IN A typical summer morning in Isla Verde, Davao City, a coastal area known to be the home to the thousands of people from various tribes who live in shanties, the sea transforms into a playground to the many children who live there especially during low tide.
The children do not mind that the beach they play on is the same beach they defecate in as awareness of the need for sanitary toilets is very low.
Open defecation is still being widely practiced in the area. No one seemed to like to talk about the topic first.
Once brought up, answers would always be accompanied by evident awkward pauses and an embarrassed smile. “Asa naga-CR ang mga tao dinhi? (Where do people here go when they poop?),” I asked Jojo (not his real name), 19, a resident of Miniforest who went to Isla Verde to meet his friends.
It was a Saturday morning and Jojo shared that it was a day he spared for leisure after weekdays of work. He was waiting by the coast with another friend. Before us, different forms of garbage, blanketed the shore. But not a single person passing by the area seemed to be bothered by the sight. The question was answered by a grunt at first, but Jojo went on saying that most of the residents in the area go to the sea to ‘drop the bomb’.
Early mornings and dusks are the ideal times to hit the sea and answer the call of nature. At daytime, it’s done hiding behind the seawall. Women would go by two’s or more to the seawall made of big piles of rocks to hide on the other side when they need to defecate. Others bring a “Malong” (a traditional tube skirt) to cover up. A companion will serve as a lookout. Others poop in a plastic bag and throw this to the sea.
“Pag moanha sila dinha sa batohan, duha ra gyud pasabot ana: maligo or malibang (When they go to the seawall, it only means two things: they will take a bath or poop),” Jojo shared.
“Nasanay naman ang mga tao dinhi ana (The people here are already used to that),” Jojo added.
Not a problem
During the first day of the national workshop on Zero Open Defecation (ZOD) Program of the Department of Health (DOH) at the Pinnacle Suites Hotel in Davao City last April 4, 2017, SunStar Davao had the chance to interview different individuals who worked closely with the communities and their stakeholders in addressing the problem on sanitation in the country.
United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) chief of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (Wash) Louise Maule said that one of the reasons why open defecation is practiced here in the country “is because it is a common habit and people do not see it as a problem.”
“If everybody in your community always practice open defecation, you don’t think about it very much. It’s just a normal thing to do,” Maule said, emphasizing that through the ZOD program, where the Unicef is among the partners, they wanted to really change the people’s minds to make them realized the health implications if they practice open defecation and what the benefits are if they do have their own toilets.
Communication Advisor at the Center for Health Solutions and Innovations (CHSI) Nilo Yacat also said in a separate interview that their research revealed that the primary reason why people do not put up their own toilets is because they think that it is expensive.
“So kung may checklist sila sa bahay nila… hindi mo makikita sa listahan ang kasilyas. Sabi nila ‘kesa magpatayo ng kasilyas, bili na lang ako ng bigas’ (If they had a checklist of their priorities, you will not see toilet on the list. They would say that instead of spending money for a toilet, they would spend it on food),” Yacat said.
Also, Supervising Health Program Officer Rolando Santiago of the Environmental Related Disease Division of the DOH said that the main reason why many also do not build their own toilets is because of poverty.
“Pero nakikita din natin dito na nakasanayan iyong problema sa [kawalan ng] toilet,” Santiago further said.
According to Santiago, the 2013 data gathered by the DOH would show that out of the population in the country, 79.9 percent or 80 percent have access to sanitary toilets and that leaves 20 percent others who still practice open defecation which is still a big number.
Wash Chief Maule also said that based on their data, although it is not yet complete, the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao is one of the regions which have the highest percentage of people that are still practicing open defecation but they also see the same challenges in regions 9 and 10.
Another challenge that they faced in eradicating the problem as noted by Maule is that sometimes they would also have to advocate for local chief executives to take sanitation as a serious problem. It’s more of a behavioral problem.
Yacat also said that there were many initiatives that were done to address the problem on sanitation especially the lack of toilet facilities among households. Some would even resort to donate toilets to the communities but it ended up in the wrong path since the communities were not prepared yet.
Yacat cited instances where the donated toilets were instead used differently other than its actual use. Due to lack of knowledge and preparedness, recipients of the toilet bowls instead used the toilets as “halamanan (flower pots), manukan (henhouse) while others put it on their roof so that it will not be flown by the wind. He emphasized the need for the communities to be informed about toilet, its use and how to make one. They also see comfort rooms (CR) as an expensive facility, Yacat said.
“Kasi akala nila mahal [ang toilet]. Ang concept nila ng toilet, makintab at tiles pati ang walls. Kung ganon nga ang concept, mahal siya pero ang adbokasiya ng Department of Health hindi kailangan ng mahal ang toilet na ipapatayo mo,” Yacat explained, adding that there are low-cost technology latrines that they can put up.
Part of the program is also to teach the people to save money for toilet and to make makeshift toilets which would only cost them little.
“Ang [makeshift] toilet mo pwedeng galon ng tubig – hahatiin mo sya basta may butas, iyong iba mga silya na [made of] plastic binubutasan basta may structure sila na mura,” Yacat added.
While others say that poverty hinders them from putting up their own toilet, Catalino Laxinto, 54, another resident in Isla Verde who is living there for 18 years already, begs to disagree.
Being a kargador or laborer who earns an average of P300 a day and having to fit it to all their family’s basic needs, Laxinto still managed to have his own toilet.
He said that he understands the risks of having no toilet and the discomfort it brings when you don’t have one. He said that when he built his house in Isla Verde, he made sure to include a toilet in it. As a laborer, he earns P2 for every sack of rice he unloads from a truck.
When asked how he managed his finances to put up a comfort room, he said he borrowed money through 5-6 (loan shark). But to reduce the amount he needed, he made use of the sand from the shore to mix with the cement.
“Ako gyud nang giuna og taod ang CR (I prioritized making the CR),” Laxinto said. “It’s pitiful to think of my grandchildren having to poop in the open,” Laxinto said in the vernacular.
Maule said open defecation is one of the main contributors of some common diseases caused by multiple diseases such as increased diarrhea, typhoid and cholera, among others.
“It has long-term impact on children’s health and well-being because if a child has high worm infestation, it absorbed all the nutrients from the food that they are eating and it prevents them from being healthy and strong so it has health implications. From the environmental perspective, there’s a high level of surface water bodies in the Philippines that are contaminated with E. Coli and that’s because of open defecation practice,” Maule added.
According to Maule, once the communities understand and become aware of the context, they themselves would desire change. Other than health benefits one could get through zero open defecation; there is also the dignity of doing a private act… in private.