Cleaning up after the floods
New toilets improve lives of families in Cotabato
Sittie Guinda tries to put her baby to sleep in an improvised hammock that doubles as mosquito net. One year old baby Jehan lies contentedly, too young to know the many ordeals the Guinda family has already gone through this year. Sittie, however, has already recovered from the bad memories of the flooding last June. She is now back to business as usual, minding her small sari-sari store filled with viands (fried meat and vegetables) and suman (sticky rice cakes) to sell.
Sittie’s family was one of the 136,000 families, including over 420,000 children, affected by the floods which swept through Mindanao province. The flooding was caused by continuous rain from a series of tropical storms, plus the growth of water hyacinths which blocked the main rivers.
Life in a tarpaulin tent
“The water level was up to my neck. I was afraid that the posts of our house would not be strong enough to support it, and that our house might be swept away by the flooding. I decided to move all my children to higher ground, while my husband stayed in the house to look after it. Taking care of our children is my top priority,” Sittie recalls.
For a woman who had to take care of four children, baby Jehan, Yasser (7), Annie (11), and Nor-ain (12), living in a tarpaulin tent for a week wasn’t easy. Her husband, a construction worker, wasn’t able to work because the area was flooded. Despite this, Sittie managed to sell food from her makeshift tent to provide the family with a small livelihood.
An ‘overhang’ latrine in Poblacion 9, Cotabato City, Mindanao ©UNICEF Philippines/2011/Day
Living in those conditions also meant that there was little food to share and water was in short supply. With most water systems damaged and many areas submerged, a main problem for evacuees was how to relieve and wash themselves.
Dangers to health
Open defecation is very common in communities like Sittie’s, due to the lack of toilet facilities and limited understanding of the health risks involved when water becomes contaminated. During times of flooding, this problem gets worse. Flood waters seep into the water systems and pollute the sources of clean water.
In July, with the help of partners on the ground, UNICEF installed two temporary water tanks in Poblacions 8 and 9, where Sittie and her neighbours live. They were also provided with essential supplies such as water cans, liquid chlorine and water purifiers, soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, nail cutters, malongs (multi-purpose cotton sheets) and sanitary napkins. UNICEF also supported the training of Barangay Health Workers to teach community members about good hygiene practices. They learned how to take care of the water and sanitation facilities, how to treat household water, prevent water-borne diseases, how poor hygiene and sanitation spreads disease, and about personal hygiene, hand washing, safe food preparation and handling.
Samra Taha and her 3 year old daughter Samirah, in front of the new UNICEF-funded permanent latrines in Poblacion 9, Cotabato city. Samra says “We hope there will be more projects like this for the community!” ©UNICEF Philippines/2011
As soon as the floodwaters receded, UNICEF, and partners built permanent toilets for Poblacions 8 and 9. The toilets were built above flood levels so that they can still be used in the event of another flood. Since then, Sittie observes that open defecation has decreased in her neighbourhood, “The latrines have been a big help, because we only had one toilet.”
The community is now assigning a committee to oversee the maintenance of the toilets, involving the whole community in the upkeep of the water facilities. Families pay a small fee each month to cover the water bill. This water is used to flush the toilets, for hand washing and for drinking. Barangay officials are also responsible for buying cleaning materials with any leftover money.
Sittie says that she’s very happy about the new latrines. “It’s fine with me, even if I have to clean the toilets and tell others to help me clean,” she adds with a smile.