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Manila Bay’s ‘utmost splendor’

/ 05:02 AM October 19, 2020

While myriad problems beset the country, resulting not just from the COVID-19 pandemic but also from never-ending political shenanigans, it seems that the “rehabilitation” of Manila Bay is being used to obfuscate other more pressing issues.

Manila Bay has been on my mind since I recently read a glowing description of it written in the mid-1800s. Looking for material from my small personal library at this time when browsing in bookshops is impossible, I rediscovered something I hadn’t read in a long while. A National Library publication titled “A Britisher in the Philippines, the Letters of Nicholas Loney” was published in 1964 and bears an introduction by the late Carlos Quirino, National Library director at the time.

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The letters Loney sent to his father and sister in England are a joy to read as they describe quotidian life in the Visayas at the time, the “Indians” (using the Spanish word “Indios”) he met, and Loney’s activities in Iloilo when he settled there in 1856 to look into business possibilities. A cultivated young adventurer who had traveled around Southeast Asia and China, Loney was apparently well supplied with books, from which he would often quote passages in his letters home. One book was French Capt. Julien de la Graviere’s “Voyage en Chine” (1847-1850), with a passage where the captain waxed rhapsodic about Manila Bay. Loney translated thus:

“If guided by the beacon which signals to the navigator the access to the port, one is to reach the mooring of Manila in the middle of the night, sunrise will show you this vast basin in its utmost splendor.

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The breeze at that time has completely fallen, not a single breath ripples the surface of the bay. The numerous ships moored within a mile of the breakwaters between which the Pasig pours out, are motionless at their anchor, their flags hang along their yard ropes without being able to unfold themselves. In the offing, all you can see is an immense sheet of water of which the deep quietness extends the expanse even more. A few fishing boats stand out from this pale scene like black constellations, but it is not towards that side that you will have looked at first; your eyes will have been seeking the city where the memories of Spain are revived where the cheerful traditions of Andalucia must be preserved. Do not expect, however, to find here the colourful aspect of Cadiz’s white houses. Heavy bastions stand on the left hand of the river and extend themselves sadly on the beach.

“It is above this old enemy of the breeze that rise the dome of Manila’s cathedral and its reddish roofs: it would seem that this imprisoned city raises itself on the tip of its toes to inhale the first puff of wind coming from the sea. More fortunate, the district of Binondo spreads freely on the right bank of the Pasig. The sun is now rising with gigantic strides into the sky. It is flooding with burning rays both the plain and the quiet mirror of the gulf: thousands of sparks sprout from the bosom of the seas. On the beach and up to the top of the trees a flow of luminous dust seems to undulate. Were this quietness to remain, one would be suffocating. Fortunately the surface of the bay starts to ripple, thanks to the breeze, and its first whisper is enough to dispel the charm which was keeping panting nature moaning.”

It’s hard to conjure up such a view today from this poetic description, when it no longer applies to Manila Bay. It’s equally hard to imagine which (and why) officials from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources dreamed up the plan for Manila Bay’s “beach nourishment project,” estimated to cost P389 million. The project is purported to rehabilitate and protect the bay’s coastal resources and prevent erosion and flooding, but it’s obvious the authorities ignored warnings by experts from the University of the Philippines who pointed out that the plan would be detrimental to the bay’s existing biodiversity, which includes mangroves and mudflats providing habitats for marine wildlife.

Crushed dolomite (sourced from Cebu) now covers a 500-meter stretch of the bay’s boardwalk. Meanwhile, the dolomite mining in Cebu has caused coral damage in Alcoy town in the southern part of the province. The mining operations were recently suspended.

An Inquirer editorial has pointed out that environmental laws were violated by the project, which the DENR plans to probe — an irony since that agency “greenlighted the project…imported the sand and…vociferously vouched for what is now proving to be a quicksand of a project.”

If he looked at Manila Bay today, Julien de la Graviere would be shocked.

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Isabel Escoda has been writing for the Inquirer since the late 1980s.

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