Watching the waters: the young guardians of Panigan River

March 26th, 2012 by

DAVAO CITY –  Once every month, on a Saturday , An-an Gumapac wakes up early to go down the  river to take water samples. While most kids her age enjoy the extra hour or two in bed, Gumapac and a few of her friends make their way down to the foot of Mt. Tipolog in Barangay Tawantawan, Baguio District to take part in a community endeavour that  has already taken three generations of villagers to implement.

Their  object of concern is the Panigan river. Meandering along the foot of the adjacent Mt. Tipolog, Panigan has been identified by the Davao City Water District as a future source of Davao City’s potable water which has been ranked as one of the best in the world. Locally, however, Tawantawan has long  been dependent on Panigan for their domestic and recreational purposes. Long time residents have a deep affection for the river.

Carrying a toolbox full of reagents, Gumapac and her group scatter around designated spots along the Panigan river to monitor changes in the river’s temperature and pH.  Like any serious environmental scientist, they carefully measure the river’s dissolved oxygen, nitrate and phosphate content and observe the stream’s flow discharge.  The data  is then  carefully tabulated in  a notebook for synthesis and collation later.

An-an enjoys the task. “ I enjoy the work.”, she said in the dialect. “Through monitoring, I have been able to make practical  use of my science lessons at high school. It’s also important that the river stays clean because if it becomes dirty or polluted, we cannot use the water.”

Gumapac  represents the third generation of water  watchers of  the Bantayo Aweg.  Her generation’s elders were the first  batch of volunteers who took on the task of monitoring the health conditions of the river system to help protect the quality of the water.

Begun in 2005, the Bantayo Aweg was an offshoot of a series of environmental trainings conducted by the advocacy group Interface Development Interventions. The name, taken from  Bagobo dialect, means ‘water guardians’.  It is a role that  this group has taken into heart, judging by the fact that the  monitoring has been consistent, since the year they have been founded.

IDIS Environmental Research Specialist Ann Fuertes who, with Dr. Lourdes Simpol  from Ateneo de Davao University and Dr. Ruth Gamboa  from the University of the Philippines in Mindanao,  helped train the pioneer batch in 2006,  said that the initiative was to make  the local community be better informed about the issues affecting their local river. “They depend on the river for a lot of things. By letting them at the forefront of monitoring efforts, they can best make decisions on how to tackle them.”, she said.

But as Bantayo Aweg members usually find out , the monitoring isn’t always easy.

Baneng Tiostumban, 24 yrs old, recalled nearly getting carried away by the strong river current, while taking measurements.  “ When there is rain, the  run-off coming from the uplands  make for stronger currents. Sometimes it’ s so cold, that it takes us until noon to finish it all.”, he said.

But despite this, Baneng continues to participate in the monitoring because not only does he finds it fun  but their efforts have slowly been changing the bad habits of the communities using the river.

“It used to be that people would throw broken bottles into the river.”, he said. “ There was also widespread use of chlorine during laundry activities. But since the water monitoring has started, the practice has declined because we convinced people to stop.”

Now and then, there would be still be the occasional use of chlorine while washing clothes. “When we see that, we report them to our elders. The elder ones of the Bantayo Aweg are the ones who scold them because we are afraid to do so.”, he grinned sheepishly.

To date, Bantayo Aweg has collected 6 years of water sampling data, creating a picture of the river’s quality over time.  At a public presentation held at Lispher Inn , last March 22, 2012, the group presented their data to a group of local policymakers, government agencies and civil society organizations to commemorate  World Water Day 2012.

Aian B.  Gumapac, who presented the graphs, pointed out that while  most of the parameters measured show Panigan river still conforming to the Class AA standard  which is the highest for clean water, the phosphate and nitrate content are of Class B and Class C standards.

Under the standards used by the Environmental Management Bureau, Class B and C  indicate that the water is only good for recreational purposes.

“The river is still clear and has enough oxygen to support fishes but we are concerned about the level of phosphates and nitrates in the water.”, said  Yan-yan.

Fuertes, who helped Bantayo Aweg consolidate the data, said that high presence of phosphates and nitrates may be traced to the use of fertilizers and pesticides and the popular use of detergents along the upstream portions of the river.

“There is a need to survey the different land uses of the areas around Panigan River to identify the possible sources of nitrate and phosphate contamination so that we are better equipped to find solutions to this recurring problem.”, Fuertes said.

The area around the Tawantawan community is surrounded by banana and pineapple plantations whose intensive use of pesticides threaten to contaminate the river water  through the run-off during the heavy rains which carry the agricultural inputs to the rivers.

The absence of buffer zones , planted with proper trees, along the river banks, compound the problem.

“Buffer zones are important because their trees  absorb the water and silt coming from plantations and denuded areas.”, said Rey Sapid , Advocacy Officer of the Kinaiyahan Amumahon Panggaon ug Protektahan, Inc. (KAPPI). “Their roots trap the pesticides, ensuring that river waters are protected.”

The KAPPI is an environmental paralegal group of farmers and lumads  from the 3rd district which has taken up the advocacy of  buffer zone implementation for the district’s remaining forest and water resources.

“And yet, most of the plantations in the 3rd district, have not been implementing or have been implementing buffer zones which are  contrary to what is mandated by law.”, Sapid pointed out.

The Watershed Code of Davao City requires that a buffer zone of about 40 meters must be established between plantations and critical areas such as recharge zones, riverbanks, rivers, springs, wells and other sources of water.

KAPPI, which also has members in Tawantawan, is now actively engaging in an information campaign about the importance of buffer zones in protecting the rivers.

For Baneng, the KAPPI campaign  is a positive development coming out from his group’s water monitoring.  In fact, he hopes that more groups would also do their own share to preserve the river, perhaps even adopting  the practice. “ I would like to share this to other people living near the  river so that they will also know what to look out for and take steps to ensure that our water source remains clean.”, he said.

Such optimism also fuels An-an’s  drive to continue with Bantayo Aweg. “It’s true that there are times when we feel tired about doing this but we always tell ourselves that even if this is tiring, this can help us in the long run.”, she said.

“This is no longer play-acting for us.”, she added.  “This is a long term  commitment for us so that  Davao’s water will still have a future.” (Mindanao Daily Mirror Weekend)