MANILA, FEBRUARY 28, 2011 (STARweek) By Don Jaucian - Villa Beatriz in Old Balara, Quezon City is the typical Manila community: houses are stacked against each other you could almost hear them groaning under their weights, numerous sari-sari stores are located within a meter of each other, and a steady stream of water is going downhill from the wash basins of several housewives who are doing the day’s batch of laundry. Out in the streets kids are playing, occasionally dispersed by the passing tricycle and the stray dog looking for something to eat.

Such sight has been a common occurrence in Manila’s depressed communities. But in a tiny street in Villa Beatriz, a narrow three-storey structure is livelier than the others, apparent with sounds of mechanical clanging and the buzz of machines. This structure is the home of the Pipe Retreading Livelihood Project of the Alitaptap Multi-Purpose Cooperative, headed by Romy Escober, who overlooks the proceedings, even carrying on with the work himself. His other workers are busying themselves with their respective taks: fitting protective caps, pipes and tubes. For a narrow space, it seems bursting with an enthusiastic air, something that Romy also possesses.

Romy gamely gives us a tour of the facilities, which started operations in 2006. The first floor is the main working area for 14 workers, all of whom are from Villa Beatriz. A narrow spiral stairway leads up to the second floor, which houses Romy’s office and the meeting area for the six staffers working hard to maintain the cooperative, as well as the rooftop where they conduct trainings and small gatherings. “You can see the Sierra Madre from up here,” Romy enthuses. And there it is, the sprawling Sierra Madre Mountains, which appear like they’re just within short reach from where we were standing.

The humid weather and the narrow space couldn’t confine Romy’s eagerness to talk about their cooperative. “It has brought in a big change in our lives, not just for our family but also for our entire community,” Escober said. “This all started with Manila Water’s water provision project in our community and we’re very thankful that they have given us these opportunities that have helped us grow and develop.”

Multiple benefits

[PHOTO - Happy faces: The benefits Manila Water’s initiatives have brought may be reflected in these children’s expression.]

Lolita Escober, 52, watches her husband work at a certain distance. She notes that Romy has been more active and inspired since his work in the cooperative began. “Now that my husband is busy with his work in the cooperative, I have more time to tend to my sari-sari store so we’ll have another source of income.”

Like any housewife in their community, Lolita wants to make use of her free time wisely. Now that their two kids are all grown up (one is in college and her eldest son finished Electronic Communications Engineering and already works in Laguna), she has more time to find alternative means of income and not just spend her entire day doing household chores while waiting for her family to come home. These days, she keeps herself busy with her sari-sari store which also helps her interact more with the people in their community.

The sari-sari store, in its small and humble form, reflects the core needs of the community. It is a small store, mostly a shack, lined with some of the basic commodities that the Filipino family needs on short notice such as sugar, salt, canned goods, fruits, biscuits, and toiletries. It’s no wonder that the smallest community has enough sari-sari stores to cater to the needs of everyone, including nearby communities as well. Like in Lolita’s case, it is a quick way to earn more money now that she has more time to spare to adequately manage her business.

Lolita is thankful for Manila Water’s 24/7 provision of clean and safe water for Villa Beatriz. “We have more time to tend to our families and we save more money because we don’t have to wait and fall in line and buy water like we used to,” she said.

Manila Water’s aggressive programs in reducing non-revenue water (the water lost to illegal connections and physical reasons such as faulty pipes) have led to drastic reduction of systems losses from 63 percent down to 12 percent. This change has enabled the company to launch its flagship program Tubig Para Sa Barangay (TPSB), of which Villa Beatriz is a beneficiary. This program aims to provide safe and round-the-clock water, eliminating the people’s need to buy expensive water from private providers, lining up under the harsh heat of the sun for several drums or pails of water (which they have to carry back to their houses) and enabling them to save up on their expenses.

That’s probably the most telling of all benefits a low-income community like Villa Beatriz is getting from Manila Water’s TPSB program. You see, people used to pay P25 per drum of water that they bought from private vendors, whose safety they couldn’t even be assured of. That would translate to P125 per cubic meter as a cubic meter is equivalent to five drums. Nowadays, however, and even with the supposed adjustment in water rates, people have to pay only P7 per cubic meter of assuredly safe, clean and potable water.

[PHOTO - A typical family in Villa Beatriz like that of Romy and Lolita Escober can now attend to other chores with the programs Manila Water initiated in their community.

“Some of these communities resorted to illegal connections so we thought of a way that would resolve this issue. With the TPSB, the bill is shouldered by the entire community. The connection fee can be paid in installment so it won’t be too hard for these families,” Manila Water’s Sustainable Development OIC Joyce Talag said.

Lolita can attest to the fact that the Tubig Para sa Barangay has brought a sweeping change for their family and their community. “We no longer worry about our water being unsafe and it helps us save more money for other important expenses. It has also lessened our worries when it comes to the health of our families.”

Lolita shared that she and Romy were much more concerned with the quality of water that they used to get and how safe it was for their family to drink. But with Manila Water’s water provision, they both can sleep well at night. “Just in cases of emergency, we have money for emergency expenses and we don’t have to worry where and how to get money especially when we need it most,” Lolita said.

Tending to the children’s needs

As the day progresses, Villa Beatriz’s children come home from school carrying school bags bulging with notebooks, books and other school supplies. Their uniforms sometimes are stained with dirt from having to walk home. These days, these children have much more reasons to smile now that their parents have a steadier means of income.

“Our parents no longer worry about money for our food and school needs. We also have cleaner clothes so we’re less shy going to school,” said Jocel Ucol, a student from Villa Beatriz who studies at the Old Balara Elementary School. “Our mom has more time to spend with us and help us in or school work.”

[PHOTO -Teaching a young one: Romy shows a tyke how it is done].

The Old Balara Elementary School is a recipient of the “Lingap Eskwela” Program of Manila Water. Manila Water’s Lingap Program provides water for different public institutions such as schools, hospitals and jails. In the case of Jocel’s school, OBEC, it now has drinking fountains and running water which the school uses to maintain the institution and its constituents’ needs. The Lingap Program includes a sanitation component which gives the students a healthier environment to grow in, lessening the incidences of water-borne diseases such as diarrhea and typhoid fever.

“Before, we had to buy bottled water which takes up most of our baon,” Jocel explains. “Now that we have clean drinking water in our school, we can buy more food and even save money.”

The Lingap Program has already helped 300 public institutions with around 5.1 million beneficiaries.

Manila Water also makes part of these water provision services an ample education component, arming students as well as different stakeholders with the right knowledge so they become socially responsible citizens. With this thrust, the company has launched the “Lakbayan” Program that gives people an opportunity to tour its facilities as well as receive lectures on water safety, sanitation and environmental issues.

Educating doesn’t just stop there. Manila Water uses every kind of media possible to get to its customers. “Manila Water’s customers always receive something educational when they get their bills,” explains Manila Water’s customer service manager Amy Pineda. “We print different tips in our billing statements such as how to take care of your water system or ways on how to be more environment friendly.”

This way, Pineda says, students like Jocel as well as housewives like Lolita are more aware of the things that they have to do to maintain their water system and help contribute to sustaining the important services that keep their lives going.

[PHOTO - Young students in Villa Beatriz are also assured of safe water with Manila Water’s Lingap Eskwela Program.

Steadier livelihood

Romy is still amazed as to how the simple provision of water has changed the lives of everyone in their community. In his 30-year stay in Villa Beatriz, these sweeping signals of change have been certainly more than encouraging.

For Romy, however, the road to success wasn’t a smooth ride. Before getting the grant for their cooperative, Romy had to juggle several unsuccessful jobs and entrepreneurial ventures. “The opportunity given by Manila Water opened a lot (of windows) for my family and our community. I was able to send my son to college and help my wife in her sari-sari store. But more importantly, I was able to help a lot of families in our community,” Escober shared.

“I am glad that I have been given the chance to help these people, especially the out-of-school youth, so they can realize the dignity of labor and be a contributing member towards the development of our community,” Escober said.

The workers of Alitaptap Cooperative are trained by Manila Water to ensure that they meet the standards of quality set by the company. After all, Manila Water will be the one utilizing the products that such a cooperative produces. In their narrow workplace, these men work hard to maintain the quality of their products to prove that they are worthy of the opportunity that they have been given.

Other partner cooperatives of Manila Water under their livelihood program also produce several products for the company, including printouts of billing statements, t-shirts and corporate giveaways. The program has so far yielded P25 million worth of job orders.

The Alitaptap Multi-Purpose Cooperative in Villa Beatriz supplies some of the pipes used in Manila Water projects like this. Securing the future

Villa Beatriz is only one of the communities that Manila Water services in the East Zone, the area which the company covers under the concession agreement it signed with the government agency Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System in 1997. Now under the helm of its president, Gerardo Ablaza Jr., Manila Water envisions more Villa Beatrizes in the future: a thriving community with steadier means of livelihood and families that are more closely knit because they have more time for each other. Targeting a holistic development, the company aims to transcend its status as mere providers of water and sewer services.

[PHOTO- The Alitaptap Multi-Purpose Cooperative in Villa Beatriz]

The company, after all, has carried on with its strong success throughout its 14 years of service by taking on the principle of serving not only for profit but also for caring for the people and the planet.

“We have several projects lined up that will further strengthen our services to the residents under our Central Distribution System,” corporate communications manager Jeric Sevilla Jr. says. We are committed to providing service that not only addresses the primary needs of our customers but also extends multiple benefits to them, not just water provision, thereby securing a brighter future for succeeding generations.”

For Manila Water, indeed, serving its customers has transcended the traditional way of providing water and sewer services; it has brought it to a realm no other similar service company had probably thought of in the past. And such communities like Villa Beatriz can only be thankful about it.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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