Is ‘Tubig’ too big an issue?

It is said that the pandemic fast-tracked digitalization and revived the idea of “balikprobinsiya” or the mindset of wanting to relocate to the province. I was among the many Filipinos who decided to establish a residence in the province for better mobility, space, and access to fresh air during the pandemic.

I was born and raised in Manila but spent more than half of my life in a major city abroad – Washington, DC, USA. I never exerted effort to appreciate the option of living in a rural area. For me then, living in the city is simply the best and the only option.

Then the pandemic happened with all its restrictions, and I found myself confined to the walls of an apartment building for almost a year. Finally, I gathered the courage to move to the unknown. Looking back, so far, so good.

I even met people who I would not have imagined meeting and learning from, like Anastacio Lacqui, 62 years old, and Emelita Girao, 56 years old. They are my neighbor farmers. We have occasional “merienda” in the afternoon, which gives us the opportunity to chat. Anastacio and Emelita are six years apart, yet they share the same story as children. They recall that as early as seven years old, they were tasked by their parents to fetch water – spending hours walking several miles each day. They simply had no time to play and no childhood to speak of.

Today, things have slightly improved in their community with one deteriorating water tank serving their barangay. Access to safe water for their community is not yet at a sustainable level, and is even threatened by volcanic activity in their area that contaminates the water source with arsenic. Their community’s situation is representative of the sad water situation for many Filipinos especially in the lower income bracket, or those who earn P100 to P300 a day.

According to the Philippine Water and Sanitation Roadmap launched in 2021 and spearheaded by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), “the Philippines is 57th out of 167 countries that are likely to undergo water stress by 2040.The facts are clear: Mimaropa experiences water stress. Ilocos, Central Luzon, and Bicol are facing water scarcity, while NCR, Calabarzon, and Central Visayas are facing absolute scarcity.” Access to safe water is beyond a brewing issue; it is a sad reality.It warrants the priority and immediate attention from everyone in the public and private sectors.

To address access to water, the roadmap recognizes that among the challenging areas is access to finance for water and sanitation. A recent USAID report stated that the Philippines will need $1.8 billion annually from 2019 to 2030. This is approximately 22 times more than the historical investments of about $80 million per year.This cannot be managed by government alone. It is another opportunity for the public and private sectors to work together.

With limited resources, one must be prudent and strategic in seeking sustainable solutions. Water.org, an NGO that Hollywood actor Matt Damon and engineer Gary White founded, has helped many like Anastacio and Emelita to have sustainable access to water and sanitation. Through its market-driven solutions, Water.org is able to connect poor households to its network of trusted financial institutions in accessing micro loans to finance their water pipes and toilets. These households are given the chance to establish their initial credit footprint through WASH (water and sanitation) loans.

Water.org has been doing this for more than 30 years across 11 countries. Since it started operations in the Philippines in 2014, it has reached six million Filipinos and mobilized $236 million in solving the water and sanitation crisis.

It is still a long journey to addressing the needed investment until 2030. Fortunately, the Rural Bankers’ Association of the Philippines (RBAP) has responded to the challenge. On August 12, 2022, RBAP signed a partnership agreement with Water.org to explore adapting WASH loans as part of its loan product offerings. The late Bangko Sentral Governor Nestor Espenilla praised RBAP for its sincere commitment to help in rural development and promote greater inclusion.

We tend to take for granted what seems to be within reach. The reality is that safe water is barely within reach for many Filipinos. It is a big issue where everyone can play a role geared towards a sustainable solution. It is just too big for just one sector or entity to handle. Kudos to RBAP for addressing the water issue.Hopefully others, especially in the financial sector, will follow through.

Gay Santos is the Regional Director for Southeast Asia at Water.org, a global NGO co-founded by Matt Damon and Gary White. She retired from the World Bank Group in 2019 and holds an MBA degree from the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA.The opinion expressed herein does not necessarily reflect the views of these institutions and Manila Bulletin. #FinexPhils www.finex.org.ph

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