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ASIA-PACIFIC feature story for the Philippines

© UNICEF Philippines/2009/Santos

After a tropical storm, a woman breastfeeds her infant daughter at an evacuation centre in Manila. UNICEF promotes continued breastfeeding and safe water and sanitation access to mitigate the negative effects of storms on communities.

Typhoon Ondoy Survivors Share the Value of BWASH

Binan, Laguna, Philippines: The sky is clear over Southville 5A in Binan, Laguna, where people are lining up beside a water pump with donated pails in hand. Nearby, children play on mountains of sand, which will be used to build more housing units on this government relocation site. An oily, green substance seeps from one of the publicly provided pumps, but here, where homes have no plumbing and where about 30 families must share one pump, water is a precious commodity, no matter how suspicious the liquid may look.

Shirley De Jesus, 49, lives with 10 other relatives in a 30-square-metre home in this converted rice field south of Manila. She is fortunate to live close to one such coveted pump. She is also fortunate to have a home: just a few months ago, Typhoon Ketsana – called Typhoon Ondoy in the Philippines – destroyed her house in Barangay Dela Paz, forcing Ms. De Jesus and her family to take refuge in an evacuation centre, where they lived in a classroom with other survivors for two months.

“I never want to go back there,” said Ms. De Jesus, shaking her head and covering her eyes at the memory. “It was so hard in the evacuation centre. We lived on noodles and sardines. I remember a 6-year-old boy died and one elderly man suffered a heart attack in the washroom. Everybody was getting sick, especially the children. People couldn’t clean themselves regularly and there was trash everywhere.”

Keeping clean and healthy in times of calamity

Recognizing the need to promote breastfeeding as well as hygienic water and sanitation practices (BWASH) among those affected by Typhoon Ondoy, UNICEF teamed up with the local group Women’s Initiatives for Society, Culture, and Environment (WISE) Inc. to teach healthier practices at the community level. Ms. De Jesus is one of many typhoon survivors who were tapped to be peer leaders to spread information about BWASH.

“We go from house to house to talk about proper sanitation and breastfeeding,” said Ms. De Jesus. “Before, the streets here were so dirty. Some people used to relieve themselves on the streets, but now people know that waste and trash which are left in the open can lead to sickness.” When it is difficult to get community members together for meetings, peer leaders incorporate BWASH lessons into casual chats with other mothers over games of bingo and cards.

In other villages in Laguna, children and women are appreciating the lessons of BWASH and sharing the importance of incorporating them into their daily lives. Eleven-year-old Maribeth Carillaga, who lives in Barangay Bayog, Los Baños, washes her hands while singing ‘Happy Birthday’ in a booming voice just as she was taught. “If you don’t wash your hands, you can get sick,” Maribeth said. “I tell my friends and classmates to wash their hands after sweeping and playing.”

Cherylou Andes, who is expecting her seventh child, said she has learned a lot from the peer education programme: “As mothers, we also have to wash our hands before cooking, after using the wash room and before holding our children or they could get sick. I also try to share what I learned about breastfeeding with the young mothers I know.”

Yet even with Ondoy survivors’ newfound appreciation for the importance of breastfeeding and the other practices discussed by the peer leaders, proper hygiene remains a struggle. Most people cannot afford the materials to make sure that toilets and water containers are covered, and health centres are often poorly stocked. So in addition to the peer education effort, UNICEF has provided soap, buckets and water purification tablets to nearly 400 beneficiaries in Binan.

A new beginning

Slowly, Ms. De Jesus and many others like her are rising from the great flood. With sewing machines on loan from a friend, she sews uniforms for students at the site’s overcrowded school and sells rags to jeepney drivers. “All of our things now have come from relief goods,” she said. “We moved here with other neighbours, but everybody is starting over. We couldn’t just ask each other for help.”

Although the typhoon season of September 2009 wrought terrible devastation, like all rains, it also brought about a new beginning. Through BWASH, Ondoy survivors in Laguna are learning to take responsibility for their environment and their children’s health – even before the sky begins to rumble.