Preserving public health paramount for Davao-based expat-environmentalist



“OUT of 100 million-plus Filipinos, about 9 million rely on unimproved, unsafe and unsustainable water sources, [while] 19 million lack access to improved sanitation…” 

This very alarming situation is culled from the web site, which explained: “Families without a safe water source in or near their homes often spend significant time and energy collecting water. Those without a sanitary toilet facility face a number of unattractive choices—including venturing out at night, or suffering the embarrassment of asking to use the toilet of a neighbor.”

The Dutch environmentalist shows President Duterte the scale model of the Profitable Sanitation Facility.

If that’s not disconcerting, here’s another scenario: According to the National Sewerage and Septage Management Program (NSSMP), Filipinos who have toilets “do not have septic tanks; many…have open bottoms. Most [of them] are not regularly dislodged, and the septage removed is not treated and disposed of properly.”

The result: Health problems, or even death. Without access to improved sanitation, children and their families are at much greater risk of contracting waterborne diseases, which kill 55 people each day, the NSSMP deplored.

“Proper sanitation has always been the most effective tool to preserve public health,” pointed out Sean Ligtvoet, a Dutch national who works as project officer at the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) Regional Office in Davao City. “That’s why I feel privileged to be able to improve the sanitary status in areas where it’s most needed.”

Ligtvoet is referring to the Profitable Sanitation Facility (PSF) project, a collaborative effort of the regional DOST office and the HELP (Hydrology for the Environment, Life and Policy)-Davao Network, composed of volunteer organizations and individuals based in Davao City.

Preventing environmental pollution

PSF is an undertaking where the urban poor of Davao City can go to a clean toilet and shower, as well as get top-quality drinking water provided by the Davao City Water District (DCWD). The wastewater is treated by an integrated Helophyte-filer system to prevent environmental pollution.

More importantly, the community where the PSF is located can earn an income by taking care of the facility. But that’s going ahead of the story. 

According to Ligtvoet, PSFs are currently being implemented under the Public Sanitation and Hygiene Upgrading Program (PUSHUP), a joint venture between the regional DOST office and the DCWD. 

“It’s a public comfort room with five toilets, designed for a capacity of 200 users a day,” Ligtvoet explained. “The wastewater goes to a septic tank below the facility. After staying there for four to five days, the wastewater is pumped up and discharged on a 12-square-meter helophyte-filter system.”

The effluent—liquid waste or sewage—from the filter system is discharged to the nearest surface body of water, since the parameters conform with B-class effluent standards stated in the Administrative Order issued by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources on water-quality guidelines and general effluents. The water for flushing and cleaning comes from the DCWD.

The method the PSF uses is called vertical helophyte-filter system (VHFS), which is derived from the vertical flow-constructed wetlands. “This is well known in the Netherlands, where the government endorses the technology to any establishment [unattached] to the communal sewerage system,” Ligtvoet said.

“The VHFS is a low-cost and nature-based wastewater-treatment system, which uses a sand filter [with multiple layers of filter substrate] and reed plants [called helophytes] to treat grey and black wastewater,” the Dutch national further explained. “The system is very low-priced to install, needs relatively less maintenance, has no consumables and is easy to understand. In fact, all of the needed components are available in the Philippines.”

The VHFS reportedly passes the standards set by the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) of the environmental department. “It lasts for at least 20 to 25 years,” he said.

Community involvement

THE first project started in October 2017. “As of now we have implemented three units, and the fourth one will be constructed in March for a Badjao village in barangay 76-A,” he explained.

Through a memorandum of agreement or memorandum of understanding, the barangay is responsible for maintenance and operation of the facility. To use such, the users pay a small fee.

From the income, the barangay pays for the utilities, while a small salary is designated for the person maintaining and cleaning the facility. “It’s the barangay itself which decides what time it opens, but [ideally], from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m.,” Ligtvoet elaborated.

The Dutch environmentalist said that PSFs are constructed in barangays that have problems with proper sanitation. “But the DCWD targets those areas where they receive complaints from barangays or other government agencies,” he informed.

In doing those projects, Ligtvoet had learned some lessons. “Sometimes, it’s easy to involve the community and, in some cases, it’s not,” he shared. “The first project in 76-A was a great success as the comfort room is still super clean a year after, and the barangay is actually making a profit out of it to financially support other projects. There is even a television now in the waiting area.”

It’s a different case in other barangays. “The people there are much poorer, and the water supply has many and long interruptions,” according to him. “As a result, the project is a bit of a headache and needs more attention.”

Ligtvoet is very much worried with other barangays, which have no PSF. “The primary tool to preserve the public health,” he reiterated, “is, and always will be, proper sanitation. Since proper sanitation was established in Europe, less and less children died every year. At that time, Escherichia coli-related diseases were most common.”

With the situation today, he urged, “Take a closer look at the informal settlements [or squatter areas] in Davao City. You don’t need to be an expert to understand that this situation is just waiting for a huge epidemic to break out.”

But the situation changed a bit since he came to the Philippines in September 2012. “I’ve done case studies about flood-risk reduction in Manila, but knew nothing about Davao or the Filipino culture,” he admits. “However, I fell in love with the Philippines a few months after my arrival and, since last year, I’ve been a permanent resident [of this country].”

Better alternatives

LIGTVOET is an engineer and studied water management at the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences. “My initial approach was to do something about the flooding,” he said. “But after a week, I was sure that the issues regarding improper wastewater management was way more severe.”

When he started working in the country in 2012, most Filipinos didn’t understand him, and there was less attention for proper wastewater management. “However, after [then-Environment Secretary] Gina Lopez and now, the President himself, it became a hot item, and you see lots of things happening.” 

“I feel blessed to be part of this greener movement, and I’m proud of the Philippine government [now] that [it finally sees and admits]

the growing issues regarding improper wastewater management,” he added. 

However, Ligtvoet also believes that it’s not easy for private entities to comply with the high standards set by EMB. “The private wastewater-treatment consultants and companies are asking way too much money for their systems, which should be way less expensive,” he told this author. “The VHFS is a good alternative, because it’s very affordable to construct and needs very little maintenance.”

He now lives in Davao City with his Filipina wife. “I come from Rotterdam, which is in many ways the exact opposite of Davao City,” he expounded. “I like the spatial planning in Rotterdam more, but I’m always inspired by the kindness and hospitality of the Filipinos.”

On Manila, Ligtvoet intimated: “I’m actually not such a big fan of Manila, because I get quite intimidated by the amount of people and the traffic. I strongly believe that they should stop investing so much [there] and start decentralizing as soon as possible.”

He offered some unsolicited, yet sensible pieces of advice: “Start building an airport somewhere else and move the major port to Batangas. Also, all government agencies should have their national offices outside of this highly urbanized area. Only then can the proper measures be taken to rehabilitate the area.”

He also said that he’d rather work for P40,000 a month in Davao than be salaried for P400,000 a month in Metro Manila. “In Davao, there is still space and possibilities for a small player to become big, but in Manila, it’s already a rat race. I really want things to be done as quickly as possible, and in Davao, it’s still quite easy to move around.”

Blessed to be in PHL

WHEN asked about food, he replied: “I used to be a cook in an Italian restaurant to finance my studies in the Netherlands. As such, I know more than average about different food and flavors. I’m really fascinated by Filipino cuisine, and when I cooked adobo in the Netherlands, many of my friends kept on insisting that I cook that meal.”

“However, my favorite [viands] are Bicol Express and kinilaw. No other country makes better barbecue than the Philippines. The right amount of sweet and saltiness really compliments the fine taste of the meat,” he related.

Ligtvoet met his beautiful wife Tedz in 2012, when he was in discussion with some findings with another Dutch intern. “Since that time, we have always been together, but had to deal with a long-distance relationship for quite some time. In the end, it all worked out fine.”

They were married in February last year. “She works home-based for an American company, where she hires virtual assistants and does very well doing that,” the proud husband said.

The Dutch describes his wife as “very sweet and highly intelligent.” He added, “She helps me with many cultural misunderstandings, which I encounter during my work in the communities. She has a very Western way of thinking, and that creates a good bridge to understand the differences in mindsets between the Dutch and the Filipinos.”

He admitted that he actually never planned to stay long in the Philippines. “But every time I plan to leave, more great opportunities came my way,” he explained. 

Ligtvoet considers his boss, DOST Regional Director Dr. Anthony C. Sales, as “a great leader.” According to the expat-environmentalist: “I feel very blessed working for him. He is by far the most intelligent person I know, and gives me lots of space and guidance to improve the technology. I’ve never felt the urge to leave, and will be happy to work with him for many more years.”

Although Dutch by birth, he already considers himself part-Filipino.

“I live more by the day,” he shared. “I don’t really make future plans, but try to go with the flow as much as possible. This has given me lots of happiness so far, and I did things that I [never thought] was possible a few years ago. Life is one huge learning process, and you should embrace it as it is. Try not to lead it so much, because you never know what tomorrow brings.”

Image Credits: Jimbo Albano