Manila Bay rehab: The challenge of cleaning up the nation's waste

AT A GLANCE

Part 1 of 2

CAVITE, Philippines – On the southwest part of Manila Bay, stilt houses made of wood stand strong on murky waters.

"Dito na 'ko nagkaisip (I've lived here for as long as I can remember)," Niña Balmes, 27, told Rappler. "Simula palang noong pinanganak ako, dito na kami (My family has been here ever since I was born)."

Balmes is among the hundreds of informal settler families living in houses on stilts in Talaba II in the city of Bacoor, Cavite.

The community and a strong stench serve as unofficial welcome marker to the province, where the Manila-Cavite Expressway ends.

Balmes and her family live directly atop the water, with the base of their house already solidified, thanks to sediments mixed with litter and human excrement.

She said they're used to the smell, having lived there all their lives. Balmes described this as "normal."

"Karamihan dito may butas lang. Diretso na. Bihira lang dito 'yung may septic tank. 'Yung iba, may drum na 'tas ididispose din nila diyan din sa baba," she said.

(Most of the houses here only have holes through which they urinate and defecate. It's very rare for residents here to have a septic tank. The others have a drum [to collect the waste] but they eventually dispose of it down below.)

Fortunately, they were never flooded with the polluted waters beneath their home. Balmes said the tide has never gotten high except when it rains. That has been the case ever since the Cavite Expressway was built across their home, she added.

Cleaning up Manila Bay

Years ago Manila Bay's waters were pristine. Experts attributed its slow death to rapid urbanization.

But efforts to rehabilitate Manila Bay to its glorified state are not new. In 1999, concerned residents of Manila Bay filed a complaint with a Regional Trial Court in Imus, Cavite to make government agencies accountable for the degradation of its waters.

The legal fight went all the way to Supreme Court, with the High Court issuing a landmark decision in 2008 ordering responsible agencies to clean up and preserve the bay.

After several operational plans, the government still has not succeeded in saving it.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) promised early January that "some areas" of Manila Bay will be suitable for swimming in 6 months to a year. 

DENR Undersecretary Benny Antiporda said that "drastic change" will be felt with the government's clean-up drive. He clarified, however, that it will take 7 years for water quality to meet the department's standards, while full rehabilitation will take 20 years.

Bigger than Boracay

While the government focused on removing piles of trash along Manila Bay's shores when it officially started the clean-up drive, a big chunk of what's needed to be addressed is its water quality.

Officials point to the wide coverage of the Manila Bay watershed as part of the reason for its failure to clean it up.

The entire Manila Bay watershed consists of the bay itself plus an additional 1,994 kilometers of coastline spread across 178 local governments in Metro Manila, Central Luzon, and Calabarzon.

Definitely, the problem is much bigger than Boracay Island, a small island in Western Visayas that faced a 6-month closure to help improve its water quality. (WATCH: Rappler Talk: Cleaning up Manila Bay)

The bay is classified by the DENR as "Class SB." Its intended uses include fisheries – particularly the commercial propagation of shellfish and spawning area for milkfish – ecotourism, and contact recreational activities such as bathing, swimming, and skin diving among others.

To solve its problems, the DENR has set indicators for government agencies to target liquid and solid waste management and relocating informal settler families along the watershed, as well as reviving biodiversity.

Within the watershed, there are 17 major river systems that drain into Manila Bay:

According to the DENR's Environmental Management Bureau (EMB), "water exchange" happens yearly between Manila Bay and the Philippine Sea. Ideally, this is supposed to "clean" Manila Bay naturally, but it is now unable to handle the amount of pollution in its waters.

study showed that about 21% of the organic pollution load on Manila Bay comes from the Pasig River, which has become a channel of domestic waste.

To address this, EMB has designated water quality management plans. But only 6 areas currently have them:

EMB is still crafting management plans for the San Fernando-Angeles River system in Pampanga, Minalen-Sasmuan River system, Labac River, Maragondon River, and Timalan River.

Meanwhile, the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission is focused solely on the rehabilitation of the Pasig River. 

Pollutants

The government monitors the level of fecal coliform in the water, as well as other nutrients in it, to determine its water quality. Coliform level is usually associated with fecal matter discharged into the water.

Data from the Manila Bay Coordinating Office (MBCO) showed that all monitoring stations along rivers and bathing beaches failed the allowed fecal coliform level, which is at 100 most probable number (MPN) per 100 ml, or 100 MPN/100 ml.

This means that Manila Bay is not swimmable at all. (LOOK: Which part of Manila Bay is swimmable?)

The stations registered coliform levels by the thousands, if not a million, in 2018. The worst of them all was at San Antonio de Abad in Malate, Manila, which registered 3.98 billion MPN/100 ml.

It's followed by Balut and Vitas in Tondo, Manila, with a record of 2.44 billion MPN and 1.36 billion MPN, respectively.

The lowest fecal coliform level among the stations can be found at the Mattel and Villa Carmen monitoring stations in Limay, Bataan, with only 761 MPN and 976 MPN, respectively.

Still, these are far from the allowed fecal coliform level standards.

But where does this come from? MBCO executive director Donna Gordove told Rappler that informal settlers are not only to blame for the high fecal coliform levels in the bay.

Sewerage systems

Gordove said her "first" assignment to anyone who asks about this is to check whether the sewage from their houses drain into a septic tank.

"Usually, households' water waste go directly to the storm drain because they don't have a septic tank. Storm drains are networks of pipes designed to take away excess water on roads. These eventually drain into bodies of water but they aren't built to treat sewage. That's where the problem starts," Gordove told Rappler.

In its 2018 report, the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) inspected commercial establishments, factories, and households discharging wastes along the shorelines and riverbanks of the Manila Bay watershed.

Of the inspected households, Metro Manila accounted for the most number of those discharging straight to bodies of water. Those connected to water treatment facilities accounted for only 51%, compared to Central Luzon's 88% and Calabarzon's 70%.

Meanwhile, most of the inspected commercial establishments and factories were found to be compliant.

The high non-compliance rate among households can be attributed to low sewerage system coverage, coupled with the hundred thousand informal settlers in the capital region.

To date, combined data from water concessionaires Maynilad and Manila Water show that sewerage coverage in Metro Manila is at 21.91% only.

Presence in the provinces is also too little or none, with only 0.07% of those serviced by Maynilad in Cavite connected to their sewer lines, and only 3.02% in Rizal connected to Manila Water sewerage.

That means households either have their own septic tanks, connected to their villages' wastewater facility, or they don't have any at all.

Water concessionaires are bound by an agreement with the government Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) that full sewerage coverage must be achieved by 2037. But they face acquisition issues, permit delays, and even resistance from village officials.

Maynilad said it has invested over P23 billion to achieve its 22.55% coverage since it started operating in 1997. It said increasing coverage by 1% already amounts to P2 billion in investment.

Manila Water, for its part, will be investing P115 billion until 2037 to reach full coverage. At present, only 15% of its water-serviced population is connected to its water treatment facilities. But the DENR wants to fast-track 100% coverage by 2026. In response, the MWSS said it's "unrealistic."

MWSS Chief Regulator Patrick Ty said that a "shutdown" of Manila is needed to achieve that.

Informal settler families

On top of the sewerage problem, there is still a high number of informal settler families (ISF) that directly discharge waste to bodies of water in the Manila Bay area.

DILG 2018 data shows that Calabarzon has the most number of ISFs at 148,023, beating Metro Manila's 111,789. Central Luzon only has 55,623 ISFs.

Resettlement rate is poor especially in the provinces. DILG attributed this dismal performance to the National Housing Authority, which is on top of the resettlement efforts.

DILG noted that data harmonization still needs to be done with NHA and the local governments, to ensure that all ISFs not part of their database will be accounted for and eventually relocated.

In early February, the Philippine Ports Authority donated 5 hectares of its property in Tondo for 2,000 families that will be displaced in Isla Puting Bato due to the clean-up drive.

Still, the government's relocation plan for ISFs remains unclear.

Good initiative?

Some groups have asked why government is suddenly flexing its muscles in Manila Bay and whether this is related to a possible reclamation project. (READ: Cheat sheet: Manila Bay reclamation)

Others, however, laud the environmental benefits of the long-overdue clean-up drive.

Balmes, like the other ISFs who live in stilt houses in Cavite, said the clean-up is a good initiative, but she wonders whether government will be able to sustain it.

"Tiningnan namin kung ano pang susunod nilang gagawin. 'Yung sumunod na week, mga barangay na 'yung naglinis. Tapos, meron na silang project para pagsasama-samahin daw 'yung dumi sa drum tapos gagawing fertilizer," she said.

(We wonder what they will do next. The following week, staff from barangay came here for the clean-up. And then we were told that they have a project where the excrements in the drums will be combined to make fertilizer.)

Balmes knows fully well that the project will address only the short-term goals of rehabilitation. But she is aware that their days on the edge of Manila Bay are numbered.

"Kaya nila ginagawa 'yan para kahit papaano mabawasan nga 'yung dumi dito. Sa relocation, wala pa raw silang budget. Pero kung nandiyan na 'yan, tanggapin na lang. Siyempre, kami rin naman mapapahamak kung di susunod," she said.

(They're doing that so the waste here will be reduced. But for relocation, they said they still don't have a budget. But when it's there, we really don't have a choice. Of course, we'll be in danger if we don't follow them.)

Still, she hopes that they wouldn't be displaced by the rehabilitation.

"Hangga't maaari sana, ayaw namin umalis dito. Kasi siyempre dito na kami tumira. Dito na kami lumaki. Dito na nagkaroon ng muwang. Pero kung kailangang-kailangan na talaga, eh di sunod na lang," she said.

(As much as possible, we don't want to leave. Of course because this is where we live. This is where we grew up. This is where we gained knowledge. But if it's really needed, we will just follow.) – Rappler.com

Aika Rey

Aika Rey covers the Philippine Senate for Rappler. Before writing about politicians, she covered budget, labor, and transportation issues.

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