Descending into the gully, we heard the faint clanging of metal against metal, like there was a fairy blacksmith amidst the ferns and lichen hammering on a horseshoe somewhere down there. There was no fairy, of course, but the machine we saw is nearly as magical – it pumps 10 liters of water per minute up a steep 89-meter cliff without electricity. It is called a hydraulic ram pump system.
How we came to be here needs a bit of history to explain.
In 1992, the Philippine Government enacted the National Integrated Protected Areas System Act, which designated "biologically important public lands that are habitats of rare and endangered species". Unfortunately, very little community consultation occurred in the process, if at all, so consequently there is scant grassroots support for the protected areas.
One of the areas so designated is Northern Negros Island, Western Visayas Region, and Murcia is one of the municipalities located within both the North Negros Forest Reserve and Mt. Kanlaon Natural Park. Closed-canopy forests in these areas serve as an important part of the island’s watershed. They are also very important habitats for several threatened species; such as the Negros Bleeding Heart Pigeon, the Blue-crowned Racquet-tailed Parrot, Blue-naped Parrot, the spotted Wood-kingfisher, the White-Winged Cuckoo Shrike, the Flame-templed Babbler, among others; and two critically threatened hornbills: Tarictic Hornbill and the Visayan Writhed or Walden’s Hornbill. Likewise, it has all the six Negros Island species of large mammals, two of which are endangered: the Philippine Spotted Deer and the Visayan Warty Pig. Moreover, timber species like Red and White Lauan, Nato, Bagtikan, Tangele, Almon, Almaciga, Udling among others are abundant in the area. Illegal logging, backyard charcoal production, and indiscriminate hunting persist as threats to the "protected area."
In 2007, AID Foundation asked Seacology to help them build ram pump systems for 3 villages (barangays) within the North Negros Forest Reserve and Mt. Kanlaon Natural Park. In return, the villages, i.e. Barangays Canlandog, Sta. Cruz and Buenavista, all in the Municipality of Murcia, will commit themselves to protecting 2,000 hectares of watershed forest area adjacent to their villages for at least 30 years.
The installation of the ram pumps and water distribution system was completed last July, and now, October 17, 2009, I am visiting the sites to see how these are. With me is Auke Idzenga of AID Foundation. Auke is a Dutch immigrant who has been a resident of Negros since the late 1980s, and he speaks the Negros Island dialect fluently. He, along with 3 Filipinos, set up AID Foundation in 1992 to help the impoverished communities of Negros Island. In most of my conversations with community members, he was my interpreter.
The most extensive distribution network is at the village of Calandog, where the lines laid out total about 11 kilometers. This is also the first village to have had their ram pumps installed. So far, the distribution in Sta. Cruz village is limited to Sitio Lacson, while in Buenavista village the water reaches Sitios Bug-as and Igkalay.
The ram pumps need very little maintenance. Just a little cleaning once a week or so, and some parts have to be inspected every 6 months to check if they need to be replaced. Right now, each house is paying a fixed amount of Php20 (about 45 US cents) per month to draw water from the reservoir. The money goes to the system’s maintenance.
Paterno Ledesma, chairman of the Purok Lacson Water Consumers Association, has a novel way of collecting payment, which is incorporated in one of the association’s clauses. Valves from the reservoir service a certain group of households. Should a group member forget to pay by the due date, Paterno shuts off the valve servicing that group until everyone pays. So far, he has had to shut off a valve 3 times in the past, and only for one day at most.
At each of the communities benefitting from the ram pumps, we were greeted with food painstakingly prepared by the grateful residents. It wasn’t much really. Different preparations of suman (sweetened rice wrapped in leaves), boiled sweet potatoes, macaroni salad, and pots of native coffee at every stop. But I felt like we were being served a costly feast, coming from families living on less than fifty pesos (about a dollar) a day.
Over and over one woman spoke to me in their dialect of how, before the ram pumps were installed, a family member, sometimes a son or daughter, had to spend hours to go down all the way to the water source every day to fill up a few containers and climb back up. Now, they have more time to do other things. The children have more time to devote to their studies, the men can spend more time at extra income-augmenting activities such as hog raising, and the women can do more house chores.
And everyone can bathe regularly. Not a joke. I’ve been told that incidences of skin diseases went down dramatically in Calandog, which had their ram pumps in place since mid last year.
The villages have set up their own Forest Guards who patrol the watershed regularly, mindful of its significance to the accessible water they now enjoy. About 3,000 seedlings (assorted indigenous species) were planted around the ram pump sites, and the no-take zone is being enforced.
For the 217 households presently being served by the ram pumps, finding time to work for the future suddenly seems possible.