Aurora Almendral is a freelance reporter and public radio producer. Usually from New York, she is currently based in Manila.
When Patricia Herrera got a water hookup for the community of Farola, it was only the beginning.
MANILA—In this city's slums, you don't get anything without a fight.
Patricia Herrera moved into a Manila slum called Farola in 1965, when she was eight years old. 150 families live here, squeezed into the strip of land between an industrial estuary and the high outside wall of a Philippine Coast Guard barracks. Their homes, haphazardly filling every bit of space, are made of crumbling cement blocks or cobbled together from found materials: flimsy plywood board, bamboo rods, tarpaulin, corrugated tin.
For most of the last 50 years, and like most informal settlements in Manila, Farola was starved for even the most basic infrastructure. There was no electricity and no paved roads. The sewage system was an open canal dug down the middle of a pathway. Worst of all, there was no running water.
Mostly they used a deep well, "but the water was dirty and itchy," Herrera explains in Tagalog. "It wasn't safe for women to use. And the kids, their skin was covered in rashes. That's what our water was like." They bought drinking water from a private water station a few kilometers away and lugged jugs back home. The system was expensive, labor intensive, and unreliable.
In 1997, the Farola neighborhood association collected money and applied for a water pipe with Maynilad, the water company. "But our application fell by the wayside," Herrera says.
Thirteen years later, Herrera, then the president of the neighborhood association, found herself in a conference room with a representative from the water company. It was a meeting for Maynilad to present its projects. When the representative asked her how she felt living in a dangerous flood zone, Herrera seized the opportunity.
"I told her, our lives are in more danger because our water isn't safe." She talked about the expensive water station, the itchy well water, the sick children. "I told her everything I was angry about," Herrera recalls.
Caught off guard and publicly embarrassed, the woman from the water company arranged to speak with Herrera after the conference. Three days later, a water engineer showed up in Farola. After decades of waiting, the slum was finally getting water.
Everybody remembers the day the water came: September 3, 2010. To celebrate, they gave the water away for free on the first day, and families lined up, filling pail after pail.
"The kids were really happy," Herrera says. Before, they were the ones tasked with fetching water, crossing a highway full of 10-wheelers, standing in line for an hour or two, and lugging home jugs every day before school.
Skin rashes have disappeared. The neighborhood has better peace of mind, too: If there's a fire, the whole interconnected slum won't go up in flames, now that they have water to put it out.
Farola now pays the water company's standard rate for every cubic meter of water, rather than the high rates of the private water station, with middlemen upping the price. This means Farola can charge the residents 60 percent less for each gallon of water. Despite this drop in price, the neighborhood association stills manages to make a profit, money that Herrera puts into a communal pot—a water co-operative.
Where a drum of water used to cost 50 pesos, it now costs 20. "We really had a hard time before," says Floriza Rafol, a washerwoman. "It was difficult to buy rice, then the water for it. Then you had to wash up afterwards." Over the four years since the water came, Rafol saved enough to send her two eldest children to trade school to study bookkeeping, something she says she would never have been able to do before.
With the money from the water co-op, Herrera and the officers of the association buy school supplies for Farola's kids. If there's an emergency—like a the time a local man was stabbed—she can pull money out of the water fund to pay an ambulance to take him to the hospital.
"If some project needs to be done, we don't need to wait to get money from politicians; we have immediate access to money," Herrera explains. They were able to buy grates to cover up the sewage canals, to protect children from falling in them. Last year, they bought cement and everyone pitched in to pave a muddy open space and turn it into a plaza, with a basketball court and benches set under mango trees.
Under construction is a bamboo storage facility: a "resilience store," they call it, where they use funds from the water co-op to stockpile rice and canned goods in the event of a disaster.
The main achievement of the co-op, however, is its livelihood program. So far, it has loaned money to 20 businesses in Farola.
Evangeline Talactac started a small open-air eatery with a 10,000 peso ($223) loan from the water co-op. Before, she would have borrowed from loan sharks, colloquially called "five-sixes" after their high interest rates. (For every five pesos she borrowed, she would have to pay back six, or 20 percent interest.) The water co-op only takes five percent interest, and payments are made casually, whenever she can afford it.
"Now I even have 8,000 pesos ($178) in savings," Talactac says. "I think I'll save it for Christmas, or for an emergency."
The signs of the water co-op are evident throughout Farola. The woman selling sugared fried bananas from her living room, the men operating sidecars (a common form of transportation in the Philippines, like tuk-tuks), even the green plants blooming along the main pathway, a luxury no one would have wasted water on before.
September 3rd is now a holiday here. The day the water came is celebrated every year with chicken-rice stew, sweets for the children, and a big party in the plaza.