Jul 6, 2020

No Problems Too Big

At the onset of the Philippine summer, we set out to support Puerto Princesa City’s backyard gardening initiatives during the COVID-19 lockdown that began in mid-March. As we tilled the parched earth in our neighbors’ backyards, we realized there was little water to hydrate the gardens. In summer, there’s insufficient water for bath, laundry and dishes, let alone for vegetable plants.

In Tagalog, the word for water is “tubig,” which to the English listener, is the homonym, “too big.”

Yet for a great part of the planet’s growing population, water or tubig is increasingly “too small.”

At the onset of the Philippine summer, we set out to support Puerto Princesa City’s backyard gardening initiatives during the COVID-19 lockdown that began in mid-March. As we tilled the parched earth in our neighbors’ backyards, we realized there was little water to hydrate the gardens. In summer, there’s insufficient water for bath, laundry and dishes, let alone for vegetable plants.

In Purok Maranat Tres in Barangay Bacungan, water for most comes from a mainspring that serves the village’s 90 member households. Around a primary concrete well, can be found four small culverts, clumsily placed by some villagers whose intention is to compete for as much of available water safely piped into their houses, despite that common resource must be fairly shared between everyone living in the area.

Small pipes protrude from the makeshift water sources, leading to the privileged homes lucky to have running water, whilst most have to trek good walking distance to carry heavy pails of sloshing liquid from the well to their distant houses.

This mid-March, we learned that water runs out on various hot days, leaving many villagers dry in the intense summer heat.

The flow of water supply makes visible the village’s complex power dynamics. How some lucky families are allowed to access a greater percentage of the water supply has been argued over countlessly, with little consensus over how a common reservoir must be shared fairly by all purok residents.

For some days, we pondered the problem. Gardening made little sense without water. Establishing food-production here and elsewhere is tantamount to guaranteeing water security.

One morning, purok vice-president Joel Jose took us on a stroll into someone’s private property, where a new water source was only recently discovered. After introducing us to the landowner, we trekked a few hundred meters through a small organic farm, where a two meter-deep gaping hole has been dug up casually by two men in the previous weeks. It was easy to recognize that here was a rare strong aquifer, a substantial spring with strong supply even at the height of the hot months.

The following week, three meetings were quickly held to ensure that Maranat Tres’ water project could happen. First, we met with the landowners and a few purok officials to request that the land immediately surrounding the aquifer be officially donated to the public.

Next, we invited the Barangay Captain and the kagawads of Bacungan to witness the land is legally given to the community, and that this water source is carefully self-managed by the village’s members.

Third, we invited the entire purok to agree that the intensive work needed to dig the well and construct the tank, be entirely provided by the community members themselves, through their committed volunteerism.

On these agreements, an NGO called Surge from Dubai promptly sent money to hasten the water project. With the Maranat Tres villagers, Architect Rowel Quipquip drew out an innovative design that can automatically raise the well’s water above ground level, removing the need for an electric water pump.

Six weeks later, through the painstaking work of ten to twenty men simultaneously digging, shaping the earth, carrying heavy rocks and laying reinforced concrete, the water well is 90% finished. The community now undergoes meetings to determine what fair and ethical means ensure the equal sharing of this water resource. Through their own work, the people warrant that they should have access to abundant water supply for the years to come.

Not all places will be so lucky as Maranat Tres that stumbles upon a good aquifer located on land whose owner is freely willing to offer as a public donation. Benevolent NGO’s such as Surge can also only assist so many villages in the developing nations.

When we started Bahay Kalipay more than ten years ago, our water source was only from a hand-pumped well. The available soil in our part of Barangay San Pedro is hardened and acidic. We were fortunate that one of our first visitors was Aleli Pensacola, the founder of Daila which created Victoria Soap, an award-winning laundry detergent that has the ability to organically convert wastewater into a liquid fertilizing agent.

For a decade now, we practice the saving of water used for bath, dishes, and laundry. Mixing this wastewater with EM (effective microorganisms), we nourish dead soil with water that might otherwise be drained into the septic system. Practicing the Filipino tradition of mixing urine with water for the garden, we heavily mulch and then water the garden beds with this rich mixture. After a few weeks, the soil is grainy, moist, and does not require much more watering.

In our ecovillage in Maranat Tres, bathrooms, dishwashing, and laundry areas are designed to catch usable graywater. We use affordable soaps made by manufacturers who utilize active ingredients that organically bring the earth to life.

In Puerto Princesa City, the population has recently grown exponentially so that both the rural and the urban currently experience water shortages in their respective ways. Discovering new ways to utilize our available precious water through responsible conservation and conversion processes can alleviate the wasteful consumption of a dwindling shared resource.

With some others, I currently live atop a small mountain accessible only via a daily climb that requires great commitment. For water supply, we are dependent on catching water off of our tin roofs. When it rains, we sit and listen to the raindrops making music on the roof, happy to watch a steady flow of water surely finding its way into our small blessed water tank.

To save on flushing, we use compost toilets. Every glass of water drank, every dish washed, every cloth laundered, every tub of water showered is slowly used and then reused with great care. Nothing is considered waste, all moisture is a sacred gift.

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