MANILA – Armed with cauldrons, jerry cans, hoses and water guns, thousands of Filipinos took to the streets to celebrate the day of San Juan, or the feast day Saint John the Baptist, with a huge water fight despite water shortages in the region.
San Juan City, one of the 19 cities that make up the Manila metropolitan area, has marked the annual festival paying homage to its patron saint on June 24 for the last 16 years with celebrations known in Tagalog as “Watah Watah” (“Water Water,” in English), which feature a massive water fight with music and parades.
Nobody leaves the streets of San Juan dry. Passers-by, motorcycles, cars and jeepneys – World War II-era jeeps converted for public transport – are the primary targets for the water-firing revelers lurking around every corner.
“It’s our big party, San Juan is our patron saint and this is how we honor him,” 31-year-old Jasper told Efe as he dried off his son Cley with a bath towel. Cley has just received a so-called basaan from his sister, a ritual that simulates the baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River by John the Baptist.
Cley, who turns two this week, already took part in his first Watah Watah last year.
“He has to become accustomed to it, he was born in San Juan and I want him to experience this tradition from a young age,” his father said.
This year the festival was subject to several restrictions given the ongoing drought affecting areas of Manila – in San Juan the mains are cut off for periods of 18 hours at a time to save water.
So, this year only 16 water tankers, complete with water cannons, were on the scene as compared to the 50 that drenched the streets of San Juan in 2018.
The current drought was the worst to hit the Philippines capital in years and the water level at the Angat dam, Manila’s main source of water, stands at 159 meters, just under the critical level of 160m and far below the optimum level of 210m.
“It is a celebration that simulates the act of baptism. But this year we want to highlight environmental awareness and not just the religious aspect,” San Juan’s mayor, Guia Gomez, said.
To this end, all the costumes on show in the parades paying tribute to John the Baptist this year were made from recycled materials.
However, in what some may see as a divine act, the first great rain shower of the wet season poured down on San Juan City on the feast day.
In the coming weeks, the rainy season should alleviate the drought in the region, which has afflicted the area around the capital since the beginning of the year.
“It’s the work of St. John,” said Yasmin, an 18-year-old who was splashing around in the puddles with her younger siblings and neighbors.
The festivities in San Juan are not reserved for the youngsters, however, residents of all ages come out to be doused in water, often having taken part in a special mass during the morning.
The Philippines has the largest Catholic population in Asia with more than 80 percent of the people identifying as a member of the church. Catholic festivals are therefore celebrated with great vitality in the island nation.
Revelers also marked the holiday in cities like Batangas, Bulacan and Cavite.
In the city of Aliaga, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of Manila, local residents mark the day of John the Baptist by covering themselves in mud and banana leaves in a ritual known as Taong Putik (People of the clay, in English).
That celebration also pays homage to a period of World War II, when a flood prevented occupying Japanese forces from executing members of the Aliaga community, a miracle that locals often attribute to St. John the Baptist.