Ann Gabrielle Domingo and Gaea Cabico

Published: March 17, 2023

In this photo taken on January 5, 2022, residents carry bottled water given as aid from a non-governmental organisation in Burgos town, Siargao island, weeks after super Typhoon Rai devastated the island.

MANILA, Philippines — When Super Typhoon Odette (Rai) struck southern and central parts of the Philippines in December 2021, people’s access to clean drinking water and sanitation facilities was compromised, leading to increased risk of water-borne diseases.

Typhoon-ravaged residents were left with no money to buy drinking water or were forced to rely on water from open springs and on hand pumps contaminated by mud, flood and sea waters.

According to the International Federation of Red Cross, there were over 400 cases of diarrhea and gastroenteritis, likely resulting from contamination of water sources, in Odette-hit areas. Eight people reportedly died due to diarrhea.

In the town of Del Carmen on Siargao Island, a child died after drinking contaminated water. While it was an isolated case, according to the town mayor, the incident highlighted the nexus of health and climate change.

“If we didn’t lack water supply due to the emergency, maybe [the death of the child] wouldn’t happen, there wouldn’t be a reaction to drink the water in the tank,” said Jerlyn Rabaca, administrator of Espoir School of Life. Espoir, which is situated on a resettlement area in Del Carmen, is a non-profit organization that provides free education to underprivileged children.

Damaged water infra 

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, some 2.4 million people needed water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) support following ‘Odette.’ The typhoon also damaged 141 water structures and over 410 sanitation facilities.

“During climate disasters, infrastructure gets damaged. Not just electricity, communication, but most importantly, water,” said Jenica Dizon, country director of Waves for Water Philippines. The presence of Waves for Water in the country began in 2013 as a response to Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), one of the most powerful tropical cyclones ever recorded in the world.

Extreme weather events and other climate impacts contaminate water supply, increasing risk of water-borne illnesses such as diarrhea and cholera to which children are particularly vulnerable.

Dr. Renzo Guinto, who specializes in planetary and public health, has observed this reality in coastal municipalities in the Philippines. Guinto found that Alabat in Quezon province and Ajuy in Iloilo province are more prone to water-borne diseases due to intensifying flooding from sea-level rise.

In 2050, climate change could be responsible for approximately 32,954 additional diarrheal deaths worldwide among children aged 0 to 15, the World Health Organization estimated.

The WHO stressed that investing in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) is a core element in both preparedness and response, and prevention and mitigation of the impacts of future emergencies.

“It’s paramount to plan for and create more resilient water infrastructure because access to clean water is a human right and a basic need. Without water, there really is no life,” Dizon said.

Crucial need

With water infrastructure damaged and essential health services crippled by the pandemic, access to clean water is an immediate need to prevent the spread of infectious and water-borne illnesses, and life-threatening dehydration.

In the case of Del Carmen, the town’s mangrove forest protected the residents from large waves brought by Odette, allowing owners of water refilling stations to immediately continue their operations, Mayor Alfredo Coro II said.

However, the water coming from the municipality’s water provider “took a while to be stabilized” after the storm, he said.

According to Coro, children aged five and below, pregnant and lactating mothers, senior citizens and persons with disabilities were prioritized in the provision of clean drinking water after the onslaught of Odette. The local government also focused on providing water supply to island barangays.

Non-profit organizations like Waves for Water played an important role in the response to the storm. Waves for Water deploys clean water filtration systems, water pump generators, and catchment tanks to disaster-hit areas.

DOH, WHO guidelines

Besides ensuring proper facilities, Guinto believes that normalizing WASH practices are crucial elements in disasters and humanitarian settings.

In July 2020, the Department of Health issued the “National Policy on Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) in Emergencies and Disasters” in recognition of the country’s disproportionate vulnerability to disasters and emergencies.

The administrative order’s main objective is to “institutionalize and implement the WASH cluster approach at all levels of governance to ensure the coordinated delivery of appropriate, effective and timely WASH services in emergencies and disasters.”

For the WHO, the top three priorities in promoting WASH for vulnerable communities are ensuring sufficient amounts of safe water, arranging basic sanitation necessities and promoting good hygiene practices.

The United Nations health agency said the first priority necessitates that each person be provided with 15 liters of water, but this can be limited to 7.5 liters after a disaster. Water sources must also be protected in the case of contamination.

Toilet facilities should be provided immediately when sanitation structures are damaged due to disasters, it added. Securing toilet facilities prevents the further spread of contamination to community members or water sources.

If toilet systems are damaged beyond immediate repair, the community should be given designated defecation fields and provided shovels for families to dig small holes into to bury excretions.

Lastly, good hygiene should still be promoted to prevent disease transmission. To ensure that good hygiene practices are followed, enough water should be provided for rinsing after excretion. The water can also be used for handling infants’ wastes and food preparation.

While the DOH and the WHO have already integrated WASH into their disaster setting guidelines, Guinto believes that simply providing recommendations is not enough.

“What needs to be further enhanced is the way we implement these guidelines,” said Guinto, who is also the inaugural director of the Planetary and Global Health Program of the St. Luke’s Medical Center College of Medicine.

“Further, we must find ways to ensure the sustainability of WASH infrastructure after the disaster response phase. When communities return to normalcy, their water systems must not only be restored, but made even much better,” he added.

WASH and education

“After the typhoon, because of what happened, we’ve also learned that water is important and that now we give value to it and people also saw the need of the island to have clean water,” Espoir’s Rabaca said.

The resettlemtn area of Espoir has a water system with 30 faucets that can be accessed by community members and a dry compost toilet.

Rabaca also emphasized that access to water plays a big role in the learning of students.

“We connect water to the education that we are giving by making sure that they go to school healthy, that they go to school after taking a bath. We’re making sure that if they go home, their dishes have been washed, that they can wear uniforms on the next day because they can wash their clothes,” Rabaca said.

She added that Espoir, in partnership with other private firms, plans to put up a “STEM Lab for Humanities” which will tackle the importance access to access to water inside classrooms.