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A dying lake

/ 02:41 AM September 04, 2014

Laguna Bay used to be 10 to 12 meters deep, just 35 years ago; today it’s a mere 2.5 to 3 meters, you can almost walk across it. Siltation and overfishing (if my fishpond is anything to go by, the amount of s**t fish excrete is astounding) are killing the lake. It’s the largest lake in Luzon, some 900 square kilometers, yet it’s dying thanks to man’s uncaring attitude.  It’s increasingly polluted as domestic (what the fish are doing too) and industrial waste are polluting the lake at a frightening rate. Neric Acosta, who’s in charge, attributed most of the siltation of the lake to the proliferation of fish pens which now occupy around a quarter of the lake.

So an immediate, costless action that could be taken is to reduce the fish pens to an environmentally manageable level. But the problem: This is the Philippines and “influentials” own the pens—so action doesn’t happen. It’s driving Acosta crazy. He knows what needs doing, he just doesn’t have sufficient support to do it. It needs the power of a tough-acting president.

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It has one, greatly diminished outlet, the Pasig River that Gina Lopez is cleaning up with remarkable success. But that clean-up doesn’t include the dredging the river desperately needs. And the dredging the lake (also desperately) needs. Dredging former President Arroyo contracted, but dredging the Aquino government canceled. Canceled because of “inconsistencies between the project components and its intended objectives.” The 2011 Sona Technical Report noted that “a DENR study found out that due to heavy deforestation and erosion, the areas to be dredged would end up being silted again in 3 years without massive rehabilitation of the watersheds. The DENR further noted that the approval of the supply contract was done without any thorough review. In addition, the Project’s Economic Internal Rate of Return (EIRR) of 7.04 percent, which considers only the project’s quantified economic benefits, does not meet the 15 percent minimum hurdle rate or the minimum acceptable rate of return.”

The lake is so shallow today that the heavy rains of typhoons flood towns all the way around the lake with the whole stretch from Angono to Lumban being particularly affected. To stop the flooding a dike is to be built, on top of which will be an expressway. It will run from Bicutan, Taguig to Los Baños/Bay, and later fully around the bottom, maybe (that’s still being discussed). That will save the towns and about a million people and improve traffic movement in a fast growing area, but it won’t fix the condition of the lake.

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In looking into the lake one thing it brings to the fore is how impractical it is to have Manila as the country’s capital. It is built on a sliver of land, sandwiched between two bays, and much of it below the levels of those bays and sinking at 2-3 centimeters per year. Venice will be envious one day. For a few intrepid Spaniards in the 16th century it seemed an ideal location tucked into the end of a large, protective bay. For 15 million Filipinos it makes no sense at all. It’s the most populated metropolitan area in the country in a land area of only 620 square kilometers; that’s around 24,000 people per square kilometer. That’s more than 20 times the density of people in Calabarzon and around 40 times that of Central Luzon. Metro Manila’s population density is also much larger than Kuala Lumpur’s 2,800 people per square kilometer; Cape Town’s 3,950; Tokyo/Yokohama’s 4,750; Mexico City’s 8,400 and Jakarta’s 10,500.

It needs relocating. Any visionary leader would plan it now. And the obvious place to go to is the Subic-Clark corridor. Well-elevated, essentially unlimited space, a large deep-water harbor and an already mostly built airport of international standard—what more do you want? I suggest SM is going to the wrong place. Why reclaim land with all the costs and technical problems when you can move to where there’s plenty of land, well above rising sea levels. That’s visionary.

In the meantime (or forever if we don’t get that visionary, determined leader) Laguna Bay must be addressed. Apart from the dike/expressway, one of the solutions Acosta is looking into is a tunnel to drain water into Manila Bay to supplement the Pasig. It’s an audacious but doable solution. It mirrors what PPP Center executive director Cosette Canilao wants to do to get traffic moving between Makati and the BGC: Build a tunnel. Tunnels make great sense in already developed areas, they inconvenience almost no one, but greatly expand movement, of people or water.

The Laguna Lakeshore Expressway-Dike project has now been approved. At P123 billion, this is the largest infrastructure project of the Aquino administration to be implemented through a public-private partnership (PPP) arrangement.  During the Wallace Business Forum’s roundtable on Aug. 5, Public Works Secretary Babes Singson said the agency will bid out the project before the end of this year. Construction will commence in late 2015 and end in 2021. Eight companies have bought the bid documents.

But, as nothing ever occurs on time here I expect delays and an almost inevitable objection from a sore loser. But, who knows, miracles do happen. (Don’t they?) It’s a long-overdue, much-needed project. Let’s hope it happens because unless action is taken now the lake might be dead before I am. Neric Acosta must get better support from the government.

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TAGS: Gina Lopez, Laguna Bay, Laguna Lake, Laguna Lakeshore Expressway-Dike project, Neric Acosta, overfishing, Pasig River, Siltation
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