A ticking time bomb

HIDDEN AGENDA - The Philippine Star

Indeed, economic development and prosperity can be a two-edged sword.

Just take a look at Boracay. It may be one of the richest places in the country, but it is also one of the most abused.

Unplanned and misguided development of this island, a top tourist destination with its calm waters and beaches with powdery white sand, has led to its environmental degradation. In fact, latest studies have shown that its waters’ coliform bacteria levels have reached 18,000 MPN (most probable number) per 100 ml, exceeding the standard level of 400 MPN per 100 ml. Of its nine wetland areas, only four remain unoccupied. One report even quoted Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu as saying that only two of the nine wetlands were unoccupied by people.

Meanwhile, most of its forest lands which are not supposed to be open for exploitation is already gone.

Then of course, we have establishments that do not follow the 25 meters plus five meters mandatory salvage or easement zone between the buildings and the shore, measured from the high tide mark. If this easement were to be followed strictly, most of the beach resorts and structures in Boracay, including D’Mall which is the commercial and shopping center of the island, will have to go.

According to highly placed sources, President Duterte, who has expressed alarm over the wanton destruction of Boracay Island and its waters, will declare a state of calamity in the island anytime this week. Establishments will probably be given a month or two to comply with the easement requirement, which means that they will have to voluntarily tear down their structures if needed, and to adopt proper sewage and water treatment measures.

After this one-month respite or honeymoon period, the President may order the closure of Boracay for six months to one year. Those who do not voluntarily comply with the “25 plus 5” easement requirement will find themselves at the mercy of government people destroying everything within this easement area – and I mean everything.

For those who have located their establishments in wetlands and forest areas, considered environmentally critical areas that are not open to development, they will have to totally remove their structures. And that includes D’Mall.

Media reports say that the owner of Boracay West Cove Resort has volunteered to demolish structures that he had built on top of natural rock formations and those not covered by a lease agreement with the government. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources had previously allowed West Cove to temporarily use, occupy and develop 998 square meters of forest land for tourism purposes for a period of 25 years, renewable for another 25 years, but in 2014, DENR cancelled its agreement with West Cove after the latter built permanent structures outside the allowed area.

Then of course, there is this sewage problem. Untreated waste water is being flushed into the sea. Many establishments in Boracay are not connected to Boracay Island Water Co. (a joint venture between Ayala-led Manila Water Co. subsidiary Manila Water Philippine Ventures and TIEZA)’s sewage treatment plant, or have not installed their own wastewater treatment facilities, as a result of which untreated sewage is being discharged directly to the sea. No less than the President has called the island a sewer pool because of this.

Cimatu has been quoted as saying that only 50 to 60 percent of Boracay establishments comply with the Clean Water Act which requires establishments and houses to dispose their septic wastes to treatment facilities.

Unfortunately, Manila Water’s current sewerage treatment capacity could not accommodate everyone. We’ve heard that DENR is planning to sue the Ayala company for allegedly discharging untreated wastewater itself.

No doubt, the temporary closure of Boracay will affect tourism arrivals. In an interview with Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo, she told this writer that from the all-time high level of 6.6 million tourist arrivals last year, they were targeting eight million foreign tourist arrivals this year. But achieving this ambitious target might prove difficult given that Boracay is a top tourist destination.

To minimize the adverse impact of the planned closure of Boracay to tourism, the Department of Tourism has requested airline companies, including Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific, to allow those who have already booked flights to Boracay to cancel or rebook without fine or penalty. These airline companies were also asked to just divert their Boracay-bound flights to other tourist destinations in the country.

Once all the illegal structures are gone, plans are to possibly adopt a masterplan prepared for the DOT by top urban planner, architect Felino Palafox. Some of its features are a boardwalk and and a tram that will go around the island, which means that all other modes of transportation presently being used such as habal-habal and tricycles will be phased out.

And then there is also a plan to propose the creation of the Boracay Development Authority, similar to Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority or the Clark Development Authority. The Boracay Development Authority will be manage not only the P75 environmental fee collected from each visitor to Boracay and will manage the entire island, which used to be at the mercy of local government officials who have found themselves pointing accusing fingers at each other for the destruction of the island.

It has been reported that over the past 10 years, over P1 billion in environmental fees have been collected from tourists, but the local government could not seem to account for its disposition.

Teo said that it would be useless to be doing all this rehabilitation work for Boracay if it will be once again left to the local government.

No doubt, this government is serious about bringing back the lost glory of Boracay. Duterte has even warned government officials who will oppose or get in the way that they will be sued.

The DOT can only do so much to sell Philippine tourism to the world. Other players should do their part. Who would want to swim in a cesspool anyway?

For comments, e-mail at mareyes@philstarmedia.com

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