BULACAN, Philippines — For Girlyn Obenza and other female members of her housing project organization, water seems more like a gift than a right.
As president of the Aniban Para sa Lehitimong Paninirahan Ligtas sa Sakuna (ALPAS), a social housing project in Bulacan, it’s Obenza’s responsibility along with the other members of the board to ensure that members’ basic needs are met.
Because they don’t have access to a secure water line, members resort to alternative sources such as having water delivered in drums. Ensuring a steady water supply is crucial for these women as it is necessary for their household chores like cleaning, cooking and bathing their children.
Despite their best efforts, daily water supply remains uncertain, hampering their ability to fulfill both domestic and official duties as household managers and as ALPAS officers.
Delivery schedules are inconsistent and unreliable, with occasional shortages causing delays. Obenza frequently has to bargain with delivery services to get their water on time, not just for herself but for the rest of the ALPAS members as well.
She feels somewhat fortunate that her only son is now 24 years old and can help her around the home, while other members with bigger families have to worry about multiple children.
“Sometimes, the water delivery truck breaks down and you run out of water,” Obenza says in Filipino. “And it so happens that is also the day in your schedule for laundry. Oh, my God, you really cannot do anything but cry.”
ALPAS is a P9-billion relocation project established by Kilos Maralita as part then-President Benigno Aquino III’s P50-billion Metro Manila Informal Settlers Project. Former Rep. Etta Rosales (Akbayan party-list) said that the members would be safe from “threat of demolition, the risks of ‘tokhang’ operations and the isolation from access to work, education, health and delivery of social services.”
The ALPAS board consists of eleven officers, eight of whom are women.
Despite being protected from other dangers, ALPAS still faces water insecurity. According to Obenza, the project has struggled with water issues since 2014, before it was even finished. A 2018 Commission on Audit (COA) report confirmed that ALPAS lost its water supply three months after completion. Obenza says connecting to a new water line with a tank would cost P50 million.
In the meantime, the members rely on water deliveries that cost P50 per drum. Obenza says her monthly water costs now are around P1,500 for her and her daughter.
The lack of water access affects not only Obenza as the ALPAS president, but also other women in the program who rely on water for hygiene and cooking. ALPAS member Rita Hernandez, who has an infant granddaughter to care for, cannot always be mindful of water usage.
Obenza and Hernandez express frustration over the time consumed by collecting and managing water, detracting from their duties as ALPAS officers.
“When my child’s kid has to urinate or poo, we can’t just leave that unflushed. The kid uses a lot of water,”Hernandez says.
According to Water.org, women globally spend approximately 200 million hours collecting water and 266 million more hours if they have no working toilet at home.
Waves for Water (W4W) Country Director for the Philippines Jenica Dizon has seen this in the communities she works with. She notes that women from partner rural communities are primarily responsible for water handling due to social norms that designate them as household managers.
A World Resources Institute study predicts that the Philippines will experience a “high degree of water shortage” by 2040 due to climate change. If these effects are not mitigated, they could affect lower-income women the most.
A World Bank study from 2021 also found that disasters induced by climate change can also lower women’s life expectancy more than men’s either directly or due to severe economic impacts.
Economist Maitet Diokno-Pascual, a former president of the Freedom From Debt Coalition, worries that the lack of urgency to supply water to marginalized communities such as ALPAS stems from the privatization of water services and the absence of a law on the welfare of water consumers.
“Ever since they privatized [water], the right is limited by your ability to pay. That’s the problem. It’s a concession agreement between the government and the private company,” says Diokno. “But there isn’t even a law for an independent regulator for water. The law doesn’t exist.”
Although there is no law for water consumers, the Philippines has a Magna Carta for Women that indicates that the State must grant women a right to housing programs that are “localized, simple, accessible, with potable water and electricity.”
The Philippine Commission on Women introduced the Gender and Development (GAD) budget policy as early as 1995 to support gender advocacy and commitment to women’s empowerment by mandating all government departments to allocate five percent of their total annual budgets for gender programs.
However, a 2020 study about how the private takeover of local water districts in the Philippines impacts gender mainstreaming found that local water districts do not directly receive these subsidies since they are private by nature. Local water districts therefore cannot be required to reach far-flung customers, including women or female-headed households from rural communities.
Nonetheless, Dizon believes that women must be included in decision-making roles to address not only equal access to water but also to ensure the success of developmental water projects.
“It’s always the women we prefer and have always worked with. If it’s them we directly train to work with the systems we introduce, there’s a higher likelihood of success and uptake in their households,” Dizon says.
Dizon also emphasizes holding the government accountable since they are mandated by Section 17 of the Local Government Code of the Philippines to provide basic services and facilities such as the maintenance of water supply systems.
COA also mentioned in their 2018 report that local government officials, the National Housing Authority (NHA), private developers, and other agencies involved in the implementation of the social housing projects must shoulder the responsibility of providing potable water, power and electricity, sewerage facilities, and access to primary roads and transportation facilities as mandated by the Republic Act 7279 or the Urban Development and Housing Act of 1992 (UDHA).
Obenza recognizes the responsibility of the government to her community as well. She says she’s already written to their local officials about their water crisis, but still finds herself at a dead end after two years.
“As they say, it would be better to lose access to electricity than to lose access to water,” Hernandez says.
Hernandez and Obaneza are calling upon leaders of both the government and civil society to join their cause and help bring an end to their struggle with water scarcity. They know that they can find a solution together that will not only improve their own daily lives, but also serve as a model for communities facing similar challenges—a future where access to water is a given, not a privilege.