Water issues, lack of toilets plague Mayon evacuation centers

LEGAZPI CITY, Philippines – Mayon evacuee Remedios Valenzuela wakes up at 3:30 am every day to collect water from a faucet and thin water pipe in San Andres Elementary School, Santo Domingo, Albay. 

The 64-year-old grandmother shares the two water sources with around 1,200 others in the evacuation center. 

That's why even before the sun wakes up, evacuees are already gathered around the tap with their plastic pails, bars of soap, and a fresh set of clothes in plastic bags. 

But the faucet and pipe are not dependable. At the moment of the interview, the steady flow of water of a few minutes ago dwindled to forlorn drops.

"Wala na naman, kaunti lang. Pag mga alas tres y medya, may tubig na. Pag maliwanag, wala na...Wala kaming magagamit na tubig pampaligo, pang-saing," Valenzuela told Rappler.

(There's no more again, only a little. When it's around 3:30 [am], there's already water. When the sun is up, no more…We don't have water for bathing or cooking rice.)

Water security and sanitation are two of the major challenges facing government officials in maintaining the more than 30 evacuation centers with over 50,200 people. (READ: Albay needs P118M a month for Mayon evacuation)

In San Andres Elementary School for instance, evacuees say they have experienced waiting in line for two hours before reaching the faucet. That's why some evacuees return to their homes within the 6-kilometer danger zone to take a bath or wash their clothes.

Valenzuela said the water in the evacuation center isn't safe for drinking. She herself has experienced a bad stomach after drinking water straight from the tap. That's why she still has to go home to San Fernando sometimes.

"Kumukuha ako ng inumin kasi yung tubig dito parang sumasakit ang tiyan mo pag nakainom," she said. (I get drinking water because when you drink the water here, it's like your stomach feels bad after.)

The conditions in San Andres Elementary School, at least, are far from the Sphere Standards, an internationally-recognized set of criteria for disaster response and humanitarian assistance.

According to the standards, queueing time at a water source should not exceed 15 minutes and that it should not take more than 3 minutes to fill a 20-liter container.

There should also be not more than 250 people using one tap.

Potty problem 

But more than water issues, an even bigger problem, said Albay Governor Joey Salceda in an October 7 press conference, is the lack of toilets. 

The problem is also being felt in San Andres Elementary School.

While there are toilets for urinating inside each classroom, currently being used as living space by families, some are not operational. 

In one classroom, the lack of toilets led the evacuees to improvise.  

They set up a tarpaulin in the backyard of one of the school buildings as a screen for evacuees urinating directly into the soil. To get rid of the foul odor, they pour water and soap on the ground. 

Doing number two in the evacuation center is a bit trickier. 

There is only one toilet that can be used for this purpose because it is a stand-alone building outside the living areas. 

"The others experience pain in their stomachs from waiting for whoever went first in the CR," said 33-year-old father Nestor Ballester.

Those whose bowel movements do not have time for the lines find other ways.

"When [the manure] is hard, they wrap it and bury it under. There are also trash cans," said 78-year-old evacuee Wilfredo Casin in Filipino.

In one case, somebody left their little treat by the door of one of the classrooms, unable to hold it in any longer, guessed Casin.

One of the Sphere Standards for sanitation, meanwhile, is that there should be no more than 20 people using one toilet.

But not all evacuation centers are as lacking as San Andres Elementary School, said Salceda. 

In the San Andres resettlement area further down the road, for instance, the faucet is more dependable and there are 30 functional latrines for the 4,974 evacuees. 

Sixty-six more toilet bowls will be constructed in the next few days, said the local government arm managing the area. 

Water distribution problem 

It's possible the water issues and lack of toilets are contributing to health problems in evacuation centers, said Nathaniel Rempillo of the Albay Public Health Office. 

Diarrhea, which may be caused by improper bowel movement or bacteria-infected water, is the 4th most common health condition in evacuation centers, he said. 

But the trend of diarrhea infection is going down. From 41 detected infections last week (week of September 29), the number of new infections as of October 7 was 31, he added.

Diarrhea can lead to other conditions such as dehydration, a real possibility in evacuation centers with water security issues.

But Salceda said the problem is not one of water shortage but of water distribution.

"It's a problem of perhaps their BFP (Bureau of Fire Protection) not delivering water because there are enough water sources. It's a question of delivery and distribution," he told media.

The BFP gets water from underground aquifers and is supposed to bring it to each evacuation center, he explained. 

To improve access, the most populated evacuation centers are being congested through the establishment of new resettlement areas.

Salceda also committed to looking into the water issues in San Andres Elementary School. 

To address the possible health complications from water problems, he said the Public Health Office, with the help of medical missions, conducts health check-ups, providing evacuees with medication suited to conditions detected by health workers.

As for the sanitation problem, the provincial government is aiming to build 327 more toilets.

Once this target is achieved, they will close the danger zone which is still being breached by locals who go back to their homes to get water, tend to their crops or animals or guard their property.

Within the week, the local government will cut off electricity and water lines as another strategy to stop evacuees from returning to the danger zone.

While Salceda admitted to the problems still facing evacuation centers, he said Albay is one of the few local governments who commit to the Sphere Standards. 

He gave assurances that Albay is doing everything it can to meet the standards. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.