FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - January 31, 2019 - 12:00am

Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu proudly announced, after the cleanup of Manila Bay commenced the last weekend, that the waters would be “swimmable” by yearend. I nearly fell off my seat.

Coliform levels at the bay are 4,000 times above acceptable standards. Dirty water from the waterways of our dirty megalopolis flows into the bay around the clock. Hundreds of thousands of informal settlers, commercial establishments and factories dump trash every day. Mega-Manila, after a century, remains without an effective sewerage treatment facility capable of returning only clean water to the bay.

There are a thousand parts in the solution to the cesspool that Manila Bay has become. Cimatu, it seems, has yet to wrap his mind around the immensity of the problem. It will not be enough to just send in a few hundred “volunteers” and expect the bay to be swimmable.

True, Cimatu and his multi-agency team have done a good job cleaning up the cesspool that Boracay had become. But cleaning up Boracay is a piece of cake compared to the huge task to bringing Manila Bay to life. The small tourist island could be shut down, a sewerage system installed and everything tightly policed. We cannot shut down the entire metropolis until Manila Bay is cleaned up.

The first task to cleaning up the bay is to clean up Laguna de Bay, itself as dirty. We had the chance a few years ago to begin doing this. After two years of hard negotiations, the Belgian government agreed to finance the dredging of Laguna de Bay. A full 30 percent of the cost came in the form of grants. The rest came in the form of truly soft loans.

But former president Noynoy Aquino screwed this up. Without even reading the contract, negotiated during the Macapagal-Arroyo years, he trashed it. The Belgian contractor signed for the project sued in the international arbitration court and won. Now we pay the contractor billions in damages and still miss the opportunity to clean up the lake.

We cannot clean up the bay without cleaning up all the waterways draining into it. That is a million times more difficult than just having some volunteers rake up trash on the shoreline. Unless the Pasig River and all the esteros become clean enough to host marine life in them, the Bay cannot be cleaned. This will take many years and a lot of unwavering persistence.

Water treatment

Rep. Lito Atienza, of the pro-life and pro-environment Buhay Party-list, is a walking compendium about what ails the bay. In his previous incarnations as mayor of the City of Manila and DENR Secretary, he has been trying to get Manila Bay cleaned.

When he served as DENR Secretary, Atienza was dragged to the Supreme Court by a network of environmental groups seeking a continuing mandamus against the national government to force the latter to clean up the bay. He surprised both the court and the petitioners by siding with the petition.

Part of the continuing mandamus was the imposition of a fine of P100,000 per day against the two water concessionaires until they treat the water drained into the bay. No one has tried collecting that fine to this day.

For decades, when government controlled water distribution in the metropolis, it failed to build a water treatment facility. When water distribution was privatized in 1998, the contract called for the two concessionaires to treat sewerage.

The concession contracts are due to expire in 2022. Manila Water has submitted a plan for the treatment of sewerage that will be completed in 2037. Maynilad, when the Lopezes controlled it, volunteered to purchase trucks that would suck up the muck from septic tanks without any indication about where the waste will be drained.

Meanwhile, both concessionaries charge consumers an “environmental charge” every month. This is now the time to ask the concessionaires, who took out hefty loans with sovereign guarantees, what they have done with the “environmental charges.” This is material to the effort to clean up Manila Bay.

We are eons away from the manner Singapore has invested in treating its water. Before finally being discharged into the sea, Singapore’s treats the water until it is completely potable.

Political will

Nevertheless, Atienza believes that only Rodrigo Duterte can possibly begin cleaning up the bay. No one else has the commitment, the mindset and the political will to get this historic cleanup going.

To really get this complex task of cleaning up the bay going, Atienza proposes that the President call the water concessionaires to the carpet and order them to build sewerage treatment facilities or face non-renewal of their lucrative contracts. Only Duterte can force the oligarchs to meet their obligations to the public.

It is bad enough that the Mega Manila area, with its teeming millions, has no suitable sanitary landfill for its trash. It is worse that, in addition, we have no sewerage treatment facilities. Somewhere along the Navotas shoreline, garbage is being dumped in some badly designed landfill that contributes to polluting the bay.

We have to solve the problem of proper waste disposal if we are to begin cleaning up the bay. There is yet no solution at hand.

We cannot talk about cleaning up the bay in blissful isolation. We have to address all the parts of the problem simultaneously.

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