High maintenance

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Controversy hounded the dolomite beach in Manila from the get-go. The narrow, rocky shore that the beach replaced had served as informal accommodations and sleeping area of street people.

How long the government can keep the homeless away and maintain the beach in a pristine state as a “white beach” is interesting to watch. At this point, it seems the beach is proving to be high maintenance in a land with many other urgent priorities, and critics say it’s becoming more trouble than it’s worth.

Those in charge can try turning it, even for a week or two, into a real public beach, open to all 24/7, with trash bins placed in strategic spots and sanitation workers on duty. Night patrols can be conducted to prevent swimming and the use of the beach as lodging (or worse, a public toilet).

There’s a free public bay area promenade on the grounds of the Mall of Asia, and so far it hasn’t turned into a pigsty or nighttime lodging for the homeless. But it’s maintained by the well-funded SM Group, and it doesn’t have a man-made white beach that is challenging to keep pristine.

The artificial white beach in Manila was meant to be a public beach. But with the carrying capacity that had to be imposed because of its tiny area, it’s not the public beach as I understand the concept.

In fact, the Manila Bay Dolomite Beach (its official name) – fenced off and with an administrative office building, a public toilet and spare World War II cannon barrels taken from Corregidor raising the hackles of historians – now obstructs the ground-level view of Manila Bay, including the iconic sunset.

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That two-kilometer stretch of Roxas Boulevard from the US embassy to the Manila Yacht Club – christened Manila’s Baywalk when the city government installed those garish “Sputnik lights” some years ago – used to be one of the handful of good spots where anyone could easily enjoy a view of the bay, at all hours of the day and night. For tourists, it’s just a short walk from Rizal Park and close to Intramuros.

Today you have to wait in line to enter the beach and see the bay, and the visit is strictly limited, to accommodate others while complying with the carrying capacity. The beach is closed by early evening.

Meanwhile, outside the fence, what used to be a jogging and biking area is chockful of ambulant vendors.

The scenic public beach in Lingayen, Pangasinan is also fenced off and closed at 9 p.m., but this could be partly because of the unusually strong undertow in the gulf that has claimed lives.

As I wrote when they were starting work on Manila’s dolomite beach, it would be one of the few pretty spots amid the urban blight in the city where I was born and bred, and it would be a huge hit among those who wouldn’t give a whit about environmental concerns or the cost of the cosmetic makeover of Manila Bay.

Upon its opening, the problem quickly became crowd control, amid worries that the beach might become dirty white and, worse, collapse.

Dolomite is truly used for creating artificial beaches or extending narrow ones. There are special engineering interventions designed to keep a reclaimed area from being swallowed up by the sea. Otherwise, the Manila Bay reclamation area that now houses mixed-use property developments would have long collapsed. I understand these engineering interventions were applied in Manila’s artificial beach.

Other engineering works, however, need to be fast-tracked. As we have seen in the continuous thunderstorms since last week, keeping the dolomite beach “white” is causing the public grief.

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Last Friday, it took someone I know nearly five hours to reach her home in Parañaque from Manila’s Port Area. About two hours of the drive were spent just trying to get out of the Intramuros district.

The reason: vehicles were either stalled or had stopped in the middle of the road because the drivers didn’t want to risk damage to their vehicles, and preferred to wait for the floods up to about two feet deep in some areas to subside.

But the flood took forever to subside. Weather forecasters insisted they provided proper alerts about the monsoon-induced rains, and said the amount of rainfall, which began Thursday night, was not unusually heavy to warrant color-coded rainfall / flood alerts.

People missed the digital alert blasts under Project NOAH, or Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards, which was launched in 2012 and shut down by the Duterte administration in March 2017, just because.

Post-NOAH, the national disaster alert system is best remembered for announcing the presidential candidacy of Bongbong Marcos. It issues advisories on possible volcanic eruptions and news on strong earthquakes.

The role of the dolomite beach in the unusual flooding was initially denied. But it turned out that a requirement to divert polluted floodwaters away from the beach has prolonged the completion of three flood pumping stations and a pipeline by the Department of Public Works and Highways.

DPWH officials explained that the completion has been delayed by a requirement of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which operates the artificial beach, to extend the pipeline by another 300 meters and expand pumping capacity to ensure that floodwaters do not drain into the precious dolomite.

So when the heavens opened up last week, instead of the water being mechanically pumped to Manila Bay, only force of gravity drained the floodwaters from Manila’s streets to the Pasig River, away from the dolomite. Nature took ages to finish its work.

The DPWH drainage project is expected to be completed by end-September. That’s still typhoon season, so there will be ample opportunity to test if it works.

As for the dolomite on the man-made beach, it’s a no-return, no-exchange deal. We’re stuck with it, and those in charge should make its maintenance as painless to the public as possible.


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