Long-delayed Manila Bay cleanup

HIDDEN AGENDA - Mary Ann LL. Reyes - The Philippine Star

Finally, 11 years after the Supreme Court ordered a comprehensive cleanup of Manila Bay, the government is doing something about it. 

President Duterte wants the waters of Manila Bay rehabilitated to a level fit for swimming as directed by the SC in its 2008 ruling, even as he threatened to close establishments dumping their untreated wastes into the bay.

The High Court initially gave the Executive Branch, led by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), 10 years to rehabilitate the bay, but nothing happened. Another order was issued by the SC on Feb. 15, 2011 mandating the completion of the cleanup by June 30, 2011.  But again nothing happened.  A revised plan was drawn up in 2014 by the previous administration, and guess what? Nothing significant emerged from its so-called “Operational Plan for the Manila Bay Coastal Strategy.” 

 Things are different now.

In Bulacan, the DENR has closed down 41 smelting firms, tanneries, packaging plants and fishponds in the province as part of the cleanup campaign. In the Pasay and Manila areas alone, the Laguna Lake Development Authority (LLDA), which has jurisdiction over Manila Bay, has found out that at least 120 establishments are without sewage treatment plants and are dumping wastewater directly into the bay. 

No wonder that environment lawyer Tony Oposa,  who was among the original petitioners in the complaint compelling the government to clean up Manila Bay, described the bay as an “unflushed toilet bowl.”

The coliform level in Manila Bay tests as high as 330 million most probable number per 100 milliliters. President Duterte wants   to bring this down to at least 100 MPN per 100 ml, which is fit for swimming, skin diving, and other forms of contact recreation activities. 

There are those who blame the two water concessionaires, Manila Water Co. and Maynilad, for supposedly turning Manila Bay into a giant septic tank without even bothering to check the facts.

Maynilad, for one, has 20 ISO-certified operational wastewater facilities with a combined capacity to treat 542,000 cubic meters per day (CMD). The company also offers  services to desludge septic tanks in residential households  in areas not yet covered by the sewerage network to help prevent clogging and leaks, and to ease the discharge process. Its  septage treatment facilities treat the sludge collected for conversion to fertilizer.

 Maynilad collects and treats wastewater  to meet the  effluent quality standards of the DENR before being released to water bodies.  

 Meanwhile, Manila Water offers desludging services and  has several sewage treatment plants to ensure that wastewater from its customers are treated and cleaned in compliance with DENR effluent quality standards before being discharged back into Metro Manila’s waterways.   

Since 2007, or a year before the Supreme Court issued the cleanup order, Maynilad has already invested P23.3 billion in wastewater treatment projects to service its customers in Metro Manila’s west zone. 

 Maynilad is on track to completing 100 percent sewerage coverage for the west zone by the end of its 25-year concession in 2037. It has so far completed 20 percent, a significant improvement from six percent in 2006 before Maynilad’s re-privatization. 

More likely, Maynilad, and perhaps even Manila Water, is spending more for wastewater treatment projects than they are collecting in environmental fees from customers, considering that increasing sewerage coverage by one percent alone requires an investment of at least P1.6 billion. 

Maynilad just recently inaugurated its P1.7 billion Parañaque Water Reclamation Facility, which is its 22nd wastewater treatment facility. Last year, it  inaugurated a sewage treatment plant in Pasay. Maynilad continues to build new sewage treatment plants (STPs) in Valenzuela City, Cavite City, and at Barangays Tunasan and Cupang in Muntinlupa City. 

No less than Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) administrator Reynaldo Velasco has lauded the completion of the Parañaque facility, which is Maynilad’s largest in terms of sewage processing capacity, saying the success story of the Maynilad Water Reclamation Facility completion and the 92 percent compliance rate of Parañaque City to sewer connectivity, including its firm resolve to clear more than 5,000 out of the 8,000 informal settlers living along esteros and rivers in the city should now become the template for all other local government units covered by our concessionaires.

According to Maynilad president and CEO Ramoncito Fernandez, the company intends to invest P26.4 billion in the next five years to build new STPs and lay sewer lines in the cities of Caloocan, Las Piñas and Muntinlupa, and in Kawit, Cavite. This year alone, Maynilad will shell out about P11.4 billion for wastewater treatment projects. 

Once the new and planned facilities are completed in 2020,  Maynilad’s sewerage coverage will increase  to 26 percent. 

Maynilad has announced it will set aside P100 billion as capital expenditures from 2017 to 2022. Of this amount,  roughly P40 billion will be invested in wastewater plant and conveyance, according to Fernandez. 

It is wrong to say that the environmental charge reflected in our water bills, as claimed by one lawmaker, is not being used by the water concessionaires for sewerage projects.  Officials have explained that the fee is not allocated for a specific sewerage or environmental protection project, but rather form part of the overall tariff intended to reimburse Maynilad for its expenditures, whether for water service or wastewater treatment.  

Saving Manila Bay does not only involve building STPs. It requires implementation and enforcement of solid waste management plans, resettlement of informal settlers and removal of illegal structures, greening projects and restoration of mangrove areas,  among other tasks. 

Aside from Metro Manila, effluents from as far as Central and South Luzon all end up in Manila Bay. Hence, the rehabilitation of the bay is not as simple as it looks, as some politicians would want the public to believe.

Distinguished Bedans

Lawyer Mike Toledo was chosen as one of the Distinguished Bedans for 2019. All the awardees were honored in ceremonies held during the Red and White Ball at the Manila Hotel. As of this writing, President Duterte and other government officials (appointed and elected), were expected to grace the occasion. Toledo is senior vice president for public and regulatory affairs of Philex Mining Corp. He is also the United Kingdom education ambassador to the Philippines and president of the Chevening Alumni Association. The Red and White Ball is an annual event by the San Beda College Alumni Association. This year’s celebration also marks the first founding anniversary of San Beda University.

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