SOME operators of floating cottages in the municipality of Cordova, Mactan Island in eastern Cebu admit to have openly thrown the liquid waste collected from their cottages into the open sea.

Operators made the admission just two days after Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia implemented Executive Order (EO) 25, which prohibits the operation and use of illegal structures such as floating and fixed cottages in Cordova’s seawaters to pave the way for its rehabilitation.

The admission of floating cottage operators supports the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ (DENR) findings that the fecal coliform level (FCL) in the area has exceeded the tolerable limit, though the governor said the cottages were not the only contributors to the high FCL along Cordova’s coast.

READ: Second part of the special report: Suan wants cottages back after rehab

Garcia’s EO also instructed the police and Philippine Coast Guard, among others, to help Cordova Mayor Cesar “Didoy” Suan enforce the prohibition on the building of such structures on the town’s legal easements and coasts as provided for in Suan’s EO 1.

As this developed, local officials in two Cordova barangays admitted to the lack of regulation to manage the cottages operating in their areas.

Now that the cottage operations in Cordova have been stopped to protect the marine environment, stakeholders worry about the effect of the suspension on their livelihood.

Admission

In an interview last Aug. 26, Mark Ramirez, who operates two floating cottages in Barangay Poblacion, told SunStar Cebu that he and nine other operators installed portable toilets or portalets in their cottages.

Unlike other cottages that have only ordinary toilets, Ramirez said the mobile toilets they acquired feature a flush function.

But Ramirez admitted that their portalets had a limited capacity of only 20 liters to contain collected sewage.

To dispose of the collected waste, Ramirez said that every time their guests left the cottage, his lifeguard would remove the container underneath the portable toilet holding the human waste.

The containers were then ferried by pump boat towards the open sea where the waste would be disposed of.

“We have 10 cottages in our group. We collect the waste from all of these at the same time. Then we travel very far out to sea, and we dispose of the waste in the middle of that,” Ramirez said in Cebuano.

Ramirez shifted from engaging in island boat tours in Mactan Island to his current floating cottage business after Typhoon Odette (Rai) destroyed some of his boats on Dec. 16, 2021.

Ramirez said he decided to shift to operating a floating cottage in Cordova after seeing how lucrative it had become.

“This is a very unique experience kay kining (this) floating cottage kay nahimutang siya sa lawod nga area (is located in the ocean). Away usab siya sa daghan mga tawo (It’s away from many people), which the guest can rent privately for a day,” Ramirez said.

“Compared sa (to the) fixed cottage kay wala sila nag-float (that does not float). Fixed lang sila sa yuta o sa sandbar diin naa pud diri ang sand beach,” he added. (They are just fixed on land or a sandbar, where there is also a sandy beach.)

No regulation

Ramirez doesn’t see anything wrong with throwing the human waste they collect from their cottages into the sea, saying this was often practiced by large commercial vessels.

Barangay officials in Poblacion and Catarman, where at least 400 fixed and floating cottages operated, said though some of them were aware of the problem, their regulations were focused solely on managing and collecting the solid waste or garbage generated by the cottage operators’ guests.

Barangay Catarman chief Alejandro Aro said that while he had not received complaints against cottage operators, he admitted that they have no ordinance that manages the collection of human waste generated by floating cottage operators.

Though he had received reports of cottage operators throwing their fecal waste off his barangay’s shores, especially at night, Barangay Poblacion chief Ritchell Basiliote said his barangay also had no policy or protocol on the collection and disposal of human waste generated by cottage operations.

Basiliote said like Catarman, their barangay manages the collection only of the garbage generated by tourists who visit the floating cottages.

Both officials told SunStar Cebu that based on their agreement with the cottage operators, the barangays collect the solid waste in a designated area near Bantayan wharf, which is in the boundary of Catarman and Poblacion.

Environmental fee

To fund the collection of the garbage gathered in the cottages, the barangay collects environmental fees from the guests using the cottages, Aro said.

He said the funds collected from issuing the barangay business clearances were not enough to cover the expenses for solid waste management and disposal.

According to Aro, the barangay charged P20 per guest for town outsiders, while it collected P5 to P10 from town residents. Residents of Catarman were not charged environmental fees, Aro said.

The fee was used to cover up to the garbage truck’s fuel and maintenance and honorarium for the garbage collectors.

Aro said their income from the cottages just goes straight to services.

“There are watchmen there who assist. They have an honorarium taken from the environmental fee, aside from the monthly honorarium from the barangay of P300 per duty,” Aro said in Cebuano.

He added that the barangay has personnel assigned near Bantayan Wharf who issue tickets to visitors as proof of payment of the environmental fee.

As for Basiliote, his barangay charges a regular garbage collection fee from floating and fixed cottage operators based on the accumulated waste collected from them per week.

To differentiate the solid from human waste, Basiliote said solid waste were usually leftovers, food packaging, non-reusable plastics and other sanitary products.

Basiliote said operators piled up the collected solid waste in a designated area inside Terminal One or the Roro Port.

Fecal coliform

According to officials of DENR 7’s Environmental Management Bureau (EMB), high levels of fecal coliform and other pollutants were found in the coastal areas of Barangays Poblacion and Catarman during three sampling events conducted from July 20 to Aug. 14.

Cindylyn Pepito-Ochea, EMB 7 spokesperson, told SunStar Cebu that from July to mid-August, they conducted water testing or ambient water quality monitoring in seven sampling stations in the two barangays, namely in areas where fixed and floating cottages were established, at the lighthouse located in the boundary between Catarman and Poblacion, and in some parts of Bantayan Bay.

Ochea said their sampling activities are designed to determine the quality of seawater based on seven parameters: pH level, temperature, dissolved oxygen, total suspended solids, nitrate phosphate levels; presence of oil and grease, and FCL. The seven parameters are based on DENR’s Water Quality Guidelines and General Effluent Standards of 2016.

Failed the tests

During their meeting with local officials and stakeholders on July 20, Ochea said, they disclosed that the seawater in the two barangays exceeded the allowable levels of FCL, dissolved oxygen, total suspended solids, and oil and grease.

She said samples collected from two stations, where floating and fixed cottages were found, both failed in dissolved oxygen parameters, failing to reach the desired six milligrams per liter (mg/L). One station yielded a dissolved oxygen level of only 5.43 mg/L while samples from another station yielded dissolved oxygen levels of 5.92 mg/L.

Dissolved oxygen affects the metabolism of marine life and ecosystem and the reduction of oxygen levels in seas can lead to the formation of “dead zones.”

Ochea added that they also found high levels of suspended solids in two stations where fixed and floating cottages were present. Ochea said suspended solid levels should not exceed 50 mg/L.

One station yielded around 104 mg/L of suspended solids while another yielded 194 mg/L, she said.

Oil and grease

EMB 7 personnel also found high levels of oil and grease, particularly in Bantayan Wharf where the town’s temporary market is located, and in a private resort in Poblacion where some fixed cottages were situated.

According to Ochea, the oil and grease levels in Bantayan Wharf was measured at 8 mg/L while the private resort yielded around 9 mg/L, exceeding the allowable level of 2 mg/L.

Ochea, however, clarified that the high concentration of oil and grease in the area could also be attributed to the roro (roll-on, roll-off) port in Barangay Poblacion.

Fecal contamination

But Ochea said they recommended the suspension of the operation of fixed and floating cottages in the town after all their sampling areas yielded high levels of FCL in two separate testing activities.

Fecal coliform is a group of bacteria that live in the intestines of warm-blooded animals and humans.

Ochea said the presence of FCL in aquatic environments indicates the presence of human and animal waste contamination which can cause intestinal illnesses that are harmful to humans such as Esherichia coli (E. coli) contamination.

Most of their sampling areas, including those with fixed and floating cottages, yielded FCL levels that exceeded the standard level of 100 most probable number (mpn) per 100 milliliters, Ochea said.

In July or during their first testing, Station 1 recorded 170 mpn, Station 2 had 240 mpn, Station 5 had 790 mpn. The highest recorded FCL on the first sampling event was at Station 6, which had 1,300 mpn.

On Aug. 10, Ochea said that on the second sampling event, two parameters exceeded the allowable levels. Station 6 and Station 7 exceeded oil and grease levels with 3.0 mg/L and 9.0 mg/L, respectively.

Several testing stations in the two barangays also exceeded the FCL level including Station 2 (2,400 mpn), Station 3 (790 mpn), Station 4 (490 mpn), Station 5 (330 mpn), Station 6 (790 mpn), and Station 7 (240 mpn).

During their second testing activity, only one station, which was located away from the coast, passed all testing parameters, Ochea said.

Due to the high levels of FCL they found in areas where fixed and floating cottages were located, the EMB 7 recommended to Mayor Suan to stop their operations to prevent further contamination.

“We should stop what is possibly generating the waste that is increasing the fecal coliform level,” Ochea said in Cebuano.

“A waste management facility should be installed, like a catchment in our CR (comfort rooms), and it should be determined where that waste will be brought so as not to contaminate our seas,” she said.

Beginnings

Barangay officials of Catarman and Poblacion, where most of the fixed and floating cottages were found, told SunStar Cebu that the industry began sometime in 2020 when the town’s coronavirus disease (Covid-19) restrictions were slowly loosened to make way for the revival of local tourism activities.

The number of fixed and floating cottages was not large then. But their numbers suddenly grew uncontrollably after Typhoon Odette (Rai).

Aro said based on their records, 43 registered fixed and floating cottages operate in Catarman.

In Barangay Poblacion, Basiliote said around 29 cottages are registered.

The two barangays required operators to secure construction permits and business clearances from the barangay in order for them to operate.

Fees

Basiliote said he charges every floating cottage operator in Poblacion P550 for the construction permit and P1,000 for the business clearance, which is valid for a year.

In Catarman, floating cottage operators are required to secure only a barangay clearance for P1,000, which is also valid for a year, Aro said.

Both officials said only residents of the town were given priority to build and operate fixed and floating cottages in their barangays.

However, they admitted that some cottages were reportedly operated by outsiders but managed by townsfolk.

Aro and Basiliote said the earnings from the floating cottages go to their barangays.

However, both officials disclosed that a member of the Cordova municipal council filed a proposed ordinance to regulate the establishment of fixed and floating cottages in the town, including charging operators fees that would be paid to the municipal government. The proposal, drafted by former Cordova town councilors Samuel Sumagang and Jonathan Gairanod, was not approved as it was filed during the 2022 election season.

With the proposed ordinance not enacted, the two barangays kept what they earned from the fixed and floating cottages.

Boon and bane

While the cottages were a boon to operators, the host barangays and other groups in the area, they also created a host of problems that eventually led to their temporary closure on Aug. 29.

On July 5, 2022, or just five days after assuming office, Suan issued EO 1 prohibiting the construction of illegal structures such as floating cottages along the town’s legal easements and within coastal areas.

The municipal government under then mayor Mary Therese “Teche” Sitoy-Cho had received a letter from the DENR dated Jan. 9, concerning the floating cottages that had been operating along the coast of Barangays Poblacion and Catarman, which were considered “no-build zones.”

Suan said that aside from being illegally constructed along easements, majority of the floating and fixed cottages in the two barangays were built without any permit or clearance from the municipal government.

In his EO, Suan ordered Aro and Basiliote to cease issuing permits or clearances to individuals operating floating cottages within their barangays.

Aside from easement and permitting issues, the cottages were also found to have contributed to the high rate of pollutants found in Cordova’s coasts.

Upon receiving the EMB’s recommendation, Suan immediately issued orders to suspend the operations of fixed and floating cottages in his town.

Regulation needed

Before the Provincial Government stepped in, Suan told SunStar in an interview last Aug. 24, that when he first started his term last July, the floating and fixed cottages were already in operation.

However, he observed their uncontrollable growth amid concerns on their solid and liquid waste management and environmental effects on the town.

“When I examine all the resolutions and the executive orders, we do not have an existing policy regarding the floating cottages, meaning they were just allowed to put their floating cottages. Maybe from the barangay, they secured a barangay clearance and barangay permit. But on the side of the municipal government, there are no executive orders or resolutions allowing them,” Suan said.

During their stakeholders’ meeting on Aug. 17, Garcia reprimanded the cottage operators for refusing to heed Suan’s EO. The governor said the town’s personnel could not implement the EO as they sought to avoid trouble with the operators, some of whom were reportedly armed.

In his report during the stakeholder’s meeting with the governor and concerned government agencies, Suan said there were 103 floating cottages and more than 300 fixed cottages.

Suan said the current positioning of the town’s fixed cottages were not only unregulated but some of them were reportedly built near mangrove areas.

He added that most of the fixed cottages had no toilets or washroom areas. Guests who want to relieve themselves are forced to return inland via pump boat just to use the public restroom.

However, some visitors washed their utensils and cookware in the seawater near their fixed cottage, Suan said.

Suan said there was no proper procedure for the fixed cottage operators to handle and dispose of the accumulated solid and liquid waste.

Suan admitted that EO 1 was not strictly implemented. He claimed that operators of the cottages in the two barangays ignored his order. This prompted him to seek the Cebu governor’s help.

In her EO 25 issued on Aug. 28, 2022, Governor Garcia ordered all floating and fixed cottage operators to stop operating their cottages in the coastal waters of Cordova on Aug. 29.

Garcia directed the Philippine National Police (PNP), particularly the PNP Maritime Group, the Philippine Coast Guard, the Philippine Navy, and the Maritime Industry Authority to implement her EO.

Aside from this, Garcia insisted that floating and fixed cottages be anchored in place before and at the start of the temporary closure.

She added that fixed and floating cottage operators must no longer construct new structures or even transport their existing cottages to new areas.

If operators wish to visit their cottages, they must secure permission from the municipality and be escorted by the authorities, she added.

The governor issued the order to give way for the rehabilitation and development of the coastal and tourism sector of the town.

Garcia described the fixed and floating cottages as “illegal structures” and “an environmental disaster in the making” for the pollution they were causing.

Why was it allowed?

For an official of non-government environmental arm Oceana Philippines, the fixed and floating cottages in Cordova should not have been allowed to operate in the first place.

Lawyer Gloria Estenzo-Ramos, Oceana Philippines’ vice president, told SunStar Cebu that when she heard about Garcia’s order to stop the operations of floating and fixed cottages in Cordova, the first thing that came to her mind was why they were allowed to operate to begin with.

“Under our laws, when it comes to ecologically critical areas such as fisheries and our ocean, there must be a thorough and very rigid assessment of impact of such project on our fishery and in our habitat. Was this done before? Why was such a project allowed?” Ramos said.

With the plan to regulate the floating cottages and the ongoing planning for the rehabilitation and development of the coastal areas of Barangay Catarman and Poblacion, Ramos suggested tapping the services of independent experts to look into the environmental impact of such project.

“The fact that there’s (fecal) coliform means the impact of humans on the discharges and all is very high,” Ramos said.

She also called on the government and other agencies to fully implement all the environmental laws, particularly Republic Act 10654 or the amended Philippine Fisheries Code.

Ramos said there should be no displacement of fisherfolk, with 50 meters from the coastline reserved for fishing under the municipal waters.

Livelihood affected

But while Garcia and Suan pursue the rehabilitation of Cordova’s coast, cottage operators, pump boat operators who make a living transporting tourists to the cottages, and other stakeholders now worry about how to earn a living.

Lester Aro, who worked as a lifeguard for floating cottages in Catarman, told SunStar that the temporary closure had affected his income.

As a lifeguard, Aro earned P500 per day looking out for the safety of guests and keeping their cottages clean after use.

Ethel Amit, a motorcycle parking attendant assigned at the Bantayan Wharf, said she and two other attendants earned P500 to P800 a day just before the temporary closure.

With the closure, Aro and Amit are having a hard time finding alternative means of livelihood.

Aro said he decided to return to working as a porter at the Pasil Fish Port in Cebu City. However, his current pay of P350 a day is not enough to feed his family of four.

Amit returned to making dried fish to feed her family, but Amit now earns only P50 – P100 per day from making dried fish.

Both of them and their fellow lifeguards, pump boat operators, parking attendants, market vendors, and even tricycle and trisikad drivers who previously ferried tourists from the town proper to Barangays Catarman and Poblacion lost an opportunity to earn more than they usually do.

They hope the government will fast-track the rehabilitation and development in the area so they can return to their livelihood.

Investments in limbo

The cottage operators also expressed worry about their income.

Even before Aug. 29, floating cottage operator Mabel Daro said, some of their guests had already canceled their reservations after Garcia announced 12 days earlier the temporary closure of Cordova’s coast for rehabilitation.

She said some cottage operators had yet to recover their investments in building their cottages.

Daro said the construction cost depends on the size of the cottage and additional features such as constructing an upper deck, a grilling and cooking station, a swimming pool and restrooms.

According to Daro, building a floating cottage from scratch costs from P150,000 to almost half a million pesos.

Almost two weeks since the temporary closure of their cottages, operators and owners who spoke to SunStar Cebu still have no idea what the future holds for their industry and cottages.

Both Daro and Ramirez said the government has not yet told them how long it will take to complete the rehabilitation process.

Daro said the affected cottage operators had not received any aid from either the municipal or provincial government.

Ramirez feared that with the “habagat” or the monsoon season now in their midst, a storm hitting Cebu could heavily damage his cottages, which are now unreachable to him after the governor stepped into the issue.