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Barangay Zillovia, Talacogon, Agusan del Sur
Water, sanitation and Philippine literature

These are stories
that touch our hearts,
keep us grounded
to what we have
always believed in ---
children have rights.

They are after all
our future.


By Nilo A. Yacat
UNICEF helps schools and communities gain access to safe drinking water and sanitation facilities. Teaching children health and hygiene becomes a breeze for these school teachers.

A FILIPINO legend tells the story of Maria Makiling, a powerful deity who protected a bountiful mountain and the water basins nearby. The mortals enjoyed the blessings of Maria Makiling. But later, they began to abuse the rich natural resources. In a rage, Maria Makiling punished the mortals. Soon, they could no longer get food from the forest. They lost their source of drinking water. They sought Maria Makiling and asked for forgiveness. Maria Makiling granted them pardon and gave back what she took from them.

The story of Maria Makiling has many versions. In one, she is a fairy who falls in love with a mortal prince. In another, she is the protector of mountains and rivers. The latter is the story that English teacher Generosa Estrada, 43, uses in her class when she talks of caring for natural resources like the forests, wildlife, and water systems.

Estrada has been teaching for 10 years now at the Zillovia Elementary School . She used to live in Butuan City but her family moved to this barangay in the municipality of Talacogon in the province of Agusan del Sur when her husband, Gaudencio, became chief accountant at the local plant of the Provident Tree Farm, Incorporated (PTFI). PTFI is involved in commercial tree plantation, rattan plantation, and manufacture of match splints. Agusan del Sur is in the northeastern region of Mindanao .

The transfer from urban to rural living surprised Estrada. "I was horrified at the state of the school when I came here in 1993," admits Estrada. "The children were 'barriotic'." The word is a slang for all things rural and backward.

Her pupils had no uniforms. They would go to school unkempt. "They were slow to respond to my lessons," says Estrada. But what really struck her was the lack of appropriate hygiene and sanitation habits among the schoolchildren.

Estrada would soon discover that this was a direct result of the absence of a proper water and sanitation system in this remote village. The school had a manual water pump station but the supply was not enough for the whole school.

Children like Michael Mutia, 11, had to go to houses across the school to fetch water. A usual spot was the pump station in the yard of Antonio Moredo, a retired soldier. "Sometimes, the children would get a bit rowdy but we did not want to prevent them from getting water for their school use," says Moredo.

Moredo and his family could only resort to the posting of a sign that reads: "Keep quiet. Keep the area clean."

Mutia disdained the task of fetching water. He lives in Purok 5. (A purok is a cluster of households. Zillovia has eight clusters.) He used to wake up early to fetch water from another cluster for their household use. Sometimes, he had to do the same thing in school. " Halos hindi na ako lumaki dahil sa aking pagod ng pag-iigib ng tubig (My growth got stunted due to the chore of fetching water daily)," says Mutia.

Other children would go to a shallow well located at the back of the school. Grade five pupil, Rizalyn Saavedra, 10, recalls when she almost fell into the well. It was her turn to fetch water for her grade two class. Students were crowding around the well. She tried to squeeze her way in when somebody accidentally stepped on her foot. She lost her balance and nearly fell into the well.

" Buti na lang at nahawakan ako ng ibang mga bata (Luckily, the other children were able to take hold of me)," says Saavedra.

Support from P&G and UNICEF
Today, the students of the Zillovia Elementary School laugh heartily at their misadventures while fetching water for their school use. They no longer carry gallons of water from pump stations outside the school. Water flows steadily now from faucets in every classroom. This after the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) provided funds in 1999 for the improvement of the community's water reservoir tank that would supply running water to every classroom. With the assistance of Procter and Gamble-Philippines (P&G), UNICEF also funded the construction of three classroom toilets of the Zillovia Elementary School , a pilot site of the Child-Friendly School System (CFSS).

UNICEF has been promoting the CFSS concept as an integral component of the Child-Friendly Movement. The movement aims to put children at the center of the development agenda. Through the Fifth Country Programme for Children (CPC V), UNICEF has entered into a cooperation of agreement with the Philippine government to make concrete the vision for children of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

In partnership with the Department of Education and local government units, UNICEF calls for the creation of conducive learning environments for Filipino children. Thus, a child-friendly school is child-centered, inclusive, non-discriminatory, health-promoting, and protective. In short, it is a school that promotes and protects the rights of children.

Providing schoolchildren with access to safe drinking water and sanitary toilets is a major strategy in making a school child-friendly. Estrada and her colleagues have noticed how this has changed their school. "Children go to school early. Our classes start on time. Children are no longer burdened to fetch water. They do not have to run home when they need to relieve themselves," says Estrada.

The water and sanitation (WatSan) project mobilized the community leaders to generate funds to extend water supply and sanitation facilities from an initial three classrooms to a total of 17. This project also led to the organization of the Zillovia Water Supply and Sanitation System Association (ZIWASSA). The group was instrumental in expanding distribution of water supply to other households in four major clusters through the construction of Level III type of sourcing. This means that water can be distributed through pipes and faucets.

Teaching children of hygiene and proper sanitation practices is no longer a difficult assignment for teachers of the Zillovia Elementary School . "How could you teach them to wash their hands, when there was no water to speak of in the first place?" points out school principal Elnar Balayo, 39.

Balayo was recently transferred to the Zillovia Elementary School . He used to head a community school in another Talacogon barangay called Marbon where water is also a problem. Balayo reports that he has not heard of serious diarrheal cases among children as compared with the situation of children in Marbon.

Decrease in water-borne infections
Barangay midwife Rina Torralba, 33, claims that cases of diarrhea among children had steadily decreased. Torralba credits the improvement of the community's water and sanitation system and mothers' enhanced management of childhood illnesses.

" Importante talaga ang tubig lalo na sa pag-aalaga ng mga batang nagkakasakit (Water is essential especially when caring for sick children)," says Tortor, who is fondly dubbed as Miss Tubig (Miss Water). "I usually advise patients to increase their intake of fluids."

At the Zillovia Elementary School , lessons on proper hygiene and sanitation practices are integrated in Science classes. The proper disposal of human waste, for example, is discussed in the study of human excretory system. Balayo further believes that the habit of washing hands has to be instilled in children in their early years. Kindergarten teacher Joy Colarat, 42, takes on this task eagerly.

Colarat shares that, at the opening of the school year, she prods her students who are aged four to five years old to wash their hands before and after eating and after using the classroom toilet. The habit becomes second nature to the children as the school year wears on.

In most classrooms in the Zillovia Elementary School , pictorial posters on proper hygiene and sanitation practices are pasted near wash areas and on toilet walls. Lessons on water and sanitation progress from the habitual washing of hands and regular bathing to the management of natural eco-systems like watersheds and bodies of water.

Stories like that of Maria Makiling resonate with concrete lessons on the importance of water in people's lives. In her English class, Estrada asks her students what happens when a community has no source of clean water. Her grade six students raise their hands and answer animatedly.

This is, after all, a story that they know by heart.

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