FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

This is an embarrassment. One global. report widely carried by local media lists seven Philippine rivers among the top ten most responsible for ocean pollution. Pasig River tops the list as the most polluted river.

Another report estimates the Philippines account for about a third of the waste dumped into the world’s oceans. That makes us the biggest ocean polluter among all countries, including those with economies many times the size of ours.

One may quibble about the details by which these estimates were arrived at. But we cannot quarrel with the overall observation: the country has among the worst environmental governance anywhere.

I recall a really embarrassing conversation I had with a Japanese scholar many decades ago. In a rather direct, un-Japanese way, he asked: Why do people here dispose of their trash in the streets?

That question haunts me to this day.

I have been to Tokyo before that conversation and observed how obsessed the Japanese were with cleanliness – in private as much as in public. During that visit, I encountered that artifact of this obsessiveness: a toilet set with several bidet settings to clean one’s self along with temperature settings for the toilet seat.

I had worked in the slums of Bangkok with Thai NGOs and observed how the poor communities had somehow kept the waterways clean. They managed to keep much of their trash off the rivers.

At the time my Japanese friend asked me that disturbing question, the iconic tourism destination in Manila was a garbage dump in Vitas, Tondo we took to calling Smoky Mountain. It was an impressive monument to our people’s poverty and the extent to which our society was so badly governed.

The decaying trash emitted methane continuously, earning the place its name. Even as the deadly stench of methane wafted into the most populous districts of the capital city, the dump continued to be used for years for sheer lack of a sanitary landfill.

To this day, a portion of the bay off Navotas is used as a dumping site. Some sort of fencing was put up to prevent the trash from drifting off to sea. But as the waste decomposes, all the toxins blend with the water, making Manila Bay the most polluted harbor in the world.

President Fidel Ramos was so incensed by the notoriety Smoky Mountain gained, the ordered the dump shut down. In its place, Payatas rose to become the main dump for this urban sprawl we call a city. It had the same moving images of poverty as the dump it replaced.

Payatas is not a sanitary landfill. It is, in fact, a most unsanitary landfill. The toxins produced by rotting trash seeps into the ground beneath it until it reaches the water table. As if by some stroke of engineering insanity, this leaking, steaming dump that is host to a large community of scavenging families sits astride the La Mesa Dam and Balara filters. All the drinking water consumed in this urban sprawl we call Mega Manila passes through the La Mesa Dam, filtered at Balara.

Over the past several years, the Payatas dumpsite has been ordered closed. But it is still there, having become a mountain that would not budge. There are no landfills, let alone sanitary landfills, in the vicinity. Trucks sneak in under the cover of darkness to dump trash where it is forbidden.

All over the city, trash piles accumulate in the streets. There is a simple answer for this, apart from there being no sanitary dumpsites. Urban legend has it that garbage collection contracts are the main sources of corruption for local governments.

We are not wanting for laws. The Solid Waste Management Act and the Clean Air Acts are mostly observed in the breach. They are also the most notoriously unfunded laws on the books.

Every year, as we move from the dry months to monsoon period, the MMDA makes it a point to clean up the hundreds of small waterways flowing through the city to avert flooding. Each year, at around this time, when the first rains come, the city floods anyway. The waterways are clogged with refuse almost as soon as they have been dredged and cleaned.

I do not remember anyone being prosecuted for throwing a plastic bag of trash into the river. Surely our local governments have ordinances penalizing the act.

Over the decades, the many years our garbage disposal system simply broke down, the rivers became the main waste disposal system for most cities. Citizen vigilance at protecting our waterways was simply non-existent.

For many years, we endured the most misnamed agency: the Manila Waterworks and Sewerage System. It neither delivered fresh water nor maintained any remote semblance of a sewerage system.

To this day, the private concessionaires who distribute water to the metropolitan area have yet to deliver the sewerage system stipulated in their service contracts. We do not treat wastewater to any significant extent before dumping it to the sea.

Our ranking as the world’s worst polluter of the waters is well deserved.

Then there are the large cultural and anthropological questions for which we can only manage gossamer answers. It has been observed many times how Filipinos somehow failed to develop a culture that respects the commons.

In the walkup where I live, my neighbors sweep their floors clean every day – but push the dirt onto the corridors. The staircase is constantly littered with candy wrappers and plastic bottles. The commons is disrespected.

We need nothing less than a cultural revolution here.

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