Everything seems well every morning. There is the same sea, the same island in the distance, the same mountains to the north. I call them the ‘Born Free’ mountains, because whenever I look at the cogon grasses swaying on the slopes, I hear Tatay’s Matt Monro VHS tapes playing that song in the background. The grasses on other mountains never look as green, or as windblown as those found there. Even with repeated kaingin cycles and mining just at the foot of it, that mountain never loses its lustre.
Most people wake up with the church bells tolling for the morning mass, along with the smell of freshly cooked pan de sal from the bakeries near the wharf. Other people have woken up before the bells, however, and are already queueing for the bombahan, the water pump. In the poblacion, there are four private water pumps and only one public. The line would start as early as four o’clock in some days, especially when people from the nearby barrios would come just to get water. Each water container costs one or two pesos to fill. Our pump, which is connected to a deep well at my aunt’s house, is manned by my 91-year-old grandmother, Nay Polen. Sometimes my young cousins help her in making sure that each person pays for their refill. The line thins out by mid-morning and thickens again by the afternoon as people stock up before dinner.
Everything seems well. The streets are mostly cleared due to a mandate of the national government; no matter that some of the trees and plants fronting some of the houses are lopped off—at least the road is mostly clear, though for what I can’t imagine. We do not have access to the highway, so vehicles never pass by our roads, except for the backhoes that dig truckloads of soil from the hills and dump them at the former residential area directly behind the sea wall, now converted to a park with a few Local Government Unit (LGU) buildings. They have dumped soil cover over the residential waste and built on it. The buildings stand as if on stilts. Meanwhile, the displaced residents have set up houses farther up our hills.
There is now a three-storey senior high school building in the poblacion. Foundations for new and additional classrooms are dug in what was once mangrove area. The sea wall has been fortified by additional layers of concrete, and in Sitio Sabang, where most houses are built on stilts, there is another wall to keep out the sea. Talalora has now mostly recovered from the damage of Typhoon Ruby, which pummelled us for nearly two whole days in December 2014. It now simply looks like a small town catching up with ‘progress’, however slowly.
Everything seems well, until one turns on the faucet, even outside peak hours, and nothing flows but air. This is a story about water.
Talalora is a sixth income class municipality of 11 barangays, with a population of 9,059 residents as of 2019. It has a population increase rate of about 2 per cent for the past two years. The 2018 LGU Scorecard says that 92 per cent of households have access to safe water. It also says that 80 per cent of water sources comply with microbiological standards. But statistics like these only tell a small part of the story. My father, who until his retirement earlier this year was our town’s sanitation inspector, says that common gastrointestinal diseases like diarrhoea are relatively uncommon in Talalora. There were two deaths due to diarrhoea in 2016, both children below five years old and living in the barrios outside the poblacion. My father attributes their deaths to poor sanitation, and the lack of access to safe water, something that is true for all barangays of our town. When a local house in the poblacion caught fire in April last year, ours was the nearest deep well with sufficient water to put out the fire. My uncle’s hernia ruptured because he had to help the citizen rescuers cart gallons of water metres away to the burning house and back again.
In some areas of the town the water would flow unchecked, while others had none. The water safety plan was completely disregarded. And so years later, we have gone back to queuing at the well.
According to the 2018 report of the Commission on Audit, the water supply system of Talalora is an infrastructure asset worth 8 million pesos. It earns a revenue of about ₱55,000, a marked decrease from the 2017 data of around ₱69,000. Water first flowed freely in 2010, its source coming from Padang hill in an area owned by the mayor who implemented the water supply system. And yet the last time I can remember turning on the faucet and knowing water would come out was in 2013. By this time another mayor was in power, and it seemed as if the last three years of pushing for water access had gone to waste. Initially, the access continued, with a monthly bill of ₱150 for every household. Even then, the supply, and even the pipe repairs, was irregular. In some areas of the town the water would flow unchecked, while others had none. The water safety plan was completely disregarded. And so years later, we have gone back to queuing at the bombahan, leaving ourselves at the mercy of whoever it is owned the land the bombahan was in.
Not even 10 metres away from the senior high school building, there stands a tree whose roots cradle murky water with which we used to flush the toilets in our classrooms. Where there was murky water, there is now only mud. And where there was mud and marsh before, there are now school buildings that threaten to sink imperceptibly into the earth with every passing year. Meanwhile, for nearly three years now, when the monsoon rains come around July, we are flooded almost knee-deep. Even the main streets are filled with floodwater, something my mother tells me never happened in her day. It used to be that when habagat comes and the sea around us waxes white and churns ever higher, it would just crash through the sea wall and flood most of our street with sea water that would recede as fast as it would come. I have fond memories of my then three-year-old cousin Gwen and I skipping over the waves and laughing about it. Where there was the sea, rising and ebbing with the tide, there is now flood, stagnant, stubbornly clinging to the streets.
We are losing trees every year in Talalora. When I worked in DepEd as a secondary school teacher, my principal was a man who had no qualms in taking down trees. One year we hosted a Unit Meet and had to provide accommodations for three other neighbouring districts; he had makeshift kitchens and outhouses constructed, and he was not averse to axing whatever trees stood in his way. The makeshift buildings were eventually taken down after the event, but the trees were never replaced. For years, I had ascribed my principal’s behaviour to foreignness: he came from the town next to ours, so why should he care after all? But even officials born and bred at home see the same land as just territory, something that could be put to good use.
Terry Tempest Williams, whose book Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place was particularly helpful to me in my explorations in ecopathography, writes: ‘If we could introduce the Motherbody as a spiritual counterpoint to the Godhead, perhaps our inspiration and devotion would no longer be directed to the stars, but our worship could return to the Earth’. My people wake up to the church bells of the morning mass, and yet the same people who go to church also use styrofoam lunch packs for convenience during celebrations. Ever stronger typhoons have taught us nothing that translates into preventative action. We still wake up to the same smells, the same view, and so it seems that all is well.
Nanay tells me the family well was dug in the 80s when her mother, Nanay Poyang, was elected a barangay kagawad (or councillor) and volunteered the well for community use. Up until 2016, the well supplied water to the pump on the corner of the town’s main street. That was where we lined up when we were kids, taking turns at pumping to fill our water containers to be pushed on the cart towards home. We played so many games while waiting at that pump: slipper X, get in, nagu-tagoay (hide and seek). That pump was the nearest to school too, and on weekdays, that was where we’d line up to fill our gallon containers for watering the plants and general classroom upkeep. We removed the pump handle after it kept breaking due to mishandling, in hopes that water would flow sooner. No water comes out of that pump anymore.
Was it always going to be like this: Water access mentioned rarely (if at all) by either side’s election platforms, no official action or intervention from the local government and only the citizens fending for themselves?
When I served as a poll clerk in the 2016 elections, I stayed awake for nearly 24 hours until our duties were finished and the vote-counting machines were safely turned over. When I awoke the next day to the news that the mayor had been re-elected, and that the separate water pump at home supplied no water, I got angry. Was it always going to be like this: Water access mentioned rarely (if at all) by either side’s election platforms, no official action or intervention from the local government and only the citizens fending for themselves? That week, my cousin cut off the pipe supplying water to the pump at the corner of the street. We were probably very bitter at yet another defeat, but somehow the dry pump made all that summer heat, all the scarce rain, all that apathy harder to endure.
During the May elections last year we thought the time had come for new faces in the LGU, but of course the old order won again. Their supporters point out the various buildings put up by the administration, the ‘road’ to the other barangays and to the next town which is still nowhere near finished; but there has also been talk of supporters receiving some kind of paycheque or other, a position of relative power in the barangay or the municipal level, ensuring continued dominance. In yet another bitter family meeting, we mulled about not allowing the supporters of the other party to get water from us. We joked about charging them double or triple the normal rate, or even turning them away—let them fetch water from their own people. I could taste the bitterness of those thoughts in my mouth, like bile rising up and engulfing me if I dared to give in to them. In those few days after the elections, I heard too much of gabâ and my Catholic guilt in the tolling of the morning bells.
I have taken to touching trees that I fear for. After many of our school trees, like the alawihaw and fire trees, the trees of my childhood, were felled by Typhoon Ruby, I’d whisper to those remaining and tell them to be well, to stay for longer. I know doing this did not extend their lives one moment longer, but it gave me a small measure of comfort. In When Women Were Birds, Terry Tempest Williams’ grandmother Mimi tells her to ‘get rid of the orthodoxy’ and do it consciously. Every year I grow wanting to reach out and touch the wildness of things around me, knowing that it may be the last time I ever do, and yet I have only started to grow my own Sansevieria cylindrica last January. The sickness hasn’t translated into numbers, and yet it is in the air—the way no vegetable garden prospers, even at the school, because other people partake of the harvest first; the way our family has decided to cut off the supply to the water pump on the street corner where people have fetched water for years, and just have them get the water directly from our deep well for a cost.
I have taken to touching trees that I fear for. After many were felled by Typhoon Ruby, I’d whisper to those remaining and tell them to be well, to stay for longer.
We didn’t act on our half-serious remarks, after the most recent elections, of charging political opponents more—of course not. But still, all that water could have been free. What was most surprising was that the townsfolk did not grumble that much and moved on very easily. So they now had to pay for every container they fill. Big deal. When I dreamed about the manaybanay tree with its white-pink bell flowers, the one nearest to our deep well and probably supplies some of its water, even my family’s response during the dream was just to shrug their shoulders when I told them that it was already felled. How very easy it is for life to settle, like water flowing, seeking only the lowest elevation.
It is an absurdity to even write this, knowing that later I will enjoy a nice, thick burger patty as a reward; an absurdity to write all these things and yet not even know the names of the people who fetch water from our deep well, people whose lives touch ours as much as we touch theirs. And yet, amid all these, there is a certain logic to how we grow ever thirstier for safe water as the waves of the sea encroach ever closer.
For as long as I can remember, every time I have gone back home to Talalora, about twice a year, I have seen at least one tikarol or kingfisher outside our window. Last summer, I was home for more than a month and no tikarol ever dared to stop by.
This is a story about water. This is our story.