Caught in the crossfire of the infamous Marawi Siege, Lake Lanao in the province of Lanao del Sur that is now under the newly organized Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) is in peril and may end up as collateral damage.
The traditional home of the Meranaw or Maranao, one of several Muslim ethnolinguistic groups in Mindanao, Lake Lanao, is one of the oldest lakes in the Philippines. Scientists believe it to be more than 2 million years old.
It is the second biggest in land freshwater body that provides a valuable life support system to the communities that depend on the bounty of the Lake Lanao River Basin.
Lake Lanao has an inland water area of 336 hectares. Its surface area is pegged at 36,000 hectares.
The threats the lake and its surrounding environs is facing are real. Problems besetting Lake Lanao are encompassing food security and safety, population growth, water quality and safety, and pollution.
The lake’s biodiversity is also suffering severely. It is believed that 18 native fish species that used to thrive in the lake have gone extinct.
A possible reason: the introduction of 12 different nonnative fish species to enhance the lake’s fish production.
Various studies conducted by experts indicate that the lake is facing serious environmental problems.
According to the policy brief Series published by the National Research Council of the Philippines (NRCP) of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), Lake Lanao can be classified as an oligotrophic lake which means it has “low primary productivity as a result of low nutrient content.”
On a positive note, oligotrophic lakes have low algal production and often have very clear waters with high drinking water quality.
The six independent NRCP researchers in Lake Lanao under the “Saklaw” or Saklolo sa Lawa Program of the NRCP undertaken between 2015 to 2017 suggest that “the weak lake governance can further deteriorate the condition of the lake which may become detrimental to people’s health and wellness.” The research was done by experts from the Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology and the Marawi campuses to assess the lake’s condition.
Here’s why: Households from Marawi City and the 17 municipalities bordering the lake use its resources as disposal sink for both domestic and business wastes.
Human pressure on the lake and its resources is on the rise with the increasing population under a business-as-usual scenario.
The deterioration of the lake’s water quality becomes apparent with the water level drastically receding and reduced catch of fishes and shrimps.
Scientists also observed fecal contamination levels from the bank and up to 25 meters lakeward, rendering the water unsafe for drinking.
The lake is also suffering from loss of endemic fishes, indicating possible extinction of native fish to due changes in the lake’s natural equilibrium.
Priority Upper River Basin
Lake Lanao, or the Lake Lanao River Basin, was identified as a priority site for the Integrated Natural Resources and Environmental Management Project (Inremp) along with the Chico Upper River Basin in the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR), the Wahig-Inabanga River Basin in Central Visayas, and the Bukidnon Upper River Basin in Northern Mindanao.
Inremp is one of the major projects of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources-Forest Management Bureau (DENR-FMB) to address unsustainable watershed management in the Philippines.
With particular focus on indigenous peoples and resource-poor communities, the project aims to reduce and reverse the degradation of watersheds and associated environmental services caused by forest denudation and unsustainable farming practices.
However, due to peace and order concerns, Lanao Lake was dropped from the program’s roster, explained DENR Assistant Secretary for Staff Bureaus Ricardo Calderon.
“Lake Lanao is supposed to be part of Inremp project as one of the pilot sites, but because of peace and order situation, the implementation was held in abeyance,” Calderon said.
A major factor was the Marawi Siege which saw state forces—both the police and military waging all-out war to flush out suspected Islamic State-inspired terrorists that held the entire Islamic city of Marawi hostage for five months.
Being a watershed reservation, Calderon underscored the need to protect and conserve the entire Lanao Lake River Basin.
Director Nonito Tamayo of the DENR-FMB justified the decision to let go of Lake Lanao from Inremp, citing the peace and order problem at the time.
Nevertheless, he said the rehabilitation of the lake has been integrated in the proposed rehabilitation of Marawi City.
Nevertheless, he is confident that the BARMM, which has jurisdiction over the predominantly Muslim region, will do an equally good job in protecting and conserving the lake.
Lake Lanao was proclaimed a watershed reserve by virtue of Proclamation 871 on February 26, 1992.
Considered as an important biodiversity site in the Philippines, it is one of the priority sites for conservation. The lake is home to 18 endemic species of freshwater fish and supports a large number of waterfowls.
In two barangays that were surveyed during the preparation of the Integrated Development Plan of the Watershed alone, a total of 27 species of trees, shrubs and vines were observed. More important, 41 medicinal plant species naturally occur in the forests.
There are six bird species in the watershed. Among them are the white-collared kingfisher, slender bird crow and cattle egret.
Lake Lanao has five watersheds with rivers and major tributaries, totaling 431 kilometers, according to a biological profile posted on the official web site of Inremp.
The waters from these rivers and tributaries drain into the lake and goes out through the Agus River in Lanao del Norte that flows southwest into Iligan Bay via two channels—the Maria Cristina Falls, the largest waterfall in the country, and Linamon Falls.
Besides being a source of food and water, a hydroelectric plant that feeds from the Lanao Lake and Agus River generates 70 percent of the electricity that energizes Mindanao.
Agus River alone supports seven hydroelectric power plants of the National Power Corp. (NPC) with a combined capacity of 727 megawatts.
The NRCP which funded the six independent studies came up with policy recommendations that are anchored on strengthening the governance of Lake Lanao.
This will require a review of relevant laws affecting the protection and conservation of the lake, and the consequent harmonization of policies or guidelines for better synergy.
It also calls for the creation of a Regional Multi-sectoral Lanao Lake Development Authority and the organization of a community-based “Bantay Ranaw Task Force” for participatory monitoring and protection of the lake.
Another recommendation is the formulation and implementation of a Lake Lanao Sustainable Development Roadmap.
Moreover, the management of Lake Lanao and its resources—through addressing research and development gaps on renewable energy, biodiversity, water safety and sustainability, food safety and security and on culture and heritage—must be done.
It was also emphasized by the proponents of the independent researches that measures toward more responsive and responsible communities for the protection of the health and wellness of the people around the lake is a must.
This will include the review of public toilet facilities in every mosque and public establishments around the lake to prevent seepage of sewage into the lake, a common problem encountered in-land water bodies with increasing human pressures.
Given its importance to the people of Mindanao, particularly the Meranaw or Maranao—whether as a source of food, water, income and, more important, as a way of life—protecting and conserving Lake Lanao cannot be overemphasized.