Last month, hundreds of government workers and volunteers trooped bright and early to Roxas Boulevard to kick off a three-year, P42.95-billion program to rehabilitate Manila Bay.
The week that followed saw photos of the “newly rehabilitated” bay getting hosannas on social media, followed by hordes of Filipinos trooping to swim in the waters and enjoy the garbage-free shoreline.
Beneath the jubilant pictures, however, there appears to be something more to the Manila Bay rehabilitation program than meets the eye.
Just five days after the cleanup launch, Malacañang issued Executive Order No. 74, which transferred the Philippine Reclamation Authority (PRA) to the direct control and supervision of the Office of the President — to “rationalize the approval process for reclamation projects toward an economically and environmentally sustainable resource development,” according to the EO.
The move has raised not a few eyebrows, since one of the reclamation projects already approved by the PRA is the 265-hectare project called Pasay Harbor City, led by known Duterte supporter and campaign donor Dennis Uy.
But that’s just one project; some 22 other Manila Bay reclamation ventures are pending before the PRA, revealed Joseph Literal, PRA assistant general manager, at a hearing on Manila Bay’s rehabilitation at the House of Representatives on Monday.
Literal admitted that these reclamation projects would affect what’s left of the Manila Bay ecosystem, but that measures are supposedly being put in place to mitigate the adverse effects.
Former environment secretary and Buhay Rep. Lito Atienza was far less blasé, warning that further large-scale reclamation would be “catastrophic for all of us.”
The massive flooding in Navotas, for instance, stemmed from a reclamation project there, he said, adding that “there seems to be a reclamation craze in the Philippines” and that the PRA seems more inclined to approve rather than disapprove projects whose proponents trumpet potential revenues and job generation while failing to disclose the possible environmental impact such projects may cost the cities and communities around the bay.
Kelvin S. Rodolfo, professor emeritus of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois, has said in no uncertain terms that massive reclamation projects in Manila Bay — the waters of which reach Cavite, Parañaque, Pasay, Manila, Navotas, Bulacan, Pampanga and Bataan — will put these areas at risk of destructive phenomena such as soil liquefaction, subsidence and storm surges.
Rising water levels could see coastal communities displaced by floods or giant waves, while the physical alteration of the bay will destroy its marine ecosystem, which the multibillion-peso cleanup was supposed to protect in the first place.
In his 2014 study, “On the geological hazards that threaten existing and proposed reclamation of Manila Bay,” Rodolfo said “the ongoing rush to execute several of these projects is alarming in how little its proponents seem to understand the littoral environment, and their seeming indifference to the hazards it poses… It seems that science is again being blithely ignored by the financial interests and government authorities promoting the various reclamation projects. Will we never learn?”
That question should be directed at the local governments of Manila and Pasay, who are unabashed supporters of reclamation.
In November 2018, Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada and Pasay City Mayor Antonino Calixto signed a memorandum of agreement to exert “utmost effort to cooperate… to reclaim huge swathes of the Manila Bay.”
That official endorsement of reclamation, however, came unaccompanied by the necessary environmental and other studies that would assure the people of these cities that the zeal of their City Halls for creating more ersatz real estate out of the bay would not, in fact, redound only to a few while proving detrimental to the larger community.
Forgoing the short-term gains of big-ticket commercial development for a sustainable and viable way of life for the people, and even the businesses, around the bay ought to be the vision of enlightened political leaders.
Absent that, the communities themselves must ask for it, for their own sake.
As Rodolfo put it: “If the wishes and opposition of enough people prevail so reclamations do not proceed, some of the greatest beneficiaries will be its wealthy proponents, even if they do not realize it now.”
But, as it happens, those 22 or so critical reclamation projects have now become, under EO 74, the sole discretion of the President. What gives?
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