by Rhemil C. Palileo
Every year, five out of 100 people in the Philippines die from illnesses related to water, sanitation, and hygiene, according to the World Health Organization.
In support of policies pertaining to improving public health, Republic Act 9275 or the Philippine Clean Water Act was implemented in 2004 to serve as legal basis of local government units’ programs that roll out sewerage and septage management programs in their respective localities.
Pursuant to RA 9275, the Laguna Water District Aquatech Resources Corporation (LARC, formerly Laguna Water District) signed on August 7, 2009 a Memorandum of Understanding with the municipal governments of Los Baños, Bay, Calauan, and Victoria and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to implement the septage management program (SMP). On the basis of this agreement, the program has started.
According to Engr. Emil Puerto, who is LARC Operations Group Manager, the SMP will be fully implemented year 2020. Technical support in the form of technical and feasibility studies have been extended by USAID.
The program provides for LARC to desludge septic tanks of their concessionaires once every five years. The sludge will be transported to the septage treatment plant, popularly known as the Fully Mechanized Facility or FMF, located in Barangay Puypuy, Bay, Laguna where it will be treated before being returned to the waterways. The plant is owned by Envirokonsult Equipment and Services, Inc.
“We (LARC) are planning to have a joint venture with them (Envirokonsult) or procure the whole plant,” Puerto said.
The proposed desludging fee is 12.5% of the monthly water bill of a concessionaire.
For instance, Elvira Tamisin of Barangay Mayondon, Los Banos pays P500 every month for her household’s water consumption. Desludging fee to be collected from her will amount to P62.50 per month or a total of P3,750 (P62.50 x 12 months x 5 years).
She said that she does not mind the payment because the money goes to pay for a very important service. “Okay lang naman sakin kasi pag puno na yung poso negro, di na maganda sa kapaligiran. Saka ang hirap [pag hindi ganito ang setup]–kunyari kay Malabanan (a private company engaged in desludging business) magpasipsip, pag natapat na wala kang pera. Kaya mas okay na paunti-unti ang bayad,” Tamisin added. (I am okay with that arrangement especially if our septic tank is full, that is not good. In the usual setup, such as when availing of Malabanan services, it is difficult if desludging will happen at a time when you don’t have enough money. It is better to pay small amounts.)
Private desludgers collect P5,000 to P7,000 for every desludging.
SMP also involves barangay units that will later be commissioned by the LARC to remove the cement cover of septic tanks prior to the scheduled desludging to save on time. This way, when the tanker arrives in the area, desludging can proceed immediately.
Delays in the bureaucracy
However, Engr. Puerto cited a problem in implementing the program.
“Hindi pa na-ratify yung ordinance sa Los Baños na gagawing mandatory ang desludging sa mga bahay. We are not yet fully implementing the program kasi di pa kami nag-e-establish ng tariff kasi we’re waiting for the municipal council to ratify the ordinance,” he said. (The ordinance has yet to be ratified that will make desludging mandatory among households in Los Baños. We are not yet fully implementing the program because we have not established the tariff.)
An ordinance is necessary to establish the mechanism and enforcement of the SMP. The municipal council has already drafted an ordinance and is currently waiting for its ratification.
People awareness and participation
LARC also recognizes that awareness is key in implementing the program. The organization sends out couriers to disseminate leaflets about the program, usually during the checking of water consumption meters of customers. It also used to conduct information and education campaign but had to stop the activity pending the ordinance.
Odeth Sampao, a resident of Mayondon, admitted that she is unaware of the program. She also said that her household has not had their septic tank desludged ever since their house was constructed in 1994.
“Parang di pa naman napupuno eh. Kung puno na okay lang [magpa-desludge],” she said. (I think the septic tank is far from being full. When it is full, desludging will be okay.)
At the moment, LARC caters to households who voluntarily avail of desludging services. The process starts with customers contacting LARC and LARC endorsing them to the plant. In this arrangement, households pay directly to the plant. According to Puerto, out of the 32,000 service connections, less than 1% has contacted them to have their septic tanks desludged.
“Gusto naman ng mga tao, ang isyu palagi is magkano. Sabi pa nung iba is bakit ko babayaran yan eh maruming tubig na yan,” Puerto, who is an industrial engineering graduate, lamented. (What people are usually concerned about is cost. One resident even asked why there is a need for them to pay for dirty water.)
Risks to health and environment
Puerto also said that many people do not see desludging as a way to help save their immediate environment from contamination. He added that septic tanks should be desludged every 5-7 years to maintain efficiency and prevent overflow that can lead to groundwater contamination.
According to a report by the (USAID) and the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP), poor sanitation and hygiene practices can cause many diseases, such as diarrhea, typhoid, and hepatitis A. These practices also include unsanitary toilet areas, poor personal hygiene practices especially after using the toilet, open defecation especially near water sources, lack of protection or treatment of drinking water, poor food preparation practices, and lack of latrine and water-source protection in flood-prone areas.
Gliceria de Guzman, a resident of Barangay Malinta, expressed willingness to participate in the program provided that proper water treatment will be done and waste will not be dumped to bodies of water. She expressed concern about waste management by current service providers, such as Malabanan, and wondered where these companies dump the waste they collect.
There is also the problem of indigents who don’t have water service connections and thus use dysfunctional sanitation facilities. According to WHO, 31 percent of rural residents and 21 percent of urban residents still do not use improved sanitation facilities. The Philippine Statistics Authority also reported that 14.5 percent of Filipino families use unsafe source of water from unprotected well, spring, river, pond, lake, rain water, and tanker truck or peddler.
Puerto said that improper construction of septic tanks can lead to contamination of shallow wells, which are the water source of families who cannot avail of piped and treated water, thus increasing the risk of them contacting hepatitis and typhoid fever.
“Nag-test kami one time ng water sa shallow wells somewhere here in Los Baños. We found out na may shallow well or poso na ang katabi ay poso negro. Di pa sealed yung pinaka-ilalim. We also found out that there is an intrusion na ng E.coli sa water nila,” Puerto narrated. (Once we tested shallow wells somewhere in Los Baños. We found out that there are shallow wells or water pumps directly beside septic tanks of households. These septic tanks do not have sealed or cemented bottoms. We also found that water in these areas have E.coli.)
For its part, LARC is addressing the issue by extending water services to indigent areas. It plans to construct, as part of its corporate social responsibility, an interceptor for communities where households have no septic tanks.
Improper sanitation, haphazard human waste disposal, and dysfunctional water treatment programs affect lives. According to WHO, diarrhea is the fourth leading cause of death of Filipino children below five years old. There is still a lot to be done to improve health and sanitation in the Philippines. Implementing an efficient septage management program is just one.
According to Puerto, who also resides in Los Baños, it is high time for people to support the program to save the ground and surface water. Non-cooperation will eventually lead to widespread contamination that will in turn require doubled efforts for treatment.