DENR to review all Manila Bay reclamation projects

Bella Cariaso - The Philippine Star
DENR to review all Manila Bay reclamation projects
This picture shows a barge unloading sand at a reclamation site in Manila Bay on March 14, 2023.
AFP / Ted Aljibe

MANILA, Philippines — The Department of Environment and Natural Resources will form a team to review all ongoing reclamation activities amid the controversy regarding the involvement of a Chinese company in a Manila Bay project, DENR Secretary Maria Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga said yesterday.

At a press conference, Loyzaga said the composition of the team would be announced soon.

“The public will be updated when the team is formed,” Loyzaga said, adding that the DENR would also tap foreign experts to assist the panel in conducting the review.

The United States embassy in Manila earlier raised with the Philippine government its concerns over ongoing reclamation projects in Manila Bay and the project’s ties with a Chinese firm blacklisted by the US for helping Beijing construct and militarize artificial islands in the South China Sea.

The embassy also expressed concern over the environmental impact of reclamation projects in Manila Bay, which are feared to aggravate flooding in Metro Manila and the nearby provinces of Bulacan, Cavite and Pampanga.

“The law allows us to review and to modify (contracts of reclamation projects) so we are looking at those carefully. This is the entire set of projects,” Loyzaga said, noting the panel will come up with recommendations on various reclamation projects.

“Until we get a very good sense of what scientifically is going to happen in this area and until we can get a good sense of how the rule of law can be followed in this area, we want to proceed with much caution,” she said.

According to Loyzaga, the reclamation is a national policy amid opposition to the ongoing projects. “Each region has specific context and requirements as well as their own ecological and social profile. The government aspect of reclamation needs to be studied, and the national as well as the regional components of the policy need to be carefully put together,” she said.

Loyzaga cited Executive Order 74 which directs the DENR to conduct a cumulative impact assessment on all reclamation projects.

“What has happened here is that individual projects were somehow processed without taking into consideration the cumulative impact of all the projects together. This is actually critical for future use,” she said.

At the same time, Loyzaga added that the mandamus issued by the Supreme Court ordered 13 agencies, including the DENR, to ensure that Manila Bay is rehabilitated “to the point that people can actually swim in it.”

“What we were not able to do at this point is implement that order and also make sure that all of these other developments will take place because the permits were processed. There is ecological concern, socio concern, obviously regulatory concern because of the mandamus order and we do need to balance all of these now into a set of recommendations,” she said.

For its part, the Department of Foreign Affairs said it is “fully committed” to working with relevant government agencies to ensure the “safety and well-being” of diplomatic missions accredited to the Philippines following concerns raised by the US embassy on the Manila Bay reclamation projects.

Waterfront compliance

The Waterfront Manila Premier Development Inc. (WMPDI) – proponent of the 318-hectare Manila Waterfront City Reclamation Project – on Friday maintained that the company has complied with the requirements of the DENR after the US embassy in Manila raised concerns over the project.

The WMPDI also denied that the Chinese firm involved in the reclamation project was blacklisted for helping Beijing construct and militarize artificial islands in the South China Sea.

“As for the recent issue on national security, the project has complied with the requirements of the DENR to make sure of the safe passage of vessels and that the distance of the project from the US embassy will not impede the natural flow of water, and security protocol, as necessary,” the WMPDI said in a statement.

US embassy spokesman Kanishka Gangopadhyay has said the embassy is concerned with the impact the project will have on the environment as well the involvement of China Communications Construction Co. (CCCC), which the World Bank and Asian Development Bank said engaged in fraudulent business practices.

“As to the issue of the eligibility of the project’s EPC Contractor, China First Highway Engineering Corp. (CFHEC) is not backlisted by the World Bank. CCCC is a separate juridical entity from CFHEC. Moreover, the project is not funded by the World Bank but by the private proponent/developer, Waterfront Manila and at no cost to the government. In fact, the national government will get 51 percent share of the reclaimed land once the project is completed,” it added.

The WMPDI added that the initial concerns of the US embassy, which were communicated to the City of Manila, pertained only to the flooding in August 2022 and possible heavy traffic in the area.

It also maintained that the Manila city government and Waterfront Manila are compliant with all the requirements of the Philippine Reclamation Authority (PRA), including the payment to the government of regulatory fees of about P800 million.

It added that the project has been given a Notice to Proceed and Notice to Mobilize and Notice to Commence Actual Reclamation Works by the PRA.

“Several government offices interposed no objection to the project. The Environmental Compliance Certificate was issued by the DENR. The project was studied and master-planned by AECOM, a US-based company. The project involves billions of dollars worth of investment that is expected to immediately spur economic activities across business sectors,” the MWPDI said.

The MWPDI stressed that the project cannot be the cause of flooding within the US embassy area as it did not commence reclamation works last August 2022.

Halt reclamation

Environmental group Oceana on Friday urged Loyzaga to halt all Manila Bay reclamation projects while the cumulative impact assessment is ongoing.

“Time is of the essence. The DENR cannot be reviewing all these projects without exercising precaution. It is clear that these projects have already started, and resulted in an alarming degradation of the environment destroying the mangroves, denying fisherfolk their fishing livelihood and sources of food and the destruction of seagrass and the seabed by dredging. This is simply unjust and unacceptable,” Oceana acting vice president Rose Liza Eisma-Osorio said.

Pamalakaya chairman Fernando Hicap, meanwhile, said DENR should stop reclamation activities in Manila until proponents can scientifically prove their projects have not aggravated the flood hazards in coastal areas.

“We are certain that these reclamation projects worsened the flooding in the northern part of Manila Bay, as this has been established by geological experts before,” Hicap said in a statement.

He noted that geologist Kelvin Rodolfo had already raised the geophysical hazards of reclamation projects in Manila Bay, which are in danger of land subsidence, storm surge and strong waves caused by typhoons, and seismically induced liquefaction. — Emmanuel Tupas

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