‘Swimmable’ by December?
Today marks the start of one of the most gargantuan, audacious and — if done right — consequential projects to be undertaken by the Duterte administration.
It has nothing to do with politics per se, but with something just as filthy, literally in this case: the cleanup and rehabilitation of Manila Bay.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), headed by Secretary Roy Cimatu, announced in December 2018 its intent to rehabilitate Manila’s historic body of water at a cost of P43 billion.
Even more boldly, it gave itself 11 months, or until December this year, to make the harbor “swimmable” again. The rehabilitation is projected to be completed by the end of President Duterte’s term in 2022.
The template is obviously the recent rehabilitation of Boracay, but the difficulty level is way more formidable. Manila Bay has a total area of 1,994 kilometers and a coastline extending 190 km—the equivalent of 1,700 Boracays.
The bay area extends across three regions: National Capital Region, Central Luzon and Calabarzon. Rehabilitating and reviving its ecosystem would entail extensive and consistent cooperation among national agencies and local and provincial governments, as well as from the affected communities and private sector entities whose activities have contributed to the dismal state of the bay.
The rehabilitation, experts say, should have been done as early as 70 years ago to save the bay from environmental devastation.
In 1999, a group of concerned citizens led by lawyer and environmental activist Antonio Oposa Jr. filed a lawsuit at a regional trial court asking 13 government agencies to clean up Manila Bay.
The legal battle went all the way to the Supreme Court, which, in December 2008, issued a continuing mandamus that required government agencies named in the lawsuit to report to the high court every three months on the progress of the bay’s rehabilitation until its completion.
That order appears to have been for naught, as the bay’s condition only got worse. In September 2017, Greenpeace recovered 54,200 pieces of plastic waste from the bay, prompting the environmental group to dub the Philippines the “world’s third largest plastic polluter of oceans.”
Other than plastic, waste thrown into water tributaries that connect to Manila Bay — from livestock farms and households that lack septic tanks — also makes up a big chunk of the pollutants.
When the landmark lawsuit was filed in 1999, the fecal bacteria in Manila Bay amounted to 1 million most probable number (MPN) per 100 milliliters. Today, it is 330 million MPN, with some parts of the bay at 1 billion MPN. (The level required for a body of water to be safe for swimming is at least 100 MPN per 100 ml.)
In comparison, the coliform level in Boracay used to be at 1 million MPN per 100 ml before the island’s closure.
“As you can see, the required effort (for Manila Bay) will be about 330 times more,” Cimatu said last week. “… This will not be an easy task for all of us.”
Indeed, the work is cut out for the DENR and other agencies involved. One of the project’s most delicate tasks started last week: the resettlement of some 40,000 informal settlers living around the bay.
It behooves the government, first of all, to implement the relocation in a humane and sensitive way that takes into utmost consideration the rights and welfare of the settlers.
In addition, the DENR is expected to issue closure orders against at least four hotels and establishments along Manila Bay that are violating environmental laws. It has also ordered the suspension of the grant of environmental compliance certificates to livestock and poultry farms in Laguna, Batangas and Rizal.
On top of these, the government needs to implement strict environmental regulations on other water bodies such as the Pasig River, Laguna Lake and Marikina River, which all flow into the bay. This requires working together with authorities outside the purview of Manila Bay.
Experts have pointed to long-term benefits once the waterfront is restored, navigable and healthy. For one, Manila Bay can help ease traffic and cut travel time for commuters by serving as an alternative water transportation system linking neighboring regions.
A vibrant waterfront will also attract businesses and tourists who can enjoy again Manila Bay’s famed sunset without garbage blocking their view and foul smell ruining their experience.
The task at hand is daunting, but Cimatu’s declaration that “nothing is impossible” deserves, at this point, all the best wishes and support it can get from an expectant public.
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