Saving Manila Bay

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THE Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has served notice it will be cracking down on hotels found polluting the Manila Bay, sparking another round of finger-pointing among the thousands of stakeholders that ring the historic body of water boasting one of the world’s most beautiful sunsets.

This developed even as Environment Undersecretary for Attached Agencies Sherwin Rigor said in an interview with the BusinessMirror that about 300,000 families of informal settlers need to be moved out of Metro Manila to help improve the water quality of Manila Bay.

A man collects recyclable materials from the pile of garbage that was washed ashore on Manila Bay
A man collects recyclable materials from the pile of garbage that was washed ashore on Manila Bay by strong waves brought by Tropical Depression Henry on July 16, 2018.

The DENR has made it a top priority to rehabilitate Manila Bay beginning this year, on top of its current programs to clean up major tourism destinations, such as Boracay Island, El Nido and Coron in Palawan, Alona Beach in Panglao Island, Baguio City and Siargao Island in Surigao del Norte, to name a few.

Rigor said, “We will be checking all hotels and industries along Manila Bay, as well as inspect all malls if they are compliant in their operations of their sewerage treatment plants [STP].” The DENR has recorded the fecal coliform level in the Bay at 330 million most probable number (MPN) per 100 milliliters (ml.) The standard and safe level for water quality is 1,000 MPN/100 ml, which is considered SB, or swimming pool quality.

Unfortunately, neither the Department of Tourism (DOT) nor other private tourism organizations have data on the number of hotels along Manila Bay or Roxas Boulevard.

Jose C. Clemente III, president of the Tourism Congress of the Philippines, expressed support for the DENR’s plan to clean up Manila Bay and check on the polluters in the hotel industry. “Undoubtedly, the DENR’s plan to clean up Manila Bay is admirable and timely. It’s one of the attractions of the capital city and any effort to clean it up is very welcome. It will be a herculean task, but the private sector supports the effort in whatever ways it can. I am sure that our stakeholders will be behind this and will take proper steps to address any issues, if any, as it pertains to pollution on the bay.”

Roxas Boulevard
Roxas Boulevard, which runs along the shores of Manila Bay, has become a trademark of Philippine tourism, famed for its yacht club, hotels, restaurants, commercial buildings and parks.

Rigor stressed that the DENR will also be installing STPs “along the mouths of Manila Bay.” This forms part of the “quick-fix” solutions of the DENR’s rehabilitation plan, which will cost about P2 billion to P3 billion, he added. The DENR targets a reduction of the coliform level by 5 million MPN/100 ml every month, such that by the end of 2019, the level should have dropped to 200-250 million MPN/100 ml.

Among the largest polluters of Manila Bay are industrial firms, and those establishments that discharge into the estero that drains into the outfall–the place where a river or sewer drains into the sea—of the Manila Yacht Club. “We have an outfall at the Manila Yacht Club, which has the highest pollution at 1.3 billion MPN/100 ml. Those that use that estero are Ospital ng Maynila, hotels, the Manila Zoo, Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, De La Salle University, among others. We will be checking along that outfall and that sewer line to trace which establishments are the most polluters,” Rigor stressed.

He noted Duterte was serious in having the Manila Bay cleanup completed within his term, but the DENR official admitted that its full rehabilitation may take up to seven years. By then, it is projected that the necessary environment infrastructure have been put in place, polluters have cleaned up their acts, and informal settlers have been completely relocated.

“We’ll be checking on the shelter plan of all LGUs [local government units]. The President has made it very clear; he wants to have a solution within his term. But the substantial improvements may take three to five years, or up to seven years, depending on the speed of the relocation of the informal settlers, and the shelters that will be built.”

Rigor emphasized the DENR wants the relocation areas to be properly built and with complete facilities. “That will part of the medium- to long-term plan; they will be relocated but it has to be a decent relocation area where they have complete facilities.”

He said the DENR will be filing cases versus barangay officials who have allowed the proliferation of informal settlers, which have contributed to the pollution of Manila Bay as they throw their waste directly into the Pasig River and its other tributaries, as well as esteros that drain into the Bay.

Manila Yacht Club’s mission

THE Manila Yacht Club, for its part, said it is ready to play a role in the planned rehabilitation of Manila Bay, especially in ensuring that both public and private entities with a stake in the bay faithfully abide by the law.

MYC Commo. Robert L. Joseph pointed to various pieces of legislation in place, such as the Clean Water Act, the Solid Waste Management Law, and the Rainwater Catchment Law or Republic Act 6716, among others, that have been enacted for almost three decades yet are not fully enforced.

According to him, the Philippines has the best set of environmental laws in Asia and among the best in the world. “But unfortunately, they are not being implemented,” he told the BusinessMirror in an interview. “So what I‘ll do is use them.”

The newly installed top official of the country’s premier yacht organization revealed that MYC has set a dialogue with all the stakeholders in Manila Bay to ensure that the wastewater they release there are safe and clean.

Manila Bay has been a catch basin in the metropolis since time immemorial. Effluents coming from the surrounding LGUs, including those from the residential areas, commercial and industrial establishments, are discharged into two big sewage pipes near the MYC and the US Embassy in Manila.

Specifically, the group will talk to the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) to help the agency compel compliance by  LGUs with environmental laws.

“We will seek the assistance of the COA [Commission on Audit] and the Ombudsman to file charges against those who will not adhere to or implement the laws,” Joseph said. He said they will ask the COA to conduct an “environmental compliance audit.”

Maynilad, Manila Water

A crucial player that MYC wants to bring into the picture is actually, as some critics have long pointed out, a virtual elephant in the room: the private concessionaires of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage Authority (MWSS).  The MYC said it will discuss with Manila Water and Maynilad Water Services Inc. their obligation to process the wastewater they throw into the bay.

“That’s the responsibility for them to have a franchise. To supply water to homes, they have to give water and be responsible for taking out water,” the commodore said of both the water concessionaires’ share of protecting Manila Bay since they have their own treatment plants.

It’s an issue that a former environment secretary recently reminded incumbent Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu about: the Manila Bay cleanup will take decades, unless it addresses head-on the issue of the concessionaires’ obligation to treat wastewater at source, so that what is discharged into the bay is clean.

Buhay Party-list Rep. Lito L. Atienza, guesting at a public forum, noted with dismay the government’s lackadaisical attitude toward how Maynilad and Manila Water have not been prodded to comply more speedily with the commitments they made when they were granted the concessions.

Atienza recalled that in his time as DENR chief, he had called out the two companies about the need for them to speed up their compliance with the “second part” of their contract, i.e., the sewerage part. He conceded the two firms had greatly expanded water supply in much of their franchise zones, but noted they remained woefully behind in the targets of ensuring a sound sewerage system for a metropolis bursting at the seams.

Just before Christmas, Cimatu said the DENR will find a way to prevent the direct discharge of untreated wastewater into at least four esteros in Metro Manila, all of which lead out to the Board Walk area in Manila Bay, while waiting for the private water concessionaires to fix sewer lines in their respective areas.

“The long-term plan is the presence of the sewer lines all over Metro Manila.  This is the mandate given to the concessionaires, Maynilad and Manila Water.  The completion of all this will be in 2037.  That is our problem,” he said.

This longer wait appalled Atienza, who noted that the two concessionaires should then justify why they have been including, all this time, in their billings a portion that supposedly covers their obligation to handle the sewerage part.

‘Toka Toka’ advocacy

MANILA Water, the East Zone concessionaire of Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System, meanwhile recently touted that it has “finally covered the whole province of Rizal through a partnership seal signing” with the governor and mayors of the lone city of Antipolo and 13 towns as well as their respective city and municipal environment and natural resources (C/MENRO) officers. These are Jalajala, Baras, Tanay, Teresa, Cardona, Angono, Binangonan, Cainta, Rodriguez, San Mateo, Taytay, Morong and Pililia.

Manila Water said in a statements its President and CEO Ferdinand Dela Cruz had shared with Governor Rebecca “Nini” Ynares and the Rizal town mayors the significance of the “Toka Toka” advocacy, which it describes as the first and only environmental movement in the Philippines on used water management as a vital contributor in reviving rivers and waterways.

Dela Cruz gave assurances that Manila Water is “focused on its development plans until the end of concession agreement in 2037” and cited MWSS for approving its business and service improvement plan. This includes programs to further improve water, used water and sanitation services not only in eastern Metro Manila but also for Rizal Province.

Manila Water will complete six more sewage treatment plants (STPs) in Rizal province with total capacity of 300 million liters per day (MLD) to start with the construction of the 16-MLD capacity Hinulugang Taktak STP.

The “Toka Toka” movement, which was started in 2012, aims to drive everyone to do his share or “toka” to protect the environment which can translate into any of the four ownable acts: (i) segregating and disposing of waste properly, (ii) availing of Manila Water’s desludging service every five years, (iii) connecting to Manila Water’s sewer line and (iv) educating the community through various information drives.

Manila Water as MWSS’s private concessionaire for the east zone serves more than 6.8 million residents in the eastern portion of Metro Manila and the province of Rizal.

Declining water quality

Meanwhile, the DENR and DOT have served notice they will continue the rehabilitation through other routes—but time is fast running out, Atienza pointed out, and unless the wastewater treatment work is fast-tracked, damage to the bay continues.

Various studies reveal the diminishing quality of water in Manila Bay, including that of the DENR, which reveals the presence of waterborne bacteria.

The Manila City Health Department, on the other hand, found out higher-than-normal levels of fecal pollution that could come from animal or human bodily waste.

Other coliform organisms and potential toxins from ship oil and gas, likewise, add to the contamination.

All these make the bay water unfit for humans, as it can cause various diseases and, at the same time, contribute to its filth.

Commodore Joseph attributed to dirty seawaters and floating waste to the dwindling water activities, like boating, along Manila Bay.

“Sailing has not been so good in Manila,” he said. “Why is it that people don’t want to sail here? It’s because of the polluted water.”

The top official of MYC shared that they will continue to hold sailing events not only to attract more tourists, but also to provide employment opportunities.

“My plan is to get 10 poor people and teach them how to sail. And then when they know how to sail they can work in sailboats. With their experience, they will be also hired abroad,” Joseph said. “We’re the MYC. We started sailing [in the country]. So we can get them trained here.”

Established in 1927, MYC is a members-only yacht club based in the country’s capital. One of the oldest of its kind in Asia, it has around 200 active members and over 100 life members.

Taking up the challenge

Recently, Cimatu trumpeted his determination to “accept the challenge to rehabilitate Manila Bay.  If nobody else will do it, who will do it? I am optimistic that it can be done.  I hope that all of us join in this endeavor that will save Manila Bay.”

The short-term target, he said, is to improve the quality of water by reducing the coliform level in Manila Bay by the end of 2019.

The long-term target, he said, is to make the water of Manila Bay safe for bathing and swimming.

Using the regular budget of the DENR for the implementation of the Clean Water Act, the DENR will work on targeted esteros, including the Pasig River, to bring down the coliform level in areas in Manila Bay, particularly along Bay Walk, to 100 MPN/100 ml, the level safe for swimming.

Water in some portions of Manila Bay, particularly fronting the Board Walk, reaches up to 333 million MPN/100 ml.

“Unless we can accelerate this one… we need to start really.  We should shorten this as much as possible.  We should do something.  The problem is coming from esteros in Metro Manila.  The condition of the esteros, if I will describe it, [is that] we have two billionaire esteros,” he said, referring to the coliform level of the water, which reaches the billions level.

Acknowledging that the task at hand is huge, Cimatu said the DENR will be counting on the support of all stakeholders—particularly local chief executives and the private sector.

He said the DENR, this early, has received offers from industries to help out.

“I was asked, and I am even grateful for the offer of assistance from heads of industries to help us in this. There were offers and suggestions, including the use of resources,” said Cimatu.

On January 15, the DENR will make a comprehensive presentation of the problem to stakeholders, and solicit probable solutions and hopefully receive the offers of assistance, he said.

Meanwhile, Cimatu asked the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority to come up with a map of all esteros in Metro Manila to identify the problem esteros.

“If we will be able to contain this pollution, we can reduce the reading…just like what happened in Boracay.  Those coming out in Bulabog Beach, we were able to prevent it and reduce the coliform level,” he explained.

With reports by Lourdes M. Fernandez and Jonathan L. Mayuga

 

Image credits: Phuongphoto | Dreamstime.com, Nonie Reyes, Aarstudio | Dreamstime.com

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