Threats On Tiptoe

by Juan L. Mercado

The battered corpse of Libya’s Moammar Ghadaffi, clutching a gold-plated pistol in a drainage pipe on the streets of  Sirte, to coffins of 19 soldiers, ambushed by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels, dominated  headlines this week.

There are equally lethal but less-visible killers. These threats tiptoe in, unnoticed. Among these are contaminated water wells and  soil erosion.

“Dirty water kills more people than violence”, UN Secretary General Ban  Ki Moon said. When 180 governments gather for the Rio +20 conference, they should prioritize “universal provision of safe drinking water and sanitation,” added scientists at  Stockholm for world Water Week 2011.


Worldwide, one infant dies every 20 seconds due to tainted water.  Over 443 million school days go pfffft because of  resulting illnesses.

Diahrrea remains a major infant killer here. In Basilan, where MILF encamps, 66 out of every 100 lack safe water. A squatter’s shack, in Cebu City, pays 13 times for the same water that a gated Maria Luisa enclave home, does —  from taps, notes World Water Development Report.

Death rates among infants born to poor families are two to three times higher than those of  the rich, Asian Development Bank notes.  The poor plod  from tanker operators to vendors, to buy murky water in cans. “Every step they are forced to take away from the water source adds to the price.”

In Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, 42 die in every 100,000 births. “The most fractured human right here is that of a child to celebrate his or her first birthday.”

Large majorities, in ARRM provinces, quaff from easily-contaminated wells. These include Tawi-Tawi (94%) Sulu (72%), Lanao del Sur  (69%) to Maguindanao (46%)  This wedges ARRM into the same bracket as Bangladesh and North Korea. “

“Across the human life span, an individual faces greatest risk of mortality during birth and the first 28 days of life, United Nations Children’s Fund says. About half of Filipino children’s death occurs within this narrow deadly window. “Most of these deaths occur at home and are unrecorded.  They remain invisible to all but their families.”

There are five Filipinos today where there was one in 1940. World population breached the 7-billion mark this month. Our numbers continue to grow. We’ll exceed 105 million when PNoy steps down from Malacanang.

Food and water demand is bolting,  Water use efficiency, in irrigated agriculture, does not grow out the barrel of a gun. Ask MILF.   It barely budged by 1% yearly since 1990.

Wastewater treatment hasn’t gotten a foothold.  “We need to get smarter about how we manage wastewaters,” UN Environment Programme notes. Today, untreated. “wastewater is quite literally killing people.”   Indeed, “lack of water is profound deprivation””

“Who cares about dirt?”, cynics ask.  Food on dinner tables, for us, and our children depend on a thin mantle of dirt. Or call it  topsoil.

Yet, this invaluable resource is being washed away from denuded farmlands leaving sterile rockbeds.  Over 43 percent of  topsoil, in 22 provinces —  including  Bohol, Cebu, Negros Oriental Batangas, Marinduque, Ilocos Sur, Marinduque and La Union — is  threatened by erosion.

About a fifth of eroded materials end up in rivers, reservoirs, and irrigation canals. Siltation damages coral reefs. Water at the  mouths of major rivers in Pangsinan, Davao, Misamis Oriental  or Leyte  are  stained brown  as far as the eye can see.  That is  topsoil  washed away for good.

“Reversing erosion will make  fighting insurgency seem like child’s play,” the late National Scientist  Dioscoro Umali often said..One reason is you can’t order a shipment of topsoil. Only nature produces it, inch by painful inch.

Leaves, plants and manure decay and meld into top soil, biologists note. It  takes from  200 years to a millennium to form 2.5 cm of rich topsoil. But a downpour, on a denuded  hillside, can wash all that  away in an hour.

“Fr. Peter Walpole and I passed kilometers of hilly terrain where small-scale farmers denuded and plowed steep slopes to plant corn,” Forester Patrick Charles Dugan writes of his visit to a Bukdinon village. “The results are horrendous. Landslides all along the way.”

“In a few years, most of the soil will be washed away.  The land will be down to bedrock. These corn farmers are heading straight towards poverty.  The environmental damage is far larger than mining or logging that NGOs, the church, media and politicians protest about. The problem calls for massive soil conservation.  

“Sloping Land Technology Systems promoted by the Mindanao Rural Baptist Center, for example, can save the land and still enable the farmers to make a living. But our political leaders don’t pay much attention to this problem.”   

“The loss of topsoil affects man’s ability to grow food in two ways”, write Lester Brown and Edward Wolf. ”First, it reduces the land’s inherent productivity through nutrient loss and degradation of the soil’s physical structure. Second, it increases the cost of food production.”

Few people notice the massive damage inflicted. Thus Brown and Wolf aptly title their book: “Soil Erosion: Quiet Crisis in the World Economy.”


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