How to rehab Manila Bay — earth lawyer Oposa

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc - The Philippine Star

Twenty years ago this month a band of law students and conscientious citizens filed an ambitious lawsuit to make the government clean up Manila Bay. At the time, Jan. 1999, people already were complaining about the stench, litter, and color of the water.

For water to be swimmable, bacteria level must be no more than 100 units per cubic meter, says environment lawyer Tony Oposa. Yet Manila Bay bacteria back then was already an alarming one million units per cubic meter.

Ten years and many case twists later, the Supreme Court granted their prayer. Not only were the authorities ordered to clean up the bay but also to report quarterly their progress. Covered by that continuing mandamus of Dec. 2008 were the Depts. of Environment and Natural Resources, Interior and Local Government, Health, Budget and Management, Public Works and Highways, Education, Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, PNP-Maritime Command, Coast Guard, Ports Authority, Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System, Local Water Utilities Administration, Laguna Lake Development Authority, Metro Manila Development Authority, and the mayors, governors, and chairmen of cities, towns, provinces, and barangays fronting the bay. Included too were officials of locales through which rivers and streams flow and empty into it.

(Oposa led that victorious petition. Ironically it had to take a Visayan like him to work for Manila Bay’s revitalization.)

Given the breadth and depth of the Supreme Court ruling, one would expect a turnaround. At last the Solid Waste Management Act, Clean Water Act, and other environment and sanitation laws would be enforced. But in the Philippines, Oposa laments, the law is only a suggestion. Successive agency heads ignored the Supreme Court order. Not one has been punished for it.

Today, after another ten years of no cleanup, Manila Bay’s bacterial level is 330 million units per cubic meter. Oposa calls it an unflushed toilet bowl.

Rehabilitating the bay seems a formidable task. In complying with President Rodrigo Duterte’s cleanup order, the DENR is starting with a handful of hotels in Manila and Pasay cities fronting the bay. The LLDA adds 204 establishments along the Pasig River. Housing authorities are looking into relocating squatters along the Estero de San Antonio Abad, where coliform is at 1.3 billion parts per liter.

Those are good enough starts. But for the authorities to announce that Manila Bay would be swimmable by Christmas 2019 makes one wonder if the work would be thorough. Tens of thousands of sewage treatment plants need to be set up by subdivisions and buildings, millions of septic tanks need to be dug up in homes, and generations of bad garbage habits need to be changed. For one, the 60-year-old Manila Zoo, with no sewage treatment plant, spews human and animal waste onto the Estero de San Antonio Abad. What more the older government facilities in Mega Manila? Even the poshest new subdivisions straddling Laguna and Cavite eject raw household septage onto Laguna de Bay, part of Manila Bay’s ecosystem.

Oposa suggests three focuses of the rehab: (1) garbage, the most visible dirt, (2) sewage and septage, and (3) squatter relocation.

Heroes of garbage disposal must be recognized, he says. That means residents and subdivisions that practice segregation, composting, and recycling. As well, enforcers of separation of wet and dry wastes, and operators of materials recovery facilities.

The objective is obvious: emulation and education. The authorities can then pick out the stubborn for punishment.

Sewage and septage are basically the duty of the MWSS, Oposa says. It regulates the two water concessionaires, Manila Water Co. and Maynilad Water Resources. Since 1997 both have been collecting sewerage fee along with customers’ monthly bills. Those fees are supposed to be used to set up sewage treatment plants, so that only clean water flows into the Manila Bay. Oposa says they should be asked why the bacteria levels still rose from one million to 330 million units. Not one to just complain, Oposa also designed an inexpensive septage system – mini-wetlands, he calls them – applicable for homes and subdivisions.

Relocation is the duty of housing and local government officials. Thousands of hectares of government lands remain idle. Those can be used for in-city tenement housing with proper parks and sewerage.

The authorities would do well to consult Oposa on the Manila Bay rehab. He conceived the idea two decades ago, won the historic court ruling, and has expert contacts worldwide to help in the various aspects of the endeavor. Oposa is a national treasure.

* * *

Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8-10 a.m., DWIZ (882-AM).

Gotcha archives on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Jarius-Bondoc/1376602159218459, or The STAR website https://beta.philstar.com/columns/134276/gotcha

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