Mission impossible: Restore Manila Bay to its pristine state

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The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is preparing to embark on another mission: restore Manila Bay to its pristine state.

Manila Bay’s waters are considered the most polluted, perhaps 10 times worse than that of Boracay, because of direct discharge of untreated wastewater from hundreds of thousands of households, toxic industrial effluents from factories and shipping operations; and leachate from garbage dumps, according to the DENR.

In 2008, the Supreme Court issued a continuing writ of mandamus ordering 13 government agencies led by the DENR to clean up Manila Bay and restore its water quality to Class SB, or safe for recreational activities such as swimming.

Despite efforts like annual coastal cleanup activities, information, education and communication campaigns, and strong support of various stakeholders like nongovernment organizations, the private sector, and academic community, water pollution even worsened.

Just last June, strong waves triggered by typhoons hurled back tons of garbage, mostly plastic waste, along the coasts of Manila Bay.

Many believe that because of the gargantuan task of addressing the multifaceted problem besetting Manila Bay, restoring it to its pristine state is next to impossible.

Among the challenge of restoring Manila Bay’s water is how to prevent the direct discharge of untreated wastewater, or dumping of wastewater from households, commercial and industrial establishments into the Pasig River and its tributaries and other waterways, that drain to Manila Bay.

There are also thousands of informal settlers that had illegally built shanties along creeks and rivers that need to be relocated.

Environment Secretary Roy A. Cimatu was quoted in news reports that around 300,000 squatters living along so-called danger zones need to be relocated.

Despite such huge challenge where past administrations have failed, the DENR chief is optimistic to have Manila Bay “rehabilitated, restored and maintained to a level fit for swimming, skin diving and other contact forms of recreation.”

“We are preparing for an all-out strategy to bring the coliform concentration in Manila Bay to a safe level so that millions of people who reside in the bay region and neighboring areas will enjoy its waters and marine resources without fear of getting sick,” Cimatu said in a statement.

The DENR hopes to replicate what has been achieved in Boracay, the country’s top tourist destination in Malay, Aklan, which was tagged as a “cesspool” by no less than President Duterte.

Cimatu, the designated head of the Boracay Inter-Agency Task Force (BIATF), said the government will show the same level of political will in cleaning up the bay that spans three major regions—National Capital Region (NCR), Central Luzon and Calabarzon or Region 4A—as it did in Boracay, a tiny island in Western Visayas.

A 2017 report by the DENR’s Environmental Management Bureau showed that the fecal coliform level in Manila Bay reached as high as over 330 million most probable number  per 100 milliliters. The safe level is only 100 MPN/100ml.

According to Cimatu, part of the DENR’s strategy is to ensure the compliance with environmental laws among all local government units (LGUs) surrounding Manila Bay.

“I am calling on all LGUs to step up their efforts in cleaning up the bay because it is their own constituents who will benefit [from a rehabilitated Manila Bay],” Cimatu said.

He revealed that a Manila Bay Command Center under the DENR-NCR regional office would be created to oversee the zonal operations of four field offices to be set up in six coastal cities of Metro Manila, namely: Malabon-Navotas, Manila, Pasay-Parañaque and Las Piñas.

These field offices would be manned by personnel, who would closely coordinate with city or municipal environment officers to ensure that cleanup activities and programs are being carried out and sustained.

To address problems on human waste arising from the presence of informal settlers along the bay, the DENR is looking at technologies that would treat water of pollutants, whether directly discharged into the bay or through toilets.

Cimatu said the DENR would also seek assistance from law enforcement agencies in going after violators of environmental laws, especially those who discharge untreated wastewater into the bay.

Class SB waters are also suitable for commercial propagation of shellfish, and as spawning areas for milkfish and other similar species.