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Clean potable water key to fighting COVID-19

The first COVID-19 case in Northern Mindanao was recorded on March 11, 2020 in Cagayan de Oro. By May 7, its first cases of local transmission involving three persons with no travel history to affected areas were recorded.

Despite government’s best efforts, it only took six month since the first case and four months since the first local transmission for cases in the region to hit 2,052 according to the RIATF-IED led by the Department of Health (DOH) – 10. Of these 1,091 have recovered, 42 died, and 919 are recovering.

In terms of the region’s Critical Care Utilization Rate as of September 15, R-10 now has 43.20 percent utilization of isolation beds, 25.45 percent utilization of mechanical ventilators, 46.43 percent utilization of ICU beds, 44.29 percent utilization of beds for severe and critical cases, and 46.22 percent utilization of COVID-19 wards, he also said that region 10 has a case doubling time of 15 days.

In Cagayan de Oro alone as of September 14, the total number of confirmed Covid-19 cases has now breached 476, with five of the 16 new local cases considered local transmissions.

While the situation regarding the city and the region’s capacity to deal with the number of active cases is not yet critical, the sudden surge from local transmissions especially is a cause for concern.

This brings up the issue of how we have so far been dealing with the pandemic. Among the minimum health protocols proven to be effective against the further spread of the coronavirus, hand washing still remains the most effective.

Potable Water Issue

However, the present state of water quality and distribution in Cagayan de Oro to effectively curtail COVID-19s has raised a red flag that begs urgent and immediate attention. And not only because of the global pandemic but also the continued threats posed by other diseases arising from contaminated water.

In November 2008, at least 560 residents of Tagoloan in Misamis Oriental were brought to the municipal health center suffering from stomach aches, vomiting, and diarrhea with another 600 exhibiting similar symptoms admitted to various hospitals after drinking contaminated water.

Reports gathered by ABS-CBN Misamis Oriental said water samples taken from the water distributors of the two areas tested positive for coliform and amoeba according to Misamis Oriental Provincial Health Officer Ignacio Moreno.

In April 2011, five persons died and 20 others became ill in Sitio Man-ai, Barangay Tignapoloan, after their main water source the barangay’s main water source was contaminated, according to an ABS-CBN Report. Reports said poor sanitation in the area caused the water contamination while health officials suspected human and animal waste may have seeped into the residents’ drinking water. 

Unsafe water causing chronic malnutrition and stunting. Diarrhea is among the world’s most common illnesses, sometimes leading to death, caused by contaminated water.

In 2016 according to the World Health Organization, “one of the top 10 leading causes of death in the Philippines was acute watery diarrhea, claiming over 139,000 lives” and that 50% of the country’s typhoid cases is due to water pollution.

This number is not surprising since water scarcity has led thousands of Filipinos to rely on water from unsafe sources.

“About 80 percent of all diseases and more than one-third of all deaths in developing countries are caused by contaminated water,” noted Elizabeth Dowdeswell, former executive director of the United Nations Environment Program.

In 2003, the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said 80% of the world’s illnesses and deaths are due to water-related diseases. Two decades later, a child still dies every 2 minutes from water-borne diseases including typhoid.

Hand Washing

Medical and health institutions the world over have been unanimous around the world has highlighted the same precautionary measures, especially frequent hand washing, as crucial in preventing COVID-19 or spreading the novel coronavirus.

Aside from COVID-19, there are a number of other diseases caused by or exacerbated by insufficient or unclean water.

The ASEAN Integrated Water Resources Management reports that in the Philippines 55 people dies every day due to lack of clean water.

In some cases when water is indeed available, poor quality and contaminants have been a threat to health.

Reports by the Asian Development Bank and Greenpeace Water Patrol Investigation revealed that “Heavy inorganic pollutants have made water increasingly a threat to life”.

The groundwater problem

Cagayan de Oro’s problem with water quality is evident with the dirty brown water many households encounter, since the city’s water district still sources its water supply mainly from its 29 deep wells.

Although this water supply is dosed with chlorine to kill any present bacteria, the silt and sediments floating in it as a result of the groundwater extraction makes it unfit for food preparation and drinking.

While assuring the public the dirty brown water coming from their taps is safe to drink, residents have chosen to buy their drinking water instead from the water refilling stations who simply filters the water district’s “potable” water of its silts and sediments and then sells them to consumers at a premium.

Surface Water

While cleaner water has been available from the water district’s bulk water supplier, this has not been enough to totally replace the volume now being sourced by the water district from its deep wells.

But can Cagayan de Oro afford to continue risking the health of its residents by ignoring the threat posed to their continued well-being by the dirty brown water coming out from their taps and its uncertain supply and unavailability in other areas?

Perhaps the City Council can launch an investigation in the aid of legislation to determine exactly if the sudden surge in coronavirus cases is related to the unavailability of clean potable water for hand washing and drinking.

Consider, for instance, how in Benguet and Bulacan, 5 out of the 18 artesian wells have nitrate levels that are significantly higher than the safety standard set by the World Health Organization.

In Cebu, residents complain that their drinking water is taken from unsafe sources. In fact in 2011, a typhoid fever epidemic hit the town of Alegria which led to some fatalities. 

As COVID-19 cases in the Philippines almost reaching 300,000 while water-related diseases continue to surge, we are reminded that water is central to human survival and essential not only in improving public health but also for sustainable development.

As the country struggles with finding solutions to flatten the curve of the novel coronavirus infections, there is an equal need to establish long-term solutions, among them the need to immediately address the water shortages across the country. 

Water is life indeed because it not only sustains our body but is also essential in curbing preventable diseases.

Unfortunately, water shortage and contaminated water have been sad realities millions of Filipinos across the country have to face every day.

According to Water.Org, “Out of 105 million people living in the Philippines, nearly seven million rely on unsafe and unsustainable water sources and 24 million lack access to improved sanitation.”

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