Editor's Pick

Making Waves

Waves for Water Philippines, a young organization dedicated to providing access to clean drinking water, is bucking old notions of the NGO and volunteer experience, one filter at a time.

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The residents of Diapila, a small, nondescript island away from the tourist crowd of El Nido have gotten used to anchoring their daily rhythm around the availability of freshwater. Every 6 AM, a line of men and women, carrying different-sized plastic containers, starts to form around the faucets scattered throughout the isle; five thin PVC pipes sprouting from the ground carrying water that’s been collected from the mountains and stored inside a tank. At 8 AM, the tank’s attendant will turn the tap off, only to reopen it again for another two hours in the evening. If they’re lucky, he will forget to shut it off and they’ll have water dribbling freely into the streets all night.
 
The faucets were still trickling on the morning of our arrival, muddying the ground in front of the elementary school. Carlo Delantar, the 25-year old Country Director of Waves for Water Philippines had managed to gather some residents to help transport a bright blue 1,000-liter polyethylene water tank from our boat to inside the school while Jenica Dizon, their 26-year old Director of Operations, was already heading towards the stage at the end of the quadrangle where they were going to hold their orientation and demo, a stack of white buckets and portable water filters in tow.
 
The well-oiled machine of this group’s dynamic starts to unfold as the rest of the team, a small crew of twenty-something volunteers—clean water couriers, they’re called—instinctively take their posts. Some are already doing documentation, following Carlo as he installs the tank on the pedestal specifically built for it, working on measurements with a local handyman. Some were scouting for interview locations while the others assisted Jenica with prepping the demo materials as she coordinates with their contact and performs the orientation in front of the community’s stakeholders: teachers, the kagawad, and parents who are curious to know how these filters will help their day-to-day. Jenica has an enviable grasp of the Filipino language: clear, well-practiced, and carefully delivered.
“… Ituturo po namin kung paano po gumagana ang mga filtration system at pagkatapos po noon, kayo naman po ang mag-seset up din. Tapos ituturo din po namin kung paano ang maintenance, pag-linis, para po tumagal po ito ng lima hangga’t sampong taon. Iyon po ang kakayanan niya. One million gallons po ang kaya niyang i-filter…”
 
Carlo, catching bits of Jenica’s spiel in between the tank installation, says, “This is the most important part. Without this, the entire operation is two-legged instead of three.” The attendees, in varying states of processing this information, had one thing in common: they all craned their necks when they saw dirty water (a concoction of water and soil that’s been collected nearby, mixed in front of the group’s very eyes) turn clear as it passed through the filter. Apprehensively, each and every one of them will try this filtered water. A woman mentions that she’s been spending 2,000 pesos per month on mineral water for her infant. Maybe now she can safely source water from her backyard well, an option that had always seemed dubious to her.
 
A little over an hour after docking at Diapila, after the surveys have been accomplished, the filters disseminated and the forms signed, we start to make our way back to the boat anchored a couple meters from the beach. Instead of taking the plastic kayak in an attempt to stay dry, they all decide to fuck it and take a swim, frolicking in the clear ocean before heading to the next location. There was still more to do, of course, but this was a respite. There was still the bulk of the payload—the remaining polyethylene tanks bound tightly against each of the outriggers and more water filters tucked away in the safest, driest, part of the boat—to be distributed across seven communities between El Nido to Coron in five glorious days. It is this small NGO’s most ambitious project to date.

This whole operation, from start to finish is essentially Waves for Water’s promise. The non-profit’s task is to equip communities that don’t have the structures for clean water with, in this case, a tank to augment water collection and Sawyer filters no bigger than the palm of your hand that will let nothing larger than 0.1 micron pass through, filtering out bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella. When used properly, these can filter one million gallons of water and last from five to ten years. They aren’t permanent solutions but they can buy time, health, and dignity. But what truly separates Waves for Water from other similar organizations is the agility in which they get the job done, the leanness that allows them to cut out the red tape so common in traditional NGOs. The message is so singular and so clear-cut that it almost rings mantra-like: Provide access to clean drinking water. Do what you love and help along the way.

Carlo with Jenica as they take a break during one of their tank installations.
During the particularly rough crossing to Culion, the outrigger’s crewmen have started to remind us that we needed to have our life vests on hand. Carlo glances at me and smiles in the way only the truly positive can. He says, “Compared to some of our previous missions, this is a vacation.”
 
Although, when you’re in Palawan, it’s easy to forget that you aren’t, in fact, on vacation. It’s easy to get caught up in the beaches, the enticing water, each passing island screaming of possibility. Especially with this group of their most trusted volunteers, a team comprised of writers, photographers, divers even; all of them sporting clothing and gear that indicate this is not a crew that liked to sit still very often. There were two sets of freediving fins and one mermaid tail onboard (still unused at this point in the trip; it would have to wait). There were more cameras than people.
 
They all found themselves entering the fold organically: Denise Alcantara, who now works in the realm of coral conservation, was a writer who was assigned to cover the organization’s efforts for World Water Day back in 2014, stylist Meg Manzano used to be a co-worker of Denise, Artu Nepomuceno is a photographer who Denise worked with on that first article for World Water Day, Takeshi Shinohara is a friend of Artu’s who loved to travel and was looking to do something meaningful with his time, and Martin Zapanta, the newbie, is a freediver and photographer who Carlo tapped for one of their past projects. Carlo, also an outdoorsman, manages his own furniture business full-time alongside Waves while Jenica, who has been scuba diving since she was nine, found herself in development work because of her passion for conservation. Meg is basking on the deck while Denise has her nose buried in a book. Artu is prone on the bench, trying to stave off the seasickness. Apparently, on one of their first big assignments for Waves, during the 2016 Philippine Hobie Challenge, he got so nauseous that he accidentally threw up on a turtle overboard. It’s one of those stories that will never go stale in the retelling. There are plenty more anecdotes, plenty of jabs to go around (many aimed at their dear leader, Carlo), and it’s this fabric of friendship that has become crucial to the effectivity of their projects.

FROM TOP:

Carlo Delantar, Country Director of Waves for Water Philippines;

Meg Manzano, stylist; clean water carrier;

Jon Rose, Founder of Waves for Water; and

Takeshi Shinohara, fellow clean water carrier.

If it weren’t for all those tanks strapped to the boat I’m guessing it seemed like we were just any other island-hopping crew plying the El Nido to Coron route. To be more specific, it probably seemed like we were just any other millennial barkada—sailing through Palawan with our selfies (there were plenty) and our ideals (even more). There’s a certain discomfort to that label, to that perception, but this crew seems secure enough in the work to not care. It’s almost a challenge: Yes, we’re all millennials here. Yes, it might be what you think it looks like. So what?
 
It isn’t a mystery why this organization has attracted the type of people it has attracted: travelers, adventure-seekers, creatives eager to find purpose in their work, folks who normally were already setting aside the time to head out of town anyway. There is a stereotype of the volunteer experience that Waves would like to chip away at: this idea that humanitarianism, volunteerism, had to involve some element of suffering, of intense sacrifice on the part of the volunteer; that the seriousness of the work and the enjoyment of the journey is mutually exclusive. They even set up a courier program, a platform specifically to encourage those who might want to go organize their own water drives independently, if there was a community that they’d personally like to help.
 
“We always say that we don’t uproot your values and that you don’t take time off to help people. It should be a lifestyle advocacy. If you’re already going out, you might as well bring a few filters with you,” Carlo would say, inspired by the very thing that led to the formation of the global organization that was Waves for Water. How its founder, former American pro surfer Jon Rose, happened to have a handful of ceramic filters with him when a 7.6-magnitude earthquake hit Padang during a surf trip to Indonesia in 2009. It was a disaster of an even grander scale that brought them here to the Philippines: Typhoon Yolanda. Six years after, Carlo answered a Facebook post calling for volunteers, and years of continuing the work in nearby disaster-stricken areas, a satellite office was officially established in the country in 2015.
There are only three people on the payroll of Waves for Water Philippines: Carlo, Jenica, and an accountant. And yet, with the help of their volunteers and partners they are estimated to have already worked with over 50 provinces and provided clean water solutions to over 100 communities. All these victories have resulted only through the business acumen and the creativity of a team that understands the value of storytelling, how important it is to have people buy into the narrative, thus the importance of involving creatives who are passionate about sharing their skills.
 
In the beginning, when nobody knew about their presence in the country, Carlo had to go knocking on every door. But ever-proactive, he approached it much like a business. “I like deconstructing things. Figuring out how an industry runs. Disassembling and assembling it again. What makes it tick, what makes the gears [turn]. Figuring out [where Waves for Water] can come in.” Now, Waves links up with organizations such as the military, corporations looking to bolster their CSR, anybody that will give them the mileage to do what they were set up to do. There’s no shame; the cause transcends it. And because of that, their projects have taken them to the farthest reaches of the Philippines, where the eye of development is turned away; all the way from Tawi-Tawi to the Benham Rise to the depths of the Cordilleras; riding helicopters and military transport planes, performing multiple demonstrations in a day under the pouring rain.
 
“It cuts out all the bureaucratic bullshit,” says Meg who, along with Artu, in the beginning was only in it for the travel but soon found an attachment to the work. Potable water is one of the first to be compromised during calamities and the team has often found themselves being first-responders. A memorable assignment to Baler had Meg, Artu, and Tak drive overnight all the way from Metro Manila just to make it in time in the morning to help a town that had been struck badly by a typhoon. After performing the demo and handing out filters, they were humbled by the graciousness that they were shown from a community that had so much taken away from them. That night, they slept on the floor of the school, the only place in town that didn’t have its roof compromised.
 
For them, there’s a sluggishness in the way most non-profits are run that could be a turn off for young people looking for an opportunity to volunteer. There’s an immediacy to their campaigns that can be more gratifying because there’s a perceived certainty to the outcome; you yourself can see the water go from brown to clear. There is a place, of course, for the considered albeit slower responses of those NGOs. But Waves for Water was organized specifically so they could afford to be flexible and agile. Jon Rose dubs it “guerilla humanitarianism”: you hit the ground running, go straight to those in need, connecting and empowering local leaders who you can trust will take over the work after you’ve left. The specificity of their mission, to provide clean water solutions, is their primary strength. Regardless of anything, that’s what they’re bringing to the table; their contribution to the bigger puzzle.
A 2017 report by UNICEF states that 2.1 billion people in the world lack access to clean drinking water. That same report notes that while 90% of the Philippines have access to basic water services, the actual gap between regions is vast. One can see that disparity play out in Palawan alone, a microcosm of the Philippines, of how development has become so unequal throughout the archipelagic province. If Diapila has access to fresh water on the island, the residents of Alava, an island beside Culion, have to row across the channel every day, twice a day, for an hour just to get drinking water. It’s especially hard during habagat, when the waves are at its roughest. Some will draw water from wells scattered throughout the island and place it under a boil but when the tide is high enough, the water will turn too brackish for consumption. Some wells are too contaminated to draw from. Of all the communities we’ve visited so far, the residents of Alava seem to be the most engaged; they also happen to be one of those with the most need.
 
Alava is comprised mostly of Bisaya speakers (migrants from nearby Mindoro and Masbate) so, as a Cebuano, it’s Carlo’s turn to take the stage. He’s animated and personable, breaking the mechanics of the system down to the most basic level. There’s a big crowd gathered and they’re asking questions, pitching in ideas and customizations that might better suit the dynamic of the village.
 
“This is the beauty of it. When they know what to do,” Carlo says, excited and on a little bit of a high from the reception. You never know what to expect with a demo and the best you can do is to deliver the spiel as responsibly as you can. It’s never going to go as smoothly every time. They’ve had more than their fair share of people who haven’t been as receptive. 
Jon Rose during a previous visit to Coron.
Back in Linapakan, a few islands ago the owner of a water refilling station refused to try the filtered product and it seemed like the leaders of the particular barangay we visited would not be adhering to the guidelines set during the hand-off. Somebody on the side even joked about turning a profit from the filters. I asked Carlo about this after and it’s obviously something they’ve had to confront as an organization; this wouldn’t be the first and last time. Every community has different circumstances, he says, and, ultimately, it’s up to the residents to decide what arrangements work best for everyone—Waves doesn’t want to meddle too much and impose what they think is right, careful to avoid developing a savior mentality in their operations.
 
But as somebody introducing a foreign object into a community, they have a responsibility to those people and to the products that they leave behind, items that can shift the balance of power and potentially further marginalize the marginalized if left with those who aren’t trained properly. How much responsibility exactly? And how much knowledge can you really impart in an hour or two? What other assurances are there? There is a reason why traditional NGOs take a deeper, more holistic approach to intervention; why it means spending more time studying the relevant factors and various potential consequences. But then again, on the other side of the scale is the undeniable need for agility and fast action, for quality in numbers. It’s a delicate line to cross. Because of this, one of the biggest challenges is finding an active community or a local partner that is already invested in putting in the work. And even then, there’s a lot of trust necessary for it to work.

FROM TOP:

Familiar and easy to maintain, these buckets are integral to the clean-water systems;

Community leaders in Tawi-Tawi try the filters for the first time.

It’s easy to think of it as youthful optimism, naiveté, but the truth is that nobody is more aware of their limitations than the people who actually have to grapple with the logistics of it. Jenica, who has had the most experience working with government, understands the limits of their operations and has taken pains to further legitimize their presence on the ground.
 
“Everybody seems to be onboard but really [the challenge is] going back [to those communities], making sure that, first of all, people integrate it in their own habits. Behavior change is hard to implement because it does take extra work; making sure that they’re using [the filters] well, cleaning it,” she says. “But as we’re growing, as we’re being more accountable to a lot of government agencies—not only for compliance but for proper monitoring as well because we’re providing a service to Filipinos—we also have to be compliant to certain requirements and take that up a notch and be more diligent about, for example, how we find communities that we partner with and do the projects with.”
 
While Waves for Water’s strength lies in disaster response, they’ve come to realize that addressing the bigger problem means having to dip their toes into community development; going in deeper, being more rigorous, revisiting the filters, evaluating their actual impact.
 
There have been a lot of successes over the past few years, stories of people whose general health and quality of life have flourished, but a lot of failure as well: abandoned filters, kits that were hogged by those who were supposedly put in charge to take care of them. Plenty of heartbreaks, I’m sure. It seems like such a tall order for a team as small as they are. But they are passionate enough, willing to absorb those losses, pull up their bootstraps and do the work.
 
Carlo understands that it isn’t a perfect system, not yet anyway. You learn with every iteration. Hardened by experience but still optimistic, he boils it down simply: You do what you can.
 

Originally published as “Making Waves” in Volume 6.