WHEN we demanded for Manila Bay to be rehabilitated after decades of neglect, this is not what we expected or needed.
The beautification of Manila Bay with "white sand" or crushed dolomite has been met with criticism. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has stated that the project is aimed at boosting the mental health and simulate the beach experience for Metro Manila residents, with travel limited during the pandemic.
Environmental advocates, fisherfolk groups, scientists, and other concerned individuals and organizations have raised many issues about the project. These include the extraction and health impacts of dolomite, poor timing amid the pandemic, conflicting statements between governments units, and the project budget despite claims of a lack of funds to address Covid-19.
In short, the beautification of Manila Bay with "white sand" is what many believe to be a perfect representation of the Duterte administration's proposed solutions to long-standing issues: style over substance.
If the government is serious about the beautification and preventing further littering of the Manila Bay, it should focus on promoting nature-based solutions instead of engineered solutions.
With a renewed sense of environmental awareness due to the Covid-19 pandemic comes an ample opportunity to expose the residents of Metro Manila to a relatively unfamiliar sight within the vicinity of the urban center: a genuine view of nature.
The successful rehabilitation of Manila Bay is dependent not only on cleaning the waters, but also restoring the ecosystems that once thrived within it. This process is an opportunity for the Philippine government to show its commitment to promoting nature-based solutions, which are generally more cost-effective than corresponding engineered solutions and provide economic, environmental, and social benefits to multiple sectors. Beauty may be in the eyes of the beholder, but the benefits and consequences are seen through evidence and facts.
There is a high possibility that the crushed dolomite could easily be washed away by high tides, heavy rainfall, or a storm surge, as that section of the Manila Bay has been documented to be easily flooded in recent years. As climate change becomes more extreme in the coming decades, sea level rise coupled with land subsidence can completely wipe out the dolomite away.
Instead of "white sand," the DENR should instead focus on restoring natural ecosystems along that portion of the Manila Bay coastline. It may only be a 500-meter stretch, but what is done with arguably the most famous portion of the area carries a symbolic message of the government's priorities during the rehabilitation process.
For instance, restoring seagrass communities along that area would provide more benefits than continuing with the current beautification process. It is established within the Manila Bay Sustainable Development Master Plan that they, along with other ecosystems such as mangroves and coral reefs have degraded due to sediment deposition, reclamation activities, and other anthropogenic activities.
Seagrasses provide multiple benefits, including nurturing fish populations, serving as home to many organisms, and filtering pollution from seawaters. When managed well with nearby coral reefs and mangroves, these ecosystems can provide the same benefits for mental health, beautification, and environmental awareness that the government seeks at lower costs.
In the context of the climate crisis, they also help weaken storm surges, an important component of coastline defenses amidst more extreme impacts of the climate crisis. Seagrasses are also highly-efficient carbon sinks; while they cover less than one percent of the global ocean floors, they store up to 18 percent of the carbon captured by marine and coastal ecosystems. This carbon, known as "blue carbon", is a key part of the Philippines's commitment to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
It should be noted that the positives observed during the ongoing rehabilitation process, including the decrease in fecal coliform contamination and the installation of a solar-powered water treatment plant near the current "white sand" site, must be recognized. However, as the many agencies of the Philippine government are obligated to clean the Manila Bay through a mandamus, it is only fair for the Filipino public to give credit where it is due and criticize when there is legitimate basis.
Furthermore, we must also remember that this is one part of an integrated approach towards the rehabilitation of the Manila Bay, a process that will take years, perhaps even decades to complete. Preventing the pollution of waterways leading into the bay and avoiding reclamation projects that favor high-income sectors at the expense of practically everyone else, some of which are being prioritized in the midst of the pandemic, are just as vital of steps in this process that the public must keep monitoring in the years to come.
This process will only succeed if current and future policymakers have the foresight and will to not only clean up the Manila Bay and make it beautiful, but also ensure that the area is reflective of the necessary commitment to prioritizing planetary and human health. Given the conflicting statements and plans we have seen so far, it is clear that reforms need to be urgently implemented by the current and future administrations, preferably with substance and natural style.
John Leo is the program manager of Living Laudato Si Philippines and Climate Action for Sustainability Initiative (Kasali). He has been a citizen journalist and feature writer since 2016.