Independent Appeal: Co-operative brings hope to waterless poor

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The Independent Online

Two or three times a week the residents of Maharlika, one of many urban poor communities in Bagong Silang, a suburb in the Philippines capital, wait along the main street for the city government tankers to deliver water. There is no fixed time. People often wait for hours at the five delivery points because failing to do so will mean losing the opportunity to get free water.

Those who make it through the queues spend another 20 minutes hauling water from the roadside drums to their homes. Women and children are usually the main collectors. It is back-breaking work. But the alternatives – private trucks that sell water or buying from neighbours who are on the mains – are either more expensive or more tiresome.

Bagong Silang is one of 212 so-called "waterless communities" in Manila, the capital of one of the most unequal countries in the world where almost half the population lives on less than £1 a day. Access to safe, adequate and affordable water is a critical issue in such shanty towns. Though international standards suggest that only 3 per cent of a household's monthly income should be spent on water, many in Manila spend as much as 30 per cent.

But more than money is at stake. Lack of access to clean water results in poor sanitation which causes severe health problems, particularly for children. The desperate situation prompted the residents of Maharlika to take matters into their own hands. Two years ago a group, composed mostly of housewives, decided to form a community water service co-operative. They were supported by a local non-government organisation, the Institute for Popular Democracy, a partner of One World Action – one of the three charities in this year's Independent Appeal.

With funding from the UK charity the co-operative hired an engineer and developed a business plan. It also provided training for the group and linked it with other communities which had successfully tackled water problems.

Since Manila's water companies claimed they could not afford to expand their pipelines to provide service to Maharlika, the co-operative took on the task itself, collecting fees from households – a challenging task that discourages water companies from setting up connections in poor areas. In the beginning only 20 households joined. "Many were too poor to afford the [£50] connection fee that the co-operative needs to buy pipes and pay for connection," said Ami Conti, manager of the co-operative. But as the plan has developed more than 100 families have joined up.

A key part of its success has been the loan that the co-operative has obtained from an institution specialising in finance for community ventures.

Having other sources of financing is important because projects to connect waterless areas are usually funded through the patronage of politicians. Politicians spend money on delivering water via trucks, a method that is inefficient and expensive yet politically useful. Communities who support the "wrong" candidate often do not get the services they need.

The co-operative used its initial seed fund as down-payment to secure two water meters from Maynilad, the water company that covers the area. Using these it connected into Maynilad's main pipelines. It then purchased pipes from a local hardware store and connected the first households. Challenges remain but the group has now connected 103 poor households to reliable and safe water.

The co-operative needs additional funding to connect the other 700 households within its target area. "If the co-operative succeeds," says Jude Esguerra, IPD's director, "it will serve as a blueprint for how communities can work together to secure the services they need and provide hope for the hundreds of other waterless communities."