Mission Possible?
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - February 1, 2019 - 12:00am

Is your house connected to a septage treatment plant?

I’m guessing that a common reaction is the same as mine: what on Earth is a septage treatment plant?

It’s what the water concessionaires have in Metro Manila for treating sludge that usually goes to a septic tank. The tank can be connected to the septic and sewage treatment plants operated by Manila Water and Maynilad. Is the septic tank in your home connected? Really, who knows?

All my life, spent entirely in Metro Manila, I’ve always thought that in any of the houses where I’ve lived, if the taps, showers, toilets and drainage are working just fine, it means the water and sewerage pipes are connected to whatever they’re supposed to be connected, through a network provided for a fee by the government and, later, by private water concessionaires.

In many areas, the facilities and services provided by what used to be called the National Waterworks and Sewerage Authority or NAWASA, now the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System or MWSS, were clearly inadequate. Toilets would get clogged periodically and wouldn’t flush; you’d prefer the eternal fires of hell to a “comfort room” where you need to use a plunger to clean up each time you relieve yourself.

Then as now, you drank water straight from the tap at your own risk. In Parañaque and farther south, there was no modern water system to speak of. The drinking water, extracted from deep wells and occasionally boiled, had a distinctive taste that was unpleasant to those used to the treated water in the more developed cities and towns.

Water supply was rationed in these areas, for a few hours every other day. Almost every household and business establishment had its own septic tank.

When the MWSS turned over water treatment and distribution to winning bidders Maynilad and Manila Water in 1997 under a 25-year concession agreement, the two private groups had to replace old pipes and install new ones in large areas still not serviced by the MWSS, particularly in the western sector.

Along with the water pipes, the concessionaires also installed sewage treatment facilities. But how many households and establishments are connected to this system?

Only about 20 percent of the entire Metro Manila, according to Patrick Ty, chief regulator of the MWSS. Much of the sewage ends up in waterways, which are also dumping grounds for solid garbage and industrial effluvia.

Most of that sludge, toxic waste and solid garbage eventually wash out into Manila Bay.

Boracay was a cesspool? If President Duterte walks along Manila’s Baywalk after a typhoon, he will need to coin a new word to describe the shoreline filth.

And we are all contributing to it.

*      *      *

In 2008, the Supreme Court ordered 13 government agencies to clean up Manila Bay.

The official reaction to the directive was not surprising: it was considered an infringement into executive functions and largely ignored.

Now that it’s the Chief Executive himself who has ordered the cleanup of Manila Bay – said to be 10 times worse than Boracay in its cesspool days – can this be Mission Possible?

A talk with the MWSS’ Patrick Ty as well as Manila Water and Maynilad officials this week on The Chiefs, on One News / Cignal TV, gave us an idea of the enormity of the task.

The two water concessionaires operate a total of about 60 sewage and septage treatment plants for Metro Manila. Ty, however, said only about 22 percent of the concessionaires’ customers are connected to the wastewater treatment system.

The rest use individual septic tanks, where the sludge seeps into groundwater. Some of the wastewater can enter creeks and other waterways that ultimately drain into Manila Bay.

For the 80 percent of customers who are not connected to the wastewater treatment system, Manila Water and Maynilad offer regular desludging of septic tanks, at no cost, unlike Malabanan.

Only about a third of customers, however, opt for the free service. Maybe this is due to scheduling problems. Or the customers see no need yet for desludging, since the toilets are still flushing easily.

Many people, especially if they are only tenants, also have no idea where the septic tank is located. Maybe if the MWSS or water concessionaires have a device for locating the septic tank, more customers would avail themselves of the free desludging.

My guess is that most people are also clueless on whether a house or building is connected to a wastewater treatment system, believing that all houses, office buildings, schools and similar structures in Metro Manila are required by law upon construction to be connected to all the available water and sewerage networks.

*      *      *

Connecting to septage treatment facilities of the water concessionaires requires infrastructure that involves digging up the ground. The concessionaires have master plans for completing the sewerage and septage treatment systems in their respective service areas.

Both concessionaires, however, are behind in their installation schedules. They told The Chiefs that local government units are slow in granting the required permits, often because of concerns over traffic to be caused by road diggings.

In the meantime, people still have the septic tanks, where the accumulated sludge can continue seeping into groundwater and esteros that are linked to Manila Bay.

This is just waste from septic tanks. There are also the millions of informal settlers who use waterways and Manila Bay directly as their personal toilet and garbage dump. The garbage littering the streets of Metro Manila indicates that indiscriminate trash disposal is a habit that afflicts even people who are not informal settlers.

There is also sludge, industrial and solid waste from the provinces around the bay – Bataan, Bulacan and Cavite – where many people are still not connected to clean water and sewerage facilities. Around Manila Bay, business establishments must be made to comply with the 2004 Clean Water Act and install wastewater treatment facilities.

In crowded, polluted Metro Manila, providing more trash receptacles, with an efficient system of garbage collection, can encourage an attitude change. An area littered with trash tends to encourage more littering; the opposite happens when one is in a clean environment.

Political will can jumpstart the cleanup of Manila Bay. But its success and sustainability can only be possible if everyone is on board, and if there’s a sea change in the people’s mindset.

*      *      *

STILL, WANG-WANG: The VIP “anak ng Diyos” or children of God in this country no longer use blinkers and sirens or wang-wang in their private or service cars. Instead they use police cars to part the traffic for them. Like the black Mitsubishi Montero with license plates (or conduction sticker?) B1 1749, which drove along Jupiter street in Makati at 3:20 p.m. yesterday, with a police patrol car, wang-wang wailing and blinker on, leading the way. In this country, there will always be some who are more equal than others.

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