Saving Manila Bay: Historic water landmark now 5 times dirtier

LUBAO -- Senator Cynthia Villar did not mince her words during the coastal cleanup event in Lubao town early this week: Manila Bay is now five-times dirtier than before.

This is despite the fact that it has been 10 years since the Supreme Court (SC) ordered 13 national and local government agencies to clean Manila Bay.

Villar, chair of the Senate committees on agriculture and environment, admitted that there was failure but was quick to note that this must not be taken as defeat.

“We need to double (our cleanup efforts). We should not fail forever,” Villar urged officials of government agencies involved in the cleanup and other stakeholders under the under the Manila Bay Gawing Malinis and Masaganang Karagatan (MMK) program.

The seeming lack of improvement, however, does not surprise environmental experts who predicted that it would take some 20 to 30 years to really bring back the waters of Manila Bay to safe levels.

Improper disposal of garbage, most notably plastics, and lack of wastewater treatment and sewerage systems in Metro Manila have been identified as the main factors in the continuing deterioration of the quality of water in Manila Bay.

These are unsurprising facts as the country has been ranked by environmental group Greenpeace as the "third-worst polluter into the world's oceans."

Looking back

The SC in 2008, in a unanimous decision penned by Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr., ruled in favor of the group “Concerned Residents of Manila Bay" for the clean-up, restoration and preservation of the historic water landmark.

The group earlier started the complaint before the Regional Trial Court (RTC) in Imus, Cavite, in which on September 12, 2002, the local court ruled in favor of the complainants against the government agencies.

The Court of Appeals (CA) affirmed the lower court's decision. Later, in a historic decision, the high court affirmed both the CA and the RTC and ordered several government agencies to implement the cleanup.

These 13 agencies are the Departments of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Education, Health, Agriculture-Bureau of Fisheries, Public Works and Highways, Budget and Management and Interior and Local Government.

Also included are the Philippine Coast Guard, Philippine National Police-Maritime Group, Philippine Ports Authority, Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System, Local Water Utilities Administration and the Metro Manila Development Authority, all of which were bound to uphold the Writ of Continuing Mandamus issued by the Supreme Court.

More problems to address

Senate inquiry reports of as of 2018 showed that bacterial levels in the bay had quintupled from 1 million MPN/100 ml (most probable number per 100 milliliters) of fecal coliform to 5 million MPN/100 ml since 1999.

The safe level is 200 MPN/100 ml. Fecal coliform is found in human and animal excrements.

This is a far cry from the government’s target to restore and maintain Manila Bay waters to SB level to make them fit for swimming, diving, and other forms of contact recreation.

“SB level” or Class B sea water is based on the Water Classification Tables under DENR Administrative Order 34.

Pollution at the Manila Bay mainly comes from untreated domestic wastes from drainage and sewers, as well as contaminated water from commercial industries.

Villar said that a greater concern now, aside from wastewater, is the fact that plastic wastes have made the bay inhospitable for marine life.

In 2012 alone, Manila Bay cleanup operations hauled 2,700 truckloads of garbage. Villar said it is estimated that there is a meter of plastic trash in Manila Bay.

The Greenpeace Philippines and #breakfreefromplastic movement audit in 2017, the first of its kind in the country, revealed that Nestlé, Unilever, and Indonesian company PT TorabikaMayora are the top three contributors of plastic wastes.

Villar said if the garbage problem is not addressed, plastic waste will replace fish stocks at Manila Bay endangering the livelihood of 1.5 million fishermen and their families living around the bay and its coastal tributaries.

The senator said the usual waste segregation and proper disposal programs should be strictly implemented in the barangay level. She is also urging local government units to go into recycling plastics and composting of kitchen and other biodegradable wastes.

Sewerage pollution

The lack of adequate wastewater treatment and sewerage systems in Metro Manila and provinces around Manila Bay has led to the deteriorating condition of its waters.

The Philippine Clean Water Act of 2004 had required that all wastewater coming from all industrial, commercial and residential buildings to be processed through some form of sewerage or septage system.

However, most water utilities in the country tasked to set up wastewater and septage treatment facilities face difficulty in meeting this requirement due to lack of funding, lack of government support in the local levels and access to available technology.

Villar said the Metropolitan Waterworks Sewerage System (MWSS) and its concessionaires were given the responsibility to put up treatment facilities more than 20 years ago in Metro Manila. But she said Metro Manila is still far from having adequate sewerage facilities, which is an indication that there is a failure of implementation and enforcement of the laws with respect to the provision of adequate sanitation, drainage and sewerage facilities even in Metro Manila.

Pollution also comes from the 16 major river systems that drain into the bay including Pampanga River.

Angeles City Water District (ACWD), the largest among all 13 water districts in Pampanga, is the only one with a septage treatment facility in the whole of Pampanga and has yet to come up with a sewerage treatment system which is estimated to cost millions of pesos.

There are also informal settlers and coastal villages in Metro Manila and around Manila Bay without septic tanks.

The United Nations' Sustainable Development Fund, in 2015, said that one in 10 Filipinos defecate in open places. This means that some 10 million people defecate on the ground or on plastic bags that are later thrown into rivers or canals.

While the DOH is doing its best to put up toilets in communities like Baseco, the program has yet to reach other communities in and around Manila Bay.

The 2017 to 2022 plan

To comply with the Supreme Court decision, an operational plan is drafted and revised continually under the leadership of the DENR.

Last year, DENR Secretary Roy Cimatu led the formulation of efforts and actions for the implementation of the 2017-2022 Operational Plan for the Manila Bay Coastal Strategy.

It provides for a guiding framework for all stakeholders like local government units, academe, private sector and the communities on how to approach the gargantuan tasks of rehabilitating the Bay ecosystem in the coming years.

The usual interventions are still in place like the reduction of pollution loading, relocation of informal settlers, compliance with solid waste management, reforestation of watersheds, protected areas, and critical habitats, restoration of productivity of abandoned fishponds to mangrove areas and enrichment of existing mangrove areas in NCR, Bataan, Pampanga and Bulacan.

Villar, during her visit in Lubao town in Pampanga, said it will take a lot of effort, resources and political will to restore the beauty of Manila bay and the best way to start is now.


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