Table of Contents Hide
In some areas of Zambales, so much fate—and fortune—depends on the ever-changing shore
BOTOLAN, Zambales—In a coastal barangay here, three roads approaching the sea abruptly come to a dead end. It didn’t use to be like this, village chief Celso Dagsaan told the BusinesMirror last Wednesday, as he stood where the black asphalt dropped to gray sand.
“This has been going on for years,” Dagsaan said, referring to the coastal erosion that gnaws away at the barangay surge after surge after surge during stormy weather, with each push-and-pull dragging land back into the sea.
“That’s why we have been putting up a wall of boulders to protect us from the sea. But even this may not be enough,” he lamented.
“See those kids out there?” he said, pointing at six girls playing on the seastrand. “That’s where the barangay fish landing port used to be. And somewhere close by was the plaza.”
We were standing some 20 meters from the end of the road where he parked his tricycle, below the high tide mark where the wet sand starts sloping down steeply into the water. Dagsaan said this very spot was where the coastal road connecting the three streets stood. Coconut trees lined it, he recalled.
“And there,” he said pointing some 15 meters into the sea, “that’s where a big house owned by an American used to be. But you can’t see it anymore; the sea has claimed it.”
DAGSAAN’S village wasn’t named “Bangan” for nothing. In the Zambal dialect, it means river mouth or estuary, a place where the river meets the sea. “Estuary” came from the Latin words aestus (the tide) and aestuo (boil), and this village sitting on sandy shore had suffered both the turmoil of the sea’s ebb and flow and the roiling current of the nearby Bucao River that drains from Mount Pinatubo.
Over time, Dagsaan said, rising tide has taken out almost one-third of his barangay’s land area. This is characteristic of what are considered as high-energy coasts, where waves are powerful for a significant part of the year and the rate of erosion far exceeds the rate of deposition, or the dropping on the shore of materials carried by the sea.
Dagsaan observed that when the Bucao River with its lahar debris rampages downstream during typhoons, the churning river current meets the equally surging sea head-on. This violent union sends river current and sea waves crashing into Barangay Bangan, scouring the coast, and eating away at the land.
“It’s true that erosion has been reducing our land area, but I noticed that people here only began losing houses when they began building concrete bungalows,” Dagsaan said. “When people had houses simply built on wooden stilts, the sea only surged past through under them and they were hardly damaged,” he observed.
The village council had long requested for a seawall or a spur dike to direct the force of Bucao River away, but the project seemed daunting even then. “When Ruben Torres was still congressman [sometime between 2001 and 2004 when the former Labor Secretary who hails from this town represented the Second District of Zambales], we proposed the construction of a seawall here, but [Torres] told us he can’t use all of these funds for just one barangay,” Dagsaan recalled. That’s how big the needed funding for the project already was at that time.
Recently, a foundation donated 20 truckloads of armor rocks, but Bangan needed more, the village chief pointed out.
“It’s good that a company built a jetty nearby and this has somewhat deflected the water of Bucao River, but still the surging sea is a big problem for us. What we really need is a seawall,” he added.
Today, Dagsaan said that Bangan is being used by some people as an example of why a dredging project of the Zambales provincial government shouldn’t be, with claims that dredging has caused coastal erosion in the Botolan area.
“That is so far from the truth,” Dagsaan pointed out. “Years and years before the dredging project, we already suffered from coastal erosion. It started in 1972, when we lost the barangay plaza.”
In fact, Dagsaan said, around 300 meters of Bangan’s coast has been lost to the sea, and a total of 162 houses have been destroyed since the 1980s.
Choked rivers, surging sea
THE dredging program being undertaken by the Zambales provincial government was precisely designed to rehabilitate the river systems in Zambales, which were silted by sand and other debris ejected by Mount Pinatubo in 1991, said Gov. Hermogenes Ebdane Jr., who was formerly Secretary of the Department of Public Works and Highways.
“Our river rehabilitation program is validated by local observation and experience, and more important, it is based on science. We have to do this for everyone’s sake,” the governor had stressed.
Ebdane also stressed the recent floods caused by typhoons “Egay” and “Falcon” merely “provided compelling reason for the provincial government to intensify dredging operations,” and pointed out that most flooding occurred in barangays when tributary rivers emanating from the Mount Pinatubo area overflowed.
“Thus, it is crucial that these areas which are natural catchbasins for sediments should be dredged immediately as more rains are expected, so that we can create bigger drainage areas that will convey river water to the sea more efficiently,” he explained.
According to experts who studied the development of technologies to utilize materials ejected in volcanic eruptions, some 11 billion cubic meters of volcanic materials were ejected by Pinatubo blasts from 1991 to 1994. The eruptions filled nearby valleys with pyroclastic materials, but rains over time brought these pyroclastic deposits into river systems around Pinatubo.
Two-thirds of the total volume of deposits—about 7.3 billion cubic meters, went down to Zambales lowlands through major tributary rivers that drain from the Pinatubo area: Bucao in Botolan, Santo Tomas in San Narciso, and Maloma in San Felipe.
Ebdane said that following floodings due to silted waterways—capped by the severe flooding and landslides in the province during typhoon “Odette” in September 2013—consultations among local government units and national government agencies to seek solutions resulted in the formulation in 2014 of the Zambales River Rehabilitation Program.
Then in October 2019, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) issued Department Order No. 13-2019, which rationalized dredging in heavily silted river channels of Bucao, Maloma and Santo Tomas in order to arrest the degradation of river systems due to the continuous flow of sediment from upland areas and restore their natural state and water flow, Ebdane added.
Engr. Domingo Mariano, head of the Zambales Provincial Engineer’s Office, said the dredgers are doing “pilot channeling” so that river water would flow more efficiently into the sea. This involved the use of suction hopper dredgers, which have powerful pumps and engines that enable dredging of sand, clay, sludge and even gravel from the sea bed.
These, however, cause the noise and vibration that people near the project site complain of. But Mariano explained that suction hoopers are needed to soften the depositional areas where fine sand, silt and pumice from Pinatubo have hardened over the years.
“The river deltas are now very shallow because of the deposits. So we need to create a pilot channel; otherwise the river mouths would remain choked and rivers would overflow during heavy rains,” he added.
Adelina Correa, a member of Bangan’s village council, agreed that there is much misconception about the dredging program.
“They’re saying that it depletes ‘our’ sand; yet, in our case, the problem is erosion. You can also hear some people complain about noise and vibration from dredging, and that’s quite true. But the council is okay with this project because it helps the barangay a lot in terms of its finances.”
In San Felipe town, heavily silted waterways perennially brought floods, said Marites, a tourism personnel manning a control checkpoint to a seaside resort area.
“The river is choked by debris, that’s why there is flood,” she told me, as I asked for directions to the seaside sitio of Tektek, where river dredging was ongoing.
“Dredging project is just okay, as long as there’s not much noise at night,” said John Esmelo, a 45-year-old fisherman who lives near the mouth of the Bucao River in Botolan.
Dredging a fortune
Esmelo lives in the village of Porac just across the Bucao River from Bangan, the village that suffered much from coastal erosion.
Porac is considered the host barangay for the dredging project here in Botolan because it is here where sand dredged from the Bucao River delta is loaded onto barges that deliver them to reclamation projects in Manila Bay.
From Porac, you can also see dredging vessels that suck sand from the huge underwater triangle of volcanic materials that jutted out into the sea from Bucao River.
As host barangay, Porac has been getting a fair share of revenue from the dredging project, along with the host municipality, and the provincial government. This was what Gov. Ebdane has described as “manna from heaven,” the debris ejected by Pinatubo that is now benefitting local communities and has become the cornerstone of the Ebdane administration’s program for financial self-sufficiency.
According to Botolan Mayor Jun Omar Ebdane, the municipal government received P30 million as municipal share from dredging operations in Botolan last year. This helped the town address its budget deficit and set aside P55.36 million for various projects this year, Ebdane said.
Porac barangay captain Romeo Angeles said that in his 13 years as village chief, it was only now that they have made significant improvements in the barangay because of additional funds from their share of dredging revenue.
He said that from their annual internal revenue allotment (IRA) of P4 million in the year 2020, their share grew to P5 million in 2021 when the dredging allocation was first received.
In 2022, this further grew to P6 million. And while Porac’s IRA slid down to P4.8 million this year, a report from the Treasurer’s Office indicated that Porac, along with Bangan, will receive a 30-percent share of the P38.5-million barangay’s share for April to May 2023, or P5.8 million for just two months.
Angeles said that the first time they received dredging allocation last year, they bought and distributed one-half cavan of rice to the 1,214 families in the barangay, most of whom are fisherfolk. For this they spent P1.4 million out of the P2.43-million allocation.
For the second tranche of dredging revenue, they spent P2 million out of the P7.6-million fund—this time for one whole cavan of rice for each family in Porac.
The rest, they spent for improvement of the barangay hall, said treasurer Janice Yambao: P1.08 million for streetlights; P70,000 for curtains, window blinds, and doors; and P1.9 million for a van for use as barangay service vehicle.
In Bangan, the allocations were used almost in the same manner, said treasurer Margie Fulgar: 73 solar streetlights with built-in CCTV system; a passenger van for the barangay; and food assistance for residents consisting of one cavan of rice, a huge improvement over the 2 kilos dole-out they managed from regular IRA before the dredging project.
Bangan, Kagawad Adelina Correa said, is home to more than 550 families, mostly fisherfolk, whose livelihood from the sea is seasonal. When fishermen can no longer go out to the sea because of the weather, the village council had to buy rice and other foodstuff to sustain them.
IF the ebb and flow of tides caused land to disappear in Bangan, Botolan, the opposite happened in Barangay Santo Niño, San Felipe town, where the beach community of Liwliwa is thriving on its growing sandy shores.
According to Carlos Salac, an expert on geohazards at the Mines and Geosciences Bureau of the DENR Region 3, the coastline of San Felipe has been growing into the sea by as much as 300 meters since 1977 up to 2015.
This is because of coastal accretion, which happens when additional layers of matter like sediments gradually accumulate over the years. In the case of San Felipe, accretion is the result of the build-up of lahar deposits from the Maloma River north of the municipality, as well as the Santo Tomas River just south of the town proper.
Salac said that sediments come down from the river, then the tides move them along the shoreline. In a survey held in October 2021, just after the Habagat or southwest monsoon rains, an additional 100 meters of growth was observed in San Felipe.
Salac warned, however, that despite the gradual build-up, the coastal situation in the area is still considered “high energy.” At the time of Amihan winds, or the northeast monsoon, the coastline may still erode, he pointed out.
THE growing accretion has created a unique problem for San Felipe, Zambales. Mayor Hart Jeresano said that while more and more business has come to town in the form of beach resort operation, feuds emanating from land claims have given him serious headache.
Jeresano said the town’s business licensing office has registered close to 300 resorts as of this year, and more are coming. Citing town records, the mayor counted a total of 42 resort businesses in 2019, or before the Covid-19 pandemic; 52 in 2020; 77 in 2021; and 136 in 2022.
By September this year, the list has totaled 298, with most of them being beach resorts with accommodation, or cottages, lodging houses and camping sites. The rest include coffee shops, restaurant-bars, and a few retail sari-sari stores.
The problem with this, the mayor hastened to add, is that most are operated by illegal settlers.
“You see, the coastline has grown by about 300 meters, but this is unclassified land owned by the State. You can’t have this titled to anybody because it is still part of public domain and not alienable,” Jeresano explained.
He added that some people have been showing up with tax declarations supposedly for the property they occupy, but these documents soon turned out to be fake.
“People, most of them from Manila, have been snapping up beachfront properties here at P9,000 per square meter even without papers. Imagine that?” Jeresano said. “Then there are cases when the claimants quarrel among themselves over areas and boundaries, and then sue before the court.”
Those who are placed at the most disadvantage are the native residents in the area, mostly fisherfolk, who were edged out of the land simply because they cannot afford a legal battle, he added.
Jeresano said that if truth be told, all business operators beyond the coastal road at Liwliwa are illegal settlers, who have stayed on simply by reason of occupancy.
“I think it’s the DENR that should resolve these cases because it is within their jurisdiction, and not of the local government unit,” Jeresano said. “But the sad part is that the illegal settlers act faster than the government could.”
The mayor said that in face of the overwhelming influx of settlers in the area, the municipal government had them apply for a business permit, pay the regular fees, but with a written understanding that the permit did not constitute proof of possession, only a regulatory requirement.
Jeresano said that some of the operators intimated to him that they knew their business don’t have much leg to stand on legally. “So, they just do what they can to recoup their investments fast, before the law could catch up with them.”
Life goes on
JUST before sundown that Wednesday afternoon in Barangay Bangan, the menfolk came down the surf to meet boats that have returned from fishing in the municipal waters. Pulling at the outriggers, the men hoisted the boats up the waterline, up to the dry area of sand just before the boulder wall, where they would be unreachable by tide at night.
Along the beach, the girls playing by the water have left, leaving the area to the distant black hulk of a barge that was broken down in half one day by a violent sea.
At the sand where the coastal road lined with coconut trees used to be, a family of four was heading home: the baby on top of his father’s shoulder. Life goes on along the constant yet ever-changing shore.