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Drop by drop, UNHCR encourages displaced to come back home

News Stories, 17 November 2011

© UNHCR/S.Petit
Children line up to wash their hands before lunch at the primary school of Tugar, thanks to the recent access to clean water.

BARANGAY TUGAR, Philippines, November 17 (UNHCR) After gunfights chased her from home three years ago, 62-year-old Teodola Alvoro moved from place to place, even living in a makeshift shelter beside a main highway.

All the time she dreamed of going home, but one thing held her back: there was no water in her village. She knew her fellow villagers hiked along steep paths for up to six hours a day just to fetch water from a stream.

That all changed after UNHCR helped the villagers build a water system that's drawing families back to Barangay Tugar, a place recently so desolate that even the school shut down. The village had been caught in crossfire between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and government forces in 2008.

"I heard water was now available here," said Teodola, now happily back at home with her granddaughter Geraldine. "It was the main reason why I decided to return." No stranger to Mindanao's five-decade long armed struggle, Teodola has been pushed from her home three times since 1985.

Using UNHCR funds, Tugar villagers built a water system which now benefits some 150 people, with taps close to individual homes. The project was a real community effort: women and children cooked food for the men while they laid out the pipes and repaired two destroyed intake tanks.

"In this volatile time of peace in Mindanao, we believe in the power of small projects that can make big difference," said Arjun Jain, head of office of UNHCR Mindanao. "Peace-building often involves introducing small essential things that in the end create the most powerful positive changes in communities."

That is why UNHCR funds low cost, high impact projects fishing nets, sewing cooperatives, water systems in hopes of building peaceful and resilient communities in conflict-stricken areas in Mindanao.

"The bayanihan [cooperative endeavour] spirit of the Filipino is alive here again," said Rommel Arnaldo, mayor of Kauswagan municipality, which also contributed to the water system. "The villagers worked as a team with our government engineer."

Filipino bayanihan communal unity originates from a tradition of people volunteering to help their neighbours move by literally carrying their house to a new location. Referring to the teamwork necessary to build the water project in Tugar, Arnaldo said: "The approach is participatory. It is nothing new. But it is the right thing to do."

Before the water system, diarrhoea was a major health problem in Tugar. Villagers drank spoiled coconut water just to avoid dehydration. Rural health midwife Subeide Otto Ote said no cases of diarrhoea had been reported since UNHCR installed the new tanks here and in a nearby village.

"Women even have more time to spend with their families and to mingle with others," she added. "We do not have to line up each day to get water from a stream surrounded by a treacherous ravine." As tapwater reached Tugar, the only school in the village also reopened its doors to 32 pupils.

"Here, I have many friends," said Geraldine, Teodola's 11-year-old granddaughter who is now able to attend school for the first time. "At the place where we were, there were many children but I had no friends."

Abner Bañez is the only teacher at the primary school and says many of his pupils have a lot of catching up to do after missing out on education during the conflict. Most are just beginning to learn how to read.

"Children can now wash themselves and drink clean water," he said. "Before each meal, I make sure my pupils wash their hands. But now the challenge is providing them proper food so they learn well."

Still, Bañez believes the project is helping the community heal. "The arrival of the water and the reopening of the school mean people in Tugar can now lead better lives together," he said, stressing the last word.

By Tom Temprosa in Barangay Tugar, Philippines

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