Alliance for Mindanao Off-grid Renewable Energy Program

An Island Slakes its Thirst

by Edwin General

LOCATED ABOUT five hours away from Zamboanga City by motorboat, Kahikukuk is part of the Tongkil group of islands in Sulu. It is home to some 30,000 Samal-Banguigui natives who depend largely on fishing and seaweed farming for their livelihood. Some families also operate motorboats that ferry people to nearby islands, but even then many households here often can afford to have only two meals per day.
Kahikukuk’s story illustrates how the lack of access to potable water can make an already poor community even more impoverished. Children suffering from water-borne illnesses like cholera and diarrhea, for example, lost days — sometimes weeks — of school, while similarly stricken adults were unable to work.
Muhalli says that as far as he knows, at least three children died in the village because of some disease that was later traced to unclean water. Banguigui Island Municipality health statistics also show diarrhea as among the top three causes of infant morbidity in the area.

A father of two boys, Muhalli adds that his family’s paltry household budget shrank even more each time they bought water that was brought in from neighboring Basilan. Peddlers sold each 20-gallon container for P25; normally, says Muhalli, one household would consume some 10 containers each day.

The alternative was to fetch water from either any of the makeshift deep wells that still dot the island or the main water source that was about an hour’s walk from the village. That source, a very deep open well located near the foot of a hill, is adjacent to a muddy area where cows like to wallow.

During the rainy season, the well would overflow and the surrounding field would be flooded. The result was water that was murky with soil and animal dung. But the water did not necessarily clear up whenever the sun was out.

“I could waste a whole day just to fill two containers and even then the water was brown,” says Ernilisa Jurail, a 28-year-old mother of four, recalling her long treks to fetch water for her family. “I also had nothing clean to wear. I washed my clothes and took a bath only once a week.”

The backyard wells were no better, perhaps because many families also maintained their latrines in the same area. Experts point out that even professionally built tube wells are easily contaminated when these are located less than 30 meters away from animal ditches, latrines, stagnant waters, garbage, and poor drainages.
Many of the families thus tried to save rainwater in huge drums and jars. But they had a hard time keeping this free from mosquito larvae, says Muhalli, and so they would try to filter the water through cloth and boil it before drinking it. He also recalls how some women and children would brave going to Abu Sayyaf-infested Basilan just to get potable water.

WHEN THE Alliance for Mindanao Off-grid Renewable Energy (AMORE) program reached Kahikukuk in 2003, however, the objective was to give the local community electricity. After all, AMORE, which has been energizing communities since 2002, was formulated to develop a sustainable approach to rural electrification.

Three years after it had its first taste of electricity, Kahikukuk got the first solar-powered water system in the entire ARMM. The system consists of a confined well, a 0.75-horsepower submersible capacity pump driven by a 320-watt peak solar photovoltaic power cell, an elevated 8,000-liter reservoir, and a 1,000-meter pipeline that delivers the water to six tap stands.

The heart of the system is approximately 300 meters away from the village, but the taps are right in the community itself, sparing villagers a long walk for water.

The water pumping system requires no fuel deliveries and needs very little maintenance. Most importantly, a solar pump produces the most water when it is needed the most — when the weather is sunny and dry.

“The water from the well is now very good,” says Jurail as she collects water from one of the taps. “It’s clear and clean. You can’t compare them to our traditional wells.”

Indications are health conditions here have improved since the system was installed. AMORE workers say that prior to the project’s implementation, the Tongkil municipal health office had told them that four out of 100 people fell sick because of one waterborne illness or another. But since the project’s completion, no cases of such diseases have been recorded.

Mayor Sahidulla also says the system has helped the island so much that grateful — and relieved — villagers have offered prayers to thank Allah for the potable water that they now enjoy. Seconds Muhalli: “Its Allah’s gift to us. He answered our prayers. Villagers were overwhelmed. The clean water resources became (the) talk of the town.”

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