Finally, toilets for Arakan tribal community

ARAKAN, North Cotabato (MindaNews/12 October)—At the crack of dawn or any time of the day, Lorena Nogan and her family, along with the other residents of Kinawayan, a mountain village here, would separately walk discreetly to the bushes–not to play hide and seek but to defecate.

Each would look for a spot, rag in hand, oblivious of the danger of stepping on human wastes littering the terrain.

This has been the routine of housekeeper Lorena, 35, her husband Roberto, 38, a farmer, and their five children ever since.

“Not even one toilet here. We are all ashamed of our condition,” Lorena said.

The mountainous community, home to 216 farming families mostly belonging to the Manobo tribe, is typical of Arakan’s rugged outskirts, where families barely eat three full meals a day and bereft of the most basic facilities. Even water source is scarce here.

“Kinawayan merited a reputation of topping the town in terms of open defecation,” Grace Rivera, a village health worker, said.

“The village’s fields would make for the “world’s largest toilet.” This has been a key health concern as the practice makes people prone to water-borne diseases and food sources become contaminated, thus increasing the burden on the family,” she added.

Rivera said that diarrhea, caused by poor sanitation facilities, is prevalent in the village and is generally spread through contaminated food and water.

Diarrhea is a major illness and cause of death among children under the age of five here, she said.

In October 2012, the Nogans lost their one-year old son Barlo to diarrhea.

“He was strong and playful but practically turned into a vegetable in two weeks’ time,” Lorena said, blaming their routine of defecating in the bushes or in the open fields.

“That may have triggered the spread of diarrhea in the village,” she said.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), open areas “are the only toilet option” for many especially in remote communities.

For Arakan, Rivera said it is estimated that 53.6 percent of the households have no toilets, noting that “they preferred to spend on material pleasures such as lipsticks, beauty powder and cellular phones.”

“For many, they find cellular phones more useful that having a toilet,” she said.

With diarrhea prevalent in the town, non-government organization ACF International has launched an intervention on the issue of open defecation and other unsanitary practices as well as disaster risk reduction initiatives.

The group is implementing the projects “Sustainable and Resilient Basic Sanitation, Safe Water, and Improved Hygiene Behavior” funded under the Project Cooperation Agreement between ACF International and UNICEF; “Support for the Socio-economic Development of Communities within the Spanish Development Cooperation’s Action Zones in the Philippines” funded by the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation; and the “Scale Up, Build Up: Strengthening local alliances and advocacy and empowering champions on disaster risk reduction” in partnership with the Disaster Preparedness Program of the European Community Humanitarian Office.

“These projects engage families to take action to reduce their risks to disasters, promoting a local culture of disaster reduction, including disaster prevention, mitigation and preparedness, and increasing their knowledge on the importance of good nutrition, food security, proper care practices, and adequate hygiene and sanitation, such as proper hand washing, to prevent and mitigate the occurrences of diseases during disasters,” explained Faramarz Hashtarkhani, ACF International head of base and program coordinator in Cotabato City.

Rivera, along with other health workers, community members, including tribal leaders, teachers and school-aged children have joined the series of learning sessions related to community-led total sanitation or CLTS methodology.

The process relies on the participation of the community and starts with a transect walk of the village, during which ACF hygiene promotion officers point out feces on the roadside, behind bushes and houses and in the general neighborhood.

The mobilizers then draw a map of the village and the participants point the spot where they defecate. The drill shows the close proximity to which families live from the defecation sites.

As soon as the community acknowledges the risk posed by open defecation, ACF provides technical guidance and supervises latrine installation for every household.

“We learned through a demonstration how diseases can be transmitted through open defecation. Food and water become contaminated when flies go from feces to food and spread the diseases. We’re totally ashamed of ourselves, we felt disgusted. Now we know what could have caused the deaths and widespread case of diarrhea,” Rivera said.

“This triggered families to build low-cost toilets of their own, and as incentive, they were given porcelain or plastic toilet bowls that are hygienic and could be used for longer period,” said Hashtarkhani.

In a recent handover ceremony of a water system project, the village has been declared “100% open defecation-free.” The village leaders also enacted an ordinance that requires every household to construct latrines, with penalties to those who can’t comply.

“With the barangay action, coupled with the awareness on hygiene and sanitation and the CLTS process, our behavior changed. The presence of a water system complements the community’s improved sanitation and hygiene practices,” said village chair Dahines Lagcuman.

As part of the project, the community also learned proper garbage disposal.

“Now we know better…we have clean toilets and we feel that we havefinally progressed,” Lorena Nogan said proudly.

“Groundbreaking solutions, such as the CTLS process, change people’s lives for the better,” said Hana Montaner, UNICEF WASH Project Officer.

“We need to safeguard the lives of children with sufficient nutrition and affordable and proven interventions for them to grow up well and take part in community development. The challenge now is for you to sustain this achievement,” Montaner said.

With the support of the local governments of North Cotabato and Arakan, ACF and UNICEF plan to continue conducting CLTS in the neighboring villages to help improve sanitation in the area. (Geonarri Solmerano/MindaNews)