March 2008  
Jessica Salas: The Human Watershed
by Cameron Walker

For more than two decades, Jessica Salas has been helping the people of her native Philippines preserve the watersheds on which they are dependent. Along the way, she's learned a few things about what works and what doesn't.

Just as a watershed gathers together rivers, streams and rainfall, Jessica Salas gathers up people and resources to protect watershed health in her native Philippines.

Indeed, she's had a hand in founding many of the country's watershed organizations, and has been involved in almost all of them – now president of the International Rainwater Catchment Systems Association, she also led the Philippine Watershed Management Coalition from 1997 to 2003. She chairs several local watershed management boards which address environmental problems and monitor watershed health.

Through her own nonprofit organization, the Kahublagan Sang Panimalay Foundation Inc. (KSPFI), she's created a wealth of grassroots movements – particularly ones encouraging sustainable, novel ways for local residents to not only survive but perhaps profit from protecting watersheds.

"She is a gatherer," says Philippines-based journalist Diosa Labiste, who has covered Salas' work since the 1980s. "She's adept in alliance-building and making people of diverse interest come together to do something."
And she isn't afraid to admit when something doesn't work, as happened in the watershed that feeds Iloilo City: the Maasin Basin. After several years promoting the development of tree plantations there, she concluded they threatened local livelihoods and the watershed itself – and withdrew from this approach.

Colleagues say that while international groups champion Salas' work, she often struggles with resistance and politics at the local level.
"I may not be highly successful, but I know I worked hard," she says. "As a citizen of this planet, my value depends on my contribution to the welfare of other living beings – my own family, my community, and the living plants, animals, and living soil I have met along the way."

Getting Her Feet Wet

Salas grew up on her grandparents' mountaintop farm, and says that she began to explore her first watershed in the "fragile peace" that settled over the Philippines after World War II, traipsing with her mother to the nearby brook for drinking water, then crossing the stream on her own as she headed off to elementary school.

Her first steps into watershed, however, came through her interest in people. During high school and college, she worked in a slum area through her church; by 1972, she'd organized a neighborhood community group and later interviewed community members as part of her research for a doctorate in education.

Over time, consulting work for national and international agencies started to drain away the time Salas spent with this group, and in 1988 she formed KSPFI to continue working with local people. This got her a spot on a trip with the local Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to Maasin Basin in 1989 – and her watershed immersion began.

The Degradation of the Maasin Basin

Iloilo City is a port city of more than 365,000 in the Maasin Watershed. The watershed not only provides water for the city and barangays (small communities) along the Tigum River and its tributaries, but supplies thousands of hectares of rice fields and other farms growing everything from sugarcane to mangoes.

At the beginning of the 20th century, sugar cane plantations and farms covered much of the basin, with an old-growth forest at the Tigum River's headwaters.

The years following World War II saw stands of trees falling to fuel the growing city. The government then removed people from the upper reaches of the watershed to protect the water supply, and locals practiced covert farming and logging in the restricted areas to survive.
By the late 1980s, the watershed had become so degraded that one study predicted Iloilo City would run dry by 2000.

Local governments, NGOs and community members started to take action.

Rescuing the Basin

One of the first steps was to reforest parts of the watershed. Salas and her foundation worked with other organizations and the province's then-governor to plant trees in 500 hectares of the lower basin.

"The purpose of the 1990 reforestation was to sustain and produce more water for the city," she says – adding that this and other tree-planting projects, including a 2,500 hectare reforestation effort through the DENR, haven't helped.

According to a case study she authored, the Tigum River's flow dropped precipitously in 2002; the following summer, hundreds of thousands of people in the City of Iloilo and surrounding Maasin Basin reported empty wells and dry spots along the river.

Salas can no longer use her own shallow well. "All I get is saline water," she says.

Learning from Errors

Salas believes the problem lay in the solution: the reforested areas had been planted with non-native species like Gmelina and mahogany in the uniform lines of a plantation, which drained soil health by blocking natural processes such as the decomposition of fallen leaves.

She cites recent reports by the Forestry Research Programme and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which found that trees have a less protective effect than previously thought, whether in preventing flooding or reducing erosion.

Not only that, but, plantations in the Maasin Basin also squeezed out hundreds of households, farms, and vegetable plots, says Labiste.
Although Iloilo City did not dry up in 2000 as once predicted, it is walking down the path toward drought, Salas says.

"Our water district supplies only 24 percent of the city's water demand."

Beyond Trees

When Salas realized that tree-planting didn't fit her vision of watershed health, she pulled KSPFI out of the project and refocused it on other ways to boost the Maasin Basin's dwindling water supply – chief among these being rainwater harvesting, which she became interested in during one of her first consulting projects.

She recently proposed a new project with the United Nations Environment Programme's policy division in Nairobi to bring rainwater harvesting into the Maasin's watershed plan. The project's design focuses on helping communities adapt to climate change's watery paradox – the combination of too much rain and too little rain.

"Ground water can be artificially recharged with rainwater," she says, adding that when the rains come, soil-lined farm ponds can rejuvenate dry dirt and rooftop runoff can wend its way to household storage tanks. Furthermore, infiltration ponds, which connect directly to the soil, could help cool and moisturize soil. Local farmers say these ponds can replenish groundwater at depths of up to 30 meters.

During the dry season, on the other hand, impermeable storage tanks can help feed vegetable gardens, farms, and household chores.
Small reservoirs, she says, can also be used for freshwater fish farming, the cultivation of aquatic plants, and the supply of water to nearby vegetable patches.

For KSPFI's latest project, members of the community group that Salas has organized will build small farm reservoirs and keep tabs on each reservoir's water level, with the ultimate goal of showcasing small-scale agroforestry as an alternative to growing non-native species in plantations.

But it's a tough battle to wage. A bamboo handicraft factory in the area has already proposed a new 50-hectare bamboo plantation, which Salas believes will do the watershed more harm than good.

An Organizer At Heart

When Salas visited the Maasin watershed in 1989 and learned about the people living near the protected areas at the Tigum River's headwaters, she spent two years volunteering within these communities.

Only in 1996 did she take a countrywide watershed training course, which was sponsored by DENR and the Ford Foundation, which has funded several KSPFI programs.

Then, in 1997, she set about doing what she does best: organizing, beginning with the recruitment of more than 100 fellow course graduates to build the Philippine Watershed Management Coalition, which she ran until until 2003.

Salas jump-started the region's first watershed board, the Tigum-Aganan Watershed Management Board, along with a technical working group to research water issues. The board brings together representatives from eight towns and one city to address water and other environmental issues.

She also encouraged the provincial government to create the formation of the Iloilo Watershed Management Council, which organizes all of the provinces' watershed boards.

These efforts have given local governing bodies a new awareness of their role in protecting the environment, and local governments have created their own environmental programs that are active on the watershed level, says Elsa Subong, who works with Salas on several watershed boards.

"Because of the advocacy role of the technical working group and watershed boards, environmental issues have consistently surfaced, demanding attention from local officials and stakeholders," says Subong.

Taking a Leadership Role

Along with local leaders, Salas has also gathered up local women to spearhead the watershed conservation movement. KSPFI created a group known as Women of the Watersheds to support projects including herbal medicine, a community vegetable garden, and riverbank cleanup and restoration.

Salas has also used the airwaves to reach out to the wider Maasin Basin community. In 1998, KSPFI started a radio program in the area focused on environmental issues, and it became the most popular on the AM dial for several years, sparking the formation of a number of independent environmental groups and legions of devoted listeners who participate in river cleanups, waste management, and sustainable home gardens, Subong says.

Keeping the Flow

There are still challenges ahead, with disputes among watershed management organizations and what Salas considers the molasses-like pace of change in DENR's bureaucracy. Yet resistance is unlikely to stop Salas' work. "Despite lukewarm response from officials, she persists," Labiste says.

And for her supporters, her true contribution must be measured by more than a checklist of completed projects. "Jessica's acquired spirituality – so deep and enchanting – has been carved from all her experiences," says Subong, "not of succeeding in all her many causes, but in failing and falling in her struggles, yet rising firm."

Now 63, Salas is taking on some rare unrelated projects: tuning up an old piano, cooking, and working on her organic farm – the same one she grew up on. Along with growing organic vegetables, fruits and herbs and running a woodlot, Salas uses part of the farm for KSPFI watershed training classes.

She'll spend some time traveling – one daughter is a soloist in the National Ballet of Canada, and her son is a computer engineer in Manila. But says she'll most likely end up tying her projects back in to the watershed and working with her other daughter, an ecologist, on KSPFI projects.

There are plenty of new pursuits on the horizon to keep her busy. At the top of her list: getting funding for a mathematical model of the watershed's water budget, in hopes of convincing policymakers of her projects' benefits.

Along with knocking on the doors of everyone from international agencies to local officials to find help for watersheds, Labiste says, "she never ceases to learn new things." And as she learns, it seems, she'll be rallying another group to join her.

copyright 2008, Cameron Walker. All rights reserved.