Soterania Nam-ay, 51, and her husband Roberto, 53, live by the sea - it was their source of livelihood and a playground for their children. Now they forbid their children to go near it, for the sea only brings them sadness and sickness. In August 2006, a tanker chartered by Philippines' largest oil company Petron Corporation sank 15 kms off the island province of Guimaras, spilling between 250,000 to 300,000 liters of bunker fuel. The oil slick affected tens of hectares of mangroves, seagrass beds and stretches of beaches in southeastern Guimaras. The oil spill, said to be the largest-ever in the Philippines, has not only affected the fishing industry but has also been declared a health hazard by the Department of Health. One person in the province is reported to have died after inhaling the oil spill fumes.
Soterania's and Robert's life is typical of families displaced by the oil spill. The couple and their four children were asked by health department officials to move to an evacuation centre. The order came rather late because, a week after the oil spill, the children were already suffering from fever, cough, headache and stomachache after exposure to noxious oil spill fumes on the beach.
The mudflats of Cabalagnan, where Soterania raised her family, were rich with seashells. Every afternoon, she and other women from the area gleaned shellfish for supper and for sale to the town market. They earned Pesos 30 (US$1=49.9 Pesos), with which they could buy a kilo of rice or a bar of detergent. "This income helped us a lot," says Soterania.
The women have, however, been told to stop gathering seashells because the shore waters and beaches are contaminated now. Despite the clean-up, which removed sludge from the beaches and floating oil from shallow waters, the coastal areas were off-limits for fishing, shellfish-gleaning and other activities. Even if Robert fishes on waters he believes are safe from the oil spill, his catch remains unsold because people are afraid of eating contaminated fish.
After months of uncertainty, Soterania and Robert feel they can no longer send their children to school. They will also do away with preparation for the December 12 fiesta in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe, an occasion for thanksgiving and receiving friends and relatives.
A rapid assessment report by the provincial government of Guimaras showed that, four weeks into the oil spill, more than 500 persons were asked to leave their homes and move to tents, chapels and schools that were designated as evacuation centers.
Even if the evacuation centers are cramped and have little privacy, families are not complaining; they are grateful to be away from the contaminated areas. They also get daily food rations of rice, canned goods and drinking water. But they know that they cannot stay in these centers for long. Although the affected people were asking for a permanent resettlement zone, far from the oil spill-affected areas, the Regional Oil Spill Task Force constituted by the government has started asking some oil spill evacuees to return home.
To earn a living, the women in La Paz, Cabalagnan, Panobolon and Tando have joined the clean-up operations, which previously recruited only men. Many of them are filling in for husbands who fell sick after exposure to the oil fumes. One single mother was refused work with the clean-up team because she was sickly. She and her children depend solely on the meager food rations.
Meanwhile, the sunken tanker continues to release some six liters of bunker fuel every hour.
Many women are finding news ways to survive. They are selling rice cakes and other food, as well as charcoal used in the evacuation centers for cooking. The food rations, they say, are not enough and they are forced to resort to other means to keep their children in school.
The rapid assessment report has noted a significant decline - up to 16 per cent - in school attendance in the eight elementary and high schools affected by the oil spill. The children stay away because they no longer receive a school allowance from their parents. Instead, they join the clean-up, or look after their younger brothers and sisters because their parents are either busy with the clean-up operations or have fallen sick.
The report says there is a seeming lack of awareness among locals on the long-term effects of the oil spill. Many believe that once the oil from the sunken tanker is siphoned off or removed, they can go back to fishing and shellfish gathering.
But Jurgenne Primavera, a scientist at the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Centre (Seafdec) and an expert on mangroves, says the ill effects of the oil spill will linger on for anywhere between three and 30 years.
While Soterania hopes that the oil-spill related problems will go away soon, she is also thinking of how to rebuild her life in the immediate future. She wants to learn how to sew or weave baskets and other handicrafts. She wants school subsidies for her children. She is also wise enough to understand the real issue here. "Let us protect Nature," she urges.