Helping water flow freely in Asia

By Maurice Malanes
December 16, 2010

Community elder Danilo Torvator and his family have one misfortune in life. They opted to settle in a river valley in the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountain range on the Philippine island of Luzon.

Torvator, a villager from one of Luzon’s lowland towns, had married an indigenous Dumagat woman whose tribe had long regarded the mountain range and its foothills, valleys and rivers as their ancestral territory. But clinging to and defending such territory has since been painful for Torvator and his fellow villagers for the past 31 years.

“I don’t know what will happen to us, and our future remains bleak and uncertain”, said Torvator.

He was talking to a visiting team from various churches and church-based organisations. The visit was part of a regional consultation, held between 28 November and 3 December, on communities’ rights to water and sanitation in Asia. More than 40 participants from 12 Asian countries participated in the consultation.

The consultation was organised by the Ecumenical Water Network (EWN), a Christian initiative promoting people's access to water around the world that is supported by the World Council of Churches. The consultation was held in Quezon City, within metropolitan Manila, and was hosted by the National Council of Churches in the Philippines.

Torvator’s uncertainty about his community’s future comes as a result of the Manila Water Supply Project III, a government-private venture which involves building a 113-metre-high dam across the Laiban River in the midst of the Dumagat community.

If completed, the project would submerge 28,000 hectares, covering seven villages within the borders of Rizal and Quezon provinces. Torvator and his family would be among at least 10,000 indigenous peoples and settlers who would be displaced.

Approved in 2008 and scheduled to be built from 2009 to 2010, the project is intended to divert some 2,400 million litres of water daily to Metro Manila. Farmers downstream are concerned that the project will dry up their irrigation supply.

The threat to the villagers’ lives actually began in 1979 when the government of the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos embarked on the dam project to generate electricity and supply water for Metro Manila.

“We thought our woes were over when Marcos was ousted [in February 1986], but we were mistaken”, said Torvator, a father of nine and grandfather of fourteen.

Today’s project seeks to revive the plans of Marcos who already had begun building a concrete edifice as an initial part of the dam structure. Torvator expresses his hope: “If we survived Marcos, perhaps we can survive this current project.”

The villagers’ persistent resistance has continued to delay the dam’s construction.
Resisting the project has proved risky, and even fatal, for the villagers and their supporters. In 2006 Noel Capulong of the Southern Tagalog Environmental Action Movement, which was supporting the villagers’ cause against the Laiban dam, was shot dead by motorcycle-riding assailants.

The villagers’ continuing resistance has prompted the government to station military troops in the community. Members of the visiting team, who hired passenger jeepneys to reach the Dumagat community, had to pass through two military checkpoints.

The Rev Daniel Gnanasekaran of the Arcot Lutheran Church in India felt the pain of the Dumagat folk and other settlers. “For a long time,” he said, “we, the Dalits, also have been struggling for our right to our lands and to a basic resource such as water.”

The landlessness of the Dalits, he said, has created a lot of anguish and indignities. He noted the same anguish among the villagers affected by the Laiban dam project. Having long nurtured their land, cultivating various root crops, fruits, rice and corn, the villagers said uprooting them from their community would be like removing them from life-support systems.

For his part, Hans Petter Hergum of Norwegian Church Aid encouraged local church leaders to continue showing the Dumagat and the other affected folk that “they are not alone” and that they have supporters within and outside the Philippines.

Bishop Joselito Cruz of the Philippine Independent Church has offered one of their chapels within the affected community as “a sanctuary” where planning meetings can be held.
Some participants offered to start campaigns in their own countries supporting the Filipino villagers’ struggle against the Laiban dam. Others shared information on their own initiatives in helping communities to access safe water and sanitation facilities.

The Amity Foundation, a Chinese Christian group, has embarked on what it calls the “Living Water Project”. Intended for communities set among plateaus and hills, the project helps residents to help themselves in building their own wells or drawing water from mountain springs.

According to Tong Su of the Amity Foundation, one strength of the project is that it is community-driven, rather than donor-driven. Community folk themselves, including students and young people, are involved in the project, either through their own labour or by helping raise funds from amongst themselves. “This project is our own way of doing something concrete in helping villagers to access water, because action is love and love never ends”, she concluded.

Other water rights advocates, including some from India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Indonesia, related their own water works projects such as tube wells. Many such undertakings have focused on involving the poor and poorest.

In some countries where water works projects have to wrestle not only with bureaucratic mazes but corruption, water rights advocates have also integrated “good governance” in their initiatives. Advocacy in Cambodia is a case in point.

Ecumenical Water Network coordinator Maike Gorsboth offered the participants specific suggestions on how they can effectively employ the universal human right to water as a forceful argument in their own local contexts.

“Let’s use this crucial instrument to help empower us in our advocacy even as we challenge EWN to expand respect for this right”, said Gorsboth.

As part of the closing worship for the five-day consultation, the participants exchanged small bottles of water filled with samples from various regions worldwide. The rite symbolised and sealed the worshippers' commitment to using their capacities to help let water flow freely and become accessible to everyone, especially the poorest and the marginalised.

Ecumenical Water Network -

(c) Maurice Malanes is a freelance journalist from the Philippines. Currently a correspondent for Ecumenical News International (ENI), he also writes for the Manila-based Philippine Daily Inquirer, and the Bangkok-based Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN).

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