Residents of this Philippine island struggle to secure daily water supplies

Boat with filled water containers

Residents of this Philippine island struggle to secure daily water supplies

ALBAY, Philippines – Jason Burac wakes up at 1:30 am to begin his most important task of the day: Getting enough water for his large household.

Burac, a father of five, lives in Sitio Malictay in Barangay Hacienda, San Miguel Island in Tabaco City. Many residents of his island have to make a journey – by land or by sea – to another water source, as the aquifers and wells in their areas have dried up because of the prolonged El Niño phenomenon, which brings in warmer weather and can plunge the Pacific region into months of drought.

Burac walks roughly 150 meters from his home to the shore, lugging with him several empty water containers and a five-foot-long black hose. He loads the containers on a motorized boat and heads to the Pahuladan aquifer with fellow villager Richie Bobiles, who is also carrying big water containers.

It takes the men about 25 minutes to get to the aquifer. They are luckier than others as they have a motorized boat. Others have to paddle for more than an hour to get to the water source.

Pahuladan is one of the few surviving aquifers on San Miguel Island, which has a population of 13,116, based on the 2015 census, and is comprised of five barangays: Angas, Hacienda, Rawis, Sagurong and Visita.

Burac says most of the wells on the island have dried up since February, and he is thankful someone has come to document their daily struggle with water. He hopes people in power will take notice and do something.

"Almost all water sources in our place dried up due to prolonged drought," Burac told Rappler. "We’re enduring five months of sleepless nights and almost fighting for water. We’re hoping that through you, politicians and the government will know our plight, [and] for them to respond to our needs on the water shortage."

Burac and Bobiles are lucky – they are the first to arrive at the Pahuladan aquifer. Burac uses his hose to fill eight water containers while Bobiles fills six containers using an improvised dipper.

A few minutes later, a man in a small boat appears in the distance paddling hard against the strong current.

When the newcomer arrives, he patiently waits until the two other men finish filling their containers. But by the time Burac and Bobiles are done, the well is nearly empty. The other man – 29-year-old Jerwin Brutas – will have to wait for a few hours for the well to fill up again.

Burac and Bobiles head back home around 4 am. Others from their village will be at the Pahuladan well later to fill containers, they say, but they may not get as much water as the two men did. The sleepless night has paid off, they note.

Another thing they talk about: Expectations that the water shortage will be aggravated by the opening of school.

Boats queue to fill water containers
Boatloads of people from villages with dried up wells flock to the Nagmuri aquifer on San Miguel Island to get their daily water supply. Credit: Rhaydz B. Barcia

There is another water source on the island, Nagmuri aquifer, that can be developed with the help of the government, says Freddie Burce, a resident of Barangay Hacienda and chairman of the Asosasyon kan Conservanistang Paraoma asin Parasira (Association of Conservationist Farmers and Fishers).

“If the Nagmuri aquifer will be developed through the help of new technology and the government, it can provide sustainable drinking water to the residents of the island as long as the remaining forest around the water source will be preserved,” Burce said.

The Nagmuri aquifer is located in the mountains. It provides water not only to the people of San Miguel Island but also to the neighboring island of Cagraray. San Miguel residents have installed a bamboo pipe to channel the water from the mountain to the shore, where people can have easier access. At the Nagmuri water source, people bathe, wash their clothes, and stock up on water to be brought home.

Tabaco City Mayor Krisel Lagman-Luistro earlier said that San Miguel residents could get water from the Tabaco mainland for free until their wells fill up again. But the islanders want a sustainable water source at home rather than having to go to the mainland, which they say is expensive and impractical.

Arnel Garcia, regional director of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) in Bicol says that even without the dry spell, about 2.5 million Filipinos do not have access to safe drinking water.

In Bicol, 187,673 people do not have safe drinking water and 30 percent of more than 5 million Bicolanos get water from dug wells.

Women collecting water at Nagmuri aquifer
These women had to take a boat ride to a the Nagmuri source to bathe, wash their clothes, and stock up on water. Credit: Rhaydz Barcia

"Water is one of the most important substances on earth. It is a lifeline that bathes and feeds us. Having safe drinking water is essential to humans and other life forms,” Garcia says. 

The United Nations (UN) high-level panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda has indicated that 2.5 billion people globally do not have access to safe water.

“Water stress” will continue to haunt the planet 50 years from now, Michel Jarraud, UN Water and World Meteorological Organization secretary-general, said during a UN high-panel discussion held at UN University (UNU) in Tokyo, where this reporter was one of the UNU 2015 journalism fellows.

“We need to have new technology," Jarraud said. "Research and development is the key element of addressing poverty, water and energy challenges."

Ako Bicol Representative Alfredo Garbin Jr. told Rappler that his party would prioritize the Philippines' water problem, particularly in the countryside, in the 18th Congress.

“Water shortage will be our biggest problem in the coming decades, not only in Philippines but in the entire world," Garbin said. "This could...even lead to possible chaos in the global scenario if we don’t do any solution and action today."

This story was produced with the support of Internews Europe in the framework of the Internews Environmental Journalism Network (EJN) Asia Pacific 2017-2021.

Banner photo: A couple on a boat loaded with filled water containers heads home. Credit: Rhaydz Barcia

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