‘The sands of time’

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

After arguments over the existence of marine tilapia and the size of sediments that you can inhale, the “white beach” in Manila had its soft opening over the weekend.

Not surprisingly, it was a big hit – judging from the crowds that thronged Roxas Boulevard and waited in line for a chance to spend a few minutes on the dolomite beach and take selfies.

The weekend crowd clearly overwhelmed the Manila police, as images and video posted on social media showed physical distancing flying out the window.

It cost the Ermita police commander his post. He probably thought that since it was a showcase project of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), they would be in charge of crowd management.

There were rumors that the crowds were trucked in, to make the case for the soundness of the “beach nourishment” project. But I passed by the area in the afternoon of Sunday, and the people still waiting in long, snaking lines for their chance to enter the beach looked genuinely excited.

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Having grown up on the wrong side of the tracks in the city of Manila, I must confess that my initial reaction to the report of a “white beach” rising along that half-kilometer stretch of Baywalk was excitement. Waikiki in Manila! A piece of Boracay! I considered it good news for the city where I was born and bred, and which I later left to escape urban blight.

It would certainly be better than the Bayfront smelling like urine and dog poop and the shoreline regularly littered with garbage.

Only later, after talking with an environmental advocate who voiced concerns that have since been raised by other critics, did I have second thoughts, wondering about the environmental impact of the project, the cost and the funding priorities amid the COVID pandemic.

I’m pretty sure those crowds that jostled to enter the beach over the weekend had no such second thoughts; their reaction to the project stopped at excitement.

It’s an indication of an unmet demand in Metro Manila and neighboring congested areas for pleasant open spaces. This demand has been heightened by the pandemic, which has created an aversion to enclosed, air-conditioned public places.

No one knows if this quarantine-induced aversion is going to be permanent, but property developers might want to factor this element into their future designs for commercial and industrial projects.

*      *      *

President Duterte calls the Manila Bay beach project “the sands of time.” Maybe Johnny Mathis’ “Brian’s Song (The Hands of Time)” was playing in his head.

The biggest headache I can see for the government in the beach project is not dolomite pollution of the bay (dolomite, if you google it, is a mineral similar to limestone that develops in the sea), but how to impose a carrying capacity for the small area and limit the crowds.

That crush of people over the weekend was just a prelude. The manmade beach is the only one of its kind in the congested, polluted National Capital Region. The white beaches closest to the NCR are in Nasugbu and Anilao, both in Batangas. And the best beach spots in these areas are private and charge steep fees or are for members only. The Manila Bay beach is free.

For those who thronged the Baywalk beach over the weekend, I doubt if there was a lot of thought put into criticisms that the project is a frivolous extravagance in the time of COVID and endangers the marine environment.

The DENR has explained that funding for the project was approved last year and cannot be realigned for pandemic relief. Fishermen interviewed on TV in the Baseco area ended the argument over the fishkill, explaining that this was a normal occurrence during the rainy season.

In fact their biggest worry, the fishermen said, was not the fishkill, which would end with the ebb and flow of the tides, but the popularity of the white beach. They fret that it could give people ideas about expanding the beach and driving away informal settlers including the fishermen away from the shores of Baseco.

Filipinos who have visited other countries envy the long stretches of public beaches even in key cities. No commercial establishments are allowed to obstruct the shoreline; all such establishments are typically located behind a road that features bike lanes and jogging paths that run parallel to the beach. I’ve mentioned Waikiki in Honolulu, Hawaii, but such public beaches can be found all over the planet. Most are breathtaking: the French and Portuguese Rivieras; Copacabana in Brazil; South Beach in Miami; Cancun in Mexico; the beach in Tel Aviv, Israel.

It may be too late to do this now along Roxas Boulevard and around portions of the bay. We will have to evict commercial establishments, hotels, the Philippine Coast Guard headquarters and the US embassy.

Only that tiny stretch of Baywalk is left to lay out an artificial public beach where people can continue enjoying the magnificent sunset over the bay with an unobstructed view.

Planting mangroves instead would be fine as well, but do we want to blot out the sunset? Manila Bay has the Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area along Coastal Road – a project mainly of Sen. Cynthia Villar. It is open to the public and is now an internationally protected urban wetland.

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Unfortunately, Imelda Marcos soured Filipinos to beautification projects including backyard gardens under her “Green Revolution.” Many Pinoys think beautification projects in a land where millions still wallow in extreme poverty are frivolous.

This is partly why little funding and resources are allocated for maintaining public parks and the few patches of greenery around Metro Manila. The government can’t even sustain the watering of plants along center traffic islands. The plants dry out or become overgrown, and pretty soon some portions become nighttime shelters for the homeless.

Only landscaping maintained by the private sector for mixed-use properties are properly cared for.

The “sands of time” has been described as an ambitious project. The ambition is not in creating a pristine white beach in the heart of Manila, within pissing distance of the country’s biggest seaport and the slums of Tondo. The beach is nearly finished, using Geotube technology that the DENR must properly explain to the public to allay fears about ground erosion.

The ambition – considering the hordes of people wanting to enjoy the beach – is in keeping the area pristine, 24/7, in the years to come.

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