, Oxfam and ACF International in a joint effort to help ensure safer water sources, better latrines and handwashing facilities in emergency-stricken communities in Mindanao.
Fatima is testing a water sample from an open well in Barangay Damacaling in the municipality of Paglat in Maguindanao province for possible contaminants that may render it unsafe to drink. Much concern has been raised about the water quality in Paglat, which is often visited by floods. In addition, sanitation facilities here are severely wanting. This became much more evident when the town served as an evacuation site for hundreds of displaced persons from nearby towns fleeing conflict pirate ship jumper.
Many towns in Maguindanao province share Paglat’s dreary conditions that are further aggravated by recurring emergencies such as natural disasters and intermittent conflict.
To address this situation province-wide, Unicef and its partners are jointly implementing not just a water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) program but one within the framework of climate change adaptation and conflict sensitivity.
Participatory risk analysis
One activity being Oxfam undertakes under the program is participatory risk analysis where communities define their risks associated with natural disasters and conflict. “The starting point is risk,” says Oxfam’s Noel Pedrola. “From there, we identify WASH behavior-related risks such as diarrhea and malnutrition. As to climate change, we explain to the communities that that disaster will come more often and with greater devastation. The intention is to make them take action and prepare themselves for such emergencies. Meantime, through a participatory process, we help them find solutions to reduce these risks. The result is a community that is more resilient,” Pedrola adds. The program aims to eventually institutionalize WASH by influencing the creation of WASH task forces and mainstreaming WASH-promoting policies and practices into the development plans of local government units, from the provincial and municipal governments to the barangay (village) councils.
Hanalyn Montaner, Unicef WASH specialist, says Unicef is supporting pilot projects in two of Paglat’s barangays, Tual and Damacaling, and several more barangays across five other municipalities.
Unsafe water risk
One of the key risks in communities is bad water quality. Unicef studies show that when water quality is poor and sanitation conditions are bad, children, more than their elders, are likely to get sick. This risk further multiplies when their mothers and other people who care for them do not —or do not have the facilities to —wash their hands properly. The children then are more likely to suffer from diarrhea, cholera, intestinal worms, typhoid and other diseases. When they do suffer from repeated bouts of water-borne disease, they are weakened, making them more susceptible to other diseases such as pneumonia, malaria, dengue fever and malnutrition.
Kevin Lee of ASDSW explains that assisting communities in identifying sources of water contamination empowers them and their governments to find solutions. For example, ASDSW helps identify flood-proof water points from where communities can draw their drinking water during the typhoon season. In times of drought or little rain, ASDSW points them to water sources that do not dry up.
Due to its expertise in water management, ASDSW is training volunteers and village officials in water quality monitoring. In all, it has trained 50 persons who are now re-echoing this knowledge by holding similar trainings in their respective communities. In most cases, training also involves barangay captains (village heads) not only to teach them water quality monitoring skills but also, and more importantly so, to have them appreciate the value of caring for their water sources in order to ensure their community’s good health.
With the assistance of ASDSW, the provincial government of Maguindanao has now built a water quality monitoring system covering over one million people across the province. Such system is assisting the government and communities to identify sources of water contamination that need rehabilitation.
Adapting WASH to emergencies
Unicef and its partners are also focused on providing assistance in emergency response. Plans are developed in close consultation with the community. Says ACF’s Marigold Feniza: “Having observed the pilot areas during the recent flooding period, we were able to identify possible sites beyond the reach of floodwaters. We explain to communities that climate change will mean that storms will be more frequent and intense, which gives participants more incentive to take action. Latrines and wash stands are therefore built on raised platforms. ”
The community helps in this effort by hauling the building materials to the identified sites and by constructing the latrines. Outside of the evacuation centers, when internally displaced persons return, Unicef’s partners assist them with community-based sanitation programs, where they will not only construct their own latrines but will invest in the materials and labor themselves. Marigold also points out that: “WASH is not only about facilities, it’s about changing key hygiene behavior such as washing hands with soap and using toilets. There is no point constructing a toilet if the community continues to openly defecate.”
Overall, the project has been cost-effective as it builds upon gains from an earlier-initiated project, the Building Resiliency in Communities (BRiC), also implemented by Oxfam. Says Abi Ayao, Oxfam public health promoter: “Through BRiC, we are able to identify risks in the communities and assist them to determine their needs for water, sanitation and hygiene facilities, including behavioral change that may need to be made. All these we keep in a database which has enabled us to share such information with other organizations like ACF and ASDSW, who are much willing to assist these communities in addressing their WASH gaps.”
“Such convergence of expertise and resources among partners, with Unicef as convenor, is now making it possible for poor and underserved communities to respond to their water, sanitation and hygiene needs from the perspective of risk. Ultimately, we want to create resilient communities, resilient women and children, and resilient local governing agencies that are capable of responding to natural disaster and conflict,” Tim Grieve, Unicef Philippines Chief of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, said.