I KNOW President Rodrigo Duterte is still understandably ecstatic about how he rehabilitated Boracay Island after shutting down the tourist attraction for six months last year. But rehabilitating Manila Bay, which he has declared he would do in five years starting this month, is an order of magnitude more difficult than fixing the overcrowded tourist destination off the coast of Panay Island.
But rehabilitating Manila Bay, which he has declared he would do in five years starting this month, is an order of magnitude more difficult than fixing the overcrowded tourist destination off the coast of Panay island.
For starters, Manila Bay has been a virtual cesspool since before the Spanish colonization in the 16th century. Ever since there was a shipping trade between Manila and nearby ports in China and elsewhere, the 1,994-square kilometer (sq x km) bay, with its 190 km of coastline stretching from the provinces of Cavite in the south to Bataan in the north, with Metro Manila, Bulacan and Pampanga in between, has been the center of the country’s commerce.
To this day, international and domestic shipping is the lifeblood of Manila Bay, but downstream industry, manufacturing, domestic and foreign tourism have added to the toxic soup of the bay’s water, drained from mostly untreated freshwater sources like the Pasig and Pampanga Rivers and the hotels and other tourist establishments that ring the once-scenic but now garbage-strewn coastline.
The famed sunset has been obscured by air pollution and high tides and typhoons bring waves of garbage that cover the coast, where trash is still thrown indiscriminately by promenaders into the water. And except for funding-challenged initiatives by the private sector to plant mangroves on the shoreline and the issuance more than a decade ago of a toothless Supreme Court ruling to clean up the bay, nothing has really been done to fix the problem.
But, just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean Duterte wouldn’t take it on, as his successful cleanup of Boracay proved. And it appears that his government is really preparing to take on the problem with all the resources at its command.
First, the President ordered Interior Secretary Eduardo Año and Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Roy Cimatu last Tuesday to start working on a comprehensive, five-year (2019 to 2014) Manila Bay clean-up program. Just like he did in Boracay, Duterte said he wanted to immediately target tourist establishments along the coastline that did not have water and sewage treatment facilities.
Cimatu gave media an idea of just how polluted Manila Bay is. According to him, the nearly 2,000 sq km body of water is really “a cesspool” with extremely high coliform levels of 330 million most probable number (MPN) per 100 milliliters, compared to the accepted safe level of 100 MPN/100ml.
Cimatu’s preliminary rehabilitation program calls for a change in approach as the bay’s water quality has not improved despite the Supreme Court cleanup order issued in December 2008.
“We are putting up a Manila Bay command center, we will get the local government units more involved, and we will be more aggressive in enforcing environmental laws, particularly against the discharge of untreated wastewater into the bay,” Cimatu said.
Duterte, as usual, was more direct in his assessment. He decided that the first order of business was cleaning up wastewater coming from hotels and other similar establishments along the bay.
“Put water treatment facilities in your hotels or else I will close you,” he declared. “Do not dare me.”
Again, as in Boracay, Duterte expressed his disdain for those who believe that tourism revenues were more important than the environment. “If there are no tourists, then so be it; we will not die,” he said. “You do something about your waste or else I will close it; that’s for sure.”
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Malacañang was quick to announce where the funds for the rehabilitation of Manila Bay were to come from. The Palace said the government was planning to use the controversial road user’s tax to fund the long-overdue environmental cleanup.
This will immediately happen once the Road Board, which manages the road user’s tax collections, is abolished, according to Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo. According to reports, the accumulated amount of unused road user’s tax is around P45 billion.
The board is a body created by a special law composed of the secretaries of public works and highways, transportation, budget and management, and finance as ex officio members and three representatives of private transport organizations. The Secretary of Public Works and Highways is the ex officio chairman of the Road Board.
Congress is allowed to appropriate funds for public works rehabilitation works under the law creating the board. Duterte, however, has called for the repeal of the law creating the board and the abolition of the agency, which he described as a hotbed of corruption.
The funds must be earmarked solely for adequate road maintenance and improvement of road drainage, adequate traffic lights and road safety and air pollution control devices at both the national and provincial levels.
But Duterte said the Road Board must be abolished because it has been turned into a “milking cow” of corrupt politicians.
I wish Duterte all the luck in the world as he takes on what, to me, is the biggest environmental challenge of his administration. Some may want to focus on Duterte’s dirty language, but I’d rather cheer the President on as he shows us that the filthy environment can be cleaned up — and you don’t have to use nice words to do it.