Saving the dying Laguna Lake
Looking at the shape and location of Laguna Lake on our map, we can say it is the heart of the Filipino nation. If we attach nearby Metro Manila to it, the conjoined regions with their economic clout actually function as the life-maintaining organ of the Philippines. But its physical arteries and valves, so to speak, are so clogged with human detritus that it really has to undergo the equivalent of open-heart surgery. It appears that the only doctors with the will to perform the complex and messy operation and save the dying organ are Environment Secretary Gina Lopez and President Duterte.
The lake is a tangled web of interconnected issues that need decisive solutions, and its carrying capacity as an ecosystem has long been exceeded. It is an area contested by many users, especially between fish pen and fish cage owners (big businessmen, retired generals, politicians) and small fishers, and between users for domestic, industrial and irrigation water, tourism/recreation, and transportation. It is choked with sediment and silt as a result of the unabated forest denudation in the uplands of the 24 sub-watersheds around its basin, as well as the constant deposit of solid wastes by households and factories located in the basin.
The lake has become shallow—an average of only 2.5 meters—and this has resulted in the perennial flooding of the low-lying areas of the shore. Thus, the more than 450,000 informal settlers in the lake’s salvage zone are constantly vulnerable, as was shown, for instance, by the devastating floods wrought by Tropical Storm “Ondoy” in 2009.
It is also dying in the sense that its water quality has deteriorated to Class C, which may still be good for fishery but is no longer fit for bathing. This is the result of unchecked bad practices that make of the lake a convenient waste depository, with the volume of water pollution accounted for by households (69 percent), industries (19 percent), and agriculture (12 percent).
The strategies to address these problems are combinations of conservation, rehabilitation and development for each problem, translated by the Laguna Lake Development Authority (LLDA) into programs and projects. What have been proposed are costly big-ticket projects as well as cheaper soft projects that are just as effective. But as with so many projects and plans in the country, the problem lies in the implementation. The LLDA and the local government units in the lake basin lack the political will to implement not only their rules and regulations but also local ordinances and laws. The sub-watershed management councils tasked with coordinating activities in the lake basin have been operating in a lackluster manner.
For now, a necessary move that will put order in the lake is the strict implementation of the Lake Zoning and Management Plan (or Zomap) that will rationalize and regulate the use of the lake’s resources as well as resolve equity problems especially between the rapacious owners of fish pens and fish cages and the powerless small fishers. If the Zomap is fully implemented, it will show a beautiful heart-shaped image of the lake from the air—one that President Duterte would wish to see after noting with dismay the disarray of structures and the murky waters in the lake. The Zomap depicts an orderly arrangement of fish cages, navigational lanes, fish sanctuary, and shoreland easements rid of informal settlers (check the LLDA website).
The inaction of the LLDA is distressing, and to think that it is under the Office of the President!
Meliton B. Juanico is a retired professor of geography at the University of the Philippines Diliman. He is a licensed environmental planner and is active in consultancy work in urban and regional planning.
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