Monday, December 22, 2008

By the side of the road in Tondo

Commentary : By the side of the road in Tondo
By Denis Murphy

Philippine Daily Inquirer

WE sat with 12 women leaders of the urban poor at the edge of the homes that line the R-10 road in Tondo. Across the road stood the North Harbor piers. The women discussed the meetings they had had with the Maynilad water company about securing regular water in their area. It was hard to hear them over the roar of the big container van trucks that came within a few feet of us. It had rained a little while before, so the air was fresh, but not for long with all the trucks. Young boys and girls still half naked from playing in the rain squeezed through the group to get to Aling Marieta’s sari-sari store to buy candy or food items for Mama.

The women began with water, but later talked of hunger in the area, politics and family planning. When they talked of family planning Aling Marieta gave her opinion that the best method was to vasectomize the men. All the women agreed, even those who said they were pro-life. To the women it seemed eminently fair.

The families now pay on average P30 a day for the water they buy from private persons, or P900 a month. For this money they get 200 liters a day, which is below the minimum of 250 liters recommended by the World Health Organization for lower-income families. If the women can’t afford the amount of water recommended, they can’t clean the children or dishes and can’t take good care of their sanitation. Diseases result, but then there is no money for medicine.

If they had the Maynilad water, they would pay about P4 instead of P30 for the 200 liters they now buy, or a savings of about P780 a month. With this money they can increase their family food budgets by 25 percent a day on average; they can send all their children to school; they can afford medicine, storybooks, copybooks and new clothes and they can buy all the water they need.

The big obstacles are the fees charged by Maynilad: for a mother meter that would provide water for 30 or so families the fee is at least P20,000; for individual meters the fee is P7,000. The people are willing to pay, but little by little out of the money they save on water. They cannot easily manage a big down payment.

Cannot Maynilad and the people sit down and work out a solution to this fee problem? It seems a public utility backed by the government has some obligation to provide affordable water to the poor. Lawyers say there is a social welfare concept inherent in such an enterprise. In the worst of Metro Manila’s slums—the so-called danger areas—almost no family has legal and inexpensive Manila Water or Maynilad.

Legal electric connections could provide similar savings for the poor. An effort by the government to make sure the poor have affordable light and water would be a wonderful anti-poverty measure (families could save about P1,500 per month). There is little room for corruption in such a program.

Hunger, the women said, is increasing in the area. Most families now combine breakfast and lunch. They talked of the “pagpag” chicken business which flourishes there. Scavengers get the garbage of Jollibee, sort out the chicken remains, wash them and package them into: bones with a little chicken still on them, which sell for P20 a kilo, and bones with a good amount of meat which cost P40.

The women seemed to enjoy sitting together in the late afternoon and appeared rather lighthearted when they talked of politics and family planning. It was hard to know if they were really serious. When they came to politics, they mentioned support for only one candidate: Joseph Estrada. “Erap pa rin,” they repeated. They discussed vasectomy with devilish delight.

We all felt better after having talked with the women. They are poor, but they are buoyant, thoughtful when they have to be and caring of one another and their families. The families can thrive if the children could get a good education and they had a decent place to live and enough food. What a waste if they can’t.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates.

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