April - May 2008
2015 or bust?

An island slakes its thirst

KAHIKUKUK, BANGUIGUI, SULU — Asaali Muhalli is no ancient mariner, but there was a time when his lament was practically an echo of that of the protagonist in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem: “Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.”

Muhalli, a 40-something schoolteacher, has lived in this remote village since birth. He recalls, “I lived on an island surrounded by water, yet ironically, our life was without drinking water.”

But for the last two years, Muhalli and the rest of the residents here have had no reason to sigh — at least not over the lack of potable water. In September 2006, Kahikukuk became the beneficiary of a solar-powered system to supply drinkable water to the entire village, and life here has not been the same since. For one, says Muhalli, water-borne diseases are no longer as common as before. For another, villagers have stopped digging just about anywhere they could think of in their desperation to tap an underground water source.

Muhalli says that one of his neighbors began digging a hole in his own backyard, hoping to strike water. Instead, the neighbor unearthed a pile of human skeletons. According to Muhalli, his neighbor decided to transfer house posthaste.

Impoverished communities elsewhere in the country probably do not share Kahikukuk’s near-moonscape past, but many (if not all) of them can certainly sympathize with its former thirst for potable water. In fact, many areas in the Philippines still lack access to safe drinking water, which has led to a significant incidence of water-borne illnesses, among other things. Across the province of Sulu, of which this island is part, only 26.8 percent of families have safe water to drink, according to the 2002 Annual Poverty Indicators Survey (APIS); from all indications, that figure is not going to improve significantly anytime soon.

Kahikukuk residents now enjoy access to safe drinking water. [photo courtesy of AMORE]

It’s no wonder then that the government itself has cautiously predicted that the country has a “medium” chance of achieving the target of halving the proportion of the Philippine population without sustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015. The target falls under the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of Environment Sustainability that the Philippines is committed to meeting seven years from now. Numbering eight in all, the MDGs, which range from education to health, to food security, are part of a global initiative to combat poverty.

The initiative stresses the cooperation of aid agencies, national governments, and the private sector in the effort. Indeed, Kahikukuk may not have gotten its rather unique water system had such cooperation been absent. Banguingui Mayor Hadji Wahid Sahidulla himself says that with his local government’s meager budget, “we cannot afford to develop such a project, considering the many immediate needs (of) our constituents.”

Location map of Banguigui (formerly Tongkil), Sulu courtesy of Wikipedia

LOCATED ABOUT five hours away from Zamboanga City by motorboat, Kahikukuk is part of the Tongkil group of islands in Sulu. It is home to some 30,000 Samal-Banguigui natives who depend largely on fishing and seaweed farming for their livelihood. Some families also operate motorboats that ferry people to nearby islands, but even then many households here often can afford to have only two meals per day.

Kahikukuk’s story illustrates how the lack of access to potable water can make an already poor community even more impoverished. Children suffering from water-borne illnesses like cholera and diarrhea, for example, lost days — sometimes weeks — of school, while similarly stricken adults were unable to work.

Muhalli says that as far as he knows, at least three children died in the village because of some disease that was later traced to unclean water. Banguigui Island Municipality health statistics also show diarrhea as among the top three causes of infant morbidity in the area.

A father of two boys, Muhalli adds that his family’s paltry household budget shrank even more each time they bought water that was brought in from neighboring Basilan. Peddlers sold each 20-gallon container for P25; normally, says Muhalli, one household would consume some 10 containers each day.

The alternative was to fetch water from either any of the makeshift deep wells that still dot the island or the main water source that was about an hour’s walk from the village. That source, a very deep open well located near the foot of a hill, is adjacent to a muddy area where cows like to wallow.

During the rainy season, the well would overflow and the surrounding field would be flooded. The result was water that was murky with soil and animal dung. But the water did not necessarily clear up whenever the sun was out.

“I could waste a whole day just to fill two containers and even then the water was brown,” says Ernilisa Jurail, a 28-year-old mother of four, recalling her long treks to fetch water for her family. “I also had nothing clean to wear. I washed my clothes and took a bath only once a week.”

SOLAR-powered water system in Kahikukuk. [photo courtesy of AMORE]

The backyard wells were no better, perhaps because many families also maintained their latrines in the same area. Experts point out that even professionally built tube wells are easily contaminated when these are located less than 30 meters away from animal ditches, latrines, stagnant waters, garbage, and poor drainages.

Many of the families thus tried to save rainwater in huge drums and jars. But they had a hard time keeping this free from mosquito larvae, says Muhalli, and so they would try to filter the water through cloth and boil it before drinking it. He also recalls how some women and children would brave going to Abu Sayyaf-infested Basilan just to get potable water.

WHEN THE Alliance for Mindanao Off-grid Renewable Energy (AMORE) program reached Kahikukuk in 2003, however, the objective was to give the local community electricity. After all, AMORE, which has been energizing communities since 2002, was formulated to develop a sustainable approach to rural electrification.

AMORE is a joint effort of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Mirant Philippines Foundation, Inc., the Department of Energy, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), and the nonprofit group Winrock International. The program helps promote peace and progress in Mindanao by energizing poor, remote, conflict-affected communities that cannot be connected to the power grid with clean, indigenous, reliable, and affordable stand-alone renewable energy systems, such as solar and micro-hydropower.

But its proponents soon realized that installing renewable energy systems was just a development starting point. And so even before putting in the power systems, AMORE workers began identifying and organizing partners in the local community into Barangay Renewable Energy and Community Development Associations (BRECDAs). These associations were then trained not only to operate and maintain their renewable energy systems, but also to pursue other development projects for their communities.

BRECDA members unveil the marker for the solar-powered water system, the first in the whole of ARMM. [photo courtesy of AMORE]

AMORE had found Kahikukuk lit with gas lamps. Five years ago, it brought in solar photovoltaic battery-charging stations that were enough to light up about 30 homes. After further consultations with the villagers, AMORE’s proponents concluded that the island also needed to have a reliable and sustainable water system if they were really serious about improving lives here.

Three years after it had its first taste of electricity, Kahikukuk got the first solar-powered water system in the entire ARMM. The system consists of a confined well, a 0.75-horsepower submersible capacity pump driven by a 320-watt peak solar photovoltaic power cell, an elevated 8,000-liter reservoir, and a 1,000-meter pipeline that delivers the water to six tap stands.

The heart of the system is approximately 300 meters away from the village, but the taps are right in the community itself, sparing villagers a long walk for water.

The water pumping system requires no fuel deliveries and needs very little maintenance. Most importantly, a solar pump produces the most water when it is needed the most — when the weather is sunny and dry.

“The water from the well is now very good,” says Jurail as she collects water from one of the taps. “It’s clear and clean. You can’t compare them to our traditional wells.”

Indications are health conditions here have improved since the system was installed. AMORE workers say that prior to the project’s implementation, the Tongkil municipal health office had told them that four out of 100 people fell sick because of one waterborne illness or another. But since the project’s completion, no cases of such diseases have been recorded.

Mayor Sahidulla also says the system has helped the island so much that grateful — and relieved — villagers have offered prayers to thank Allah for the potable water that they now enjoy. Seconds Muhalli: “Its Allah’s gift to us. He answered our prayers. Villagers were overwhelmed. The clean water resources became (the) talk of the town.”

GONE are the days when women spent time and labor to get water from a murky well. [photo courtesy of AMORE]

And probably the rest of Sulu, where even the capital has been having problems with a steady water supply since the 1980s. Recently, though, another community in the province received an AMORE water project. Although not solar-powered, the system installed in Siasi town is bigger than Kahikukuk’s, with 17 communal distribution points and transmission pipes that run more than 7,000 meters. (Siasi’s gravity-type water system is spring-fed.)

But residents here are content with their modest system. They even say that so long as the sun shines, they will have water.

They now only use water from deep wells to do laundry. And with less time spent fetching water (and digging wells), families have been bonding more even though parents allocate additional hours to work.

Teacher Muhalli waxes poetic when he talks about what they have now. “Water is the life of man,” he says. “Safe water is as precious as my boys.”