Disappearing sea

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

The sea is gone – nawala na ang tubig – from Roxas Boulevard.

That’s President Marcos talking, as he confirmed what his environment secretary had said earlier, that a review will be conducted on all reclamation projects in Manila Bay except one, which he did not identify.

Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga announced the upcoming review amid massive flooding in Bulacan and Pampanga that residents suspect has been aggravated by ongoing bay reclamation projects (strongly disputed by the project proponents).

The US embassy also issued a statement of concern about the environmental impact of the bay reclamation, and the involvement in one of the projects by a state-owned Chinese company blacklisted by Washington for building and militarizing artificial islands in the South China Sea.

Sen. Cynthia Villar has been among the most appreciative of the forthcoming review. For many years now, she has been expressing concern about floods worsening in her home city of Las Piñas and other communities around Manila Bay due to massive reclamation activities.

She should invite the President to the Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area that she defended from commercial reclamation. From the park, and from the CAVITEX beyond the dense mangrove forest, the bay still looks magnificent, especially at sunset.

Villar has saved this spot of the bay by pushing for an official declaration of the ecotourism park as a protected Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands – one of only six Ramsar sites in the country. The park has become a wildlife sanctuary and spawning ground for marine life in the bay.

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Since the technology and resources for reclamation became available in the country in the late 19th century, there have been reclamation projects around Manila Bay (and Laguna de Bay). Manila’s Port Area where The STAR office is located (we’re moving out soon) sits on reclaimed land. But the projects were not on the gargantuan scale that we are now seeing.

Rodrigo Duterte, during his presidency, had said in 2020 that he would not approve new reclamation projects in Manila Bay, because of their environmental impact and (in 2021) due to reports of corruption. Yet most of the ongoing large projects were approved under his watch.

After ordering the cleanup of Boracay, Duterte had tasked his DENR secretary Roy Cimatu to do the same for Manila Bay, which would actually implement a Supreme Court writ of continuing mandamus issued on Dec. 18, 2008.

The writ directed 13 government agencies to clean up, rehabilitate and preserve the bay, and restore the sea to a quality that is fit for swimming. It was issued in response to a complaint originally filed in January 1999 before the Imus Regional Trial Court in Cavite against 11 government agencies by a group calling itself the Concerned Residents of Manila Bay.

While the administration of Noynoy Aquino officially said it had no choice but to abide by the Supreme Court order, the subsequent acts (or omissions) indicated that it was largely dismissed by Malacañang as judicial overreach that encroached on executive functions.

Also, Manila Bay obviously poses a far greater challenge than Boracay for cleaning up. But because of Cimatu’s work in Boracay, people hoped he might be able to accomplish something.

He would later report that establishments including the Manila Zoo were compelled to stop spewing their sewage into the bay. Cimatu also went for cosmetic bay beautification, through the controversial, high-maintenance Dolomite Beach in Manila.

While the view from the artificial beach is terrific, the view from ground level along Roxas Boulevard, for motorists and pedestrians with no interest in lining up to enter the Dolomite Beach, is a disaster. That’s what BBM is surely referring to when he says that the sea is gone from the boulevard.

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The DENR and the 12 other agencies covered by the SC order have themselves obstructed the view of the famous sunset, and violated easement rules by constructing that unsightly two-story “Mandamus” administrative building near the Manila Yacht Club.

Unfortunately, it’s a common mindset in this country that a handful of persons are entitled to enjoying a national patrimony while depriving the general public of the privilege.

In other countries, seashores are public domain and maintained by the government for free public enjoyment. The typical design is a beach, with a concrete promenade running through or parallel to it for jogging, biking and related activities. Beyond this promenade is a road. Only beyond this road can you find the commercial establishments and residential complexes.

An alternative design, in areas without considerable expanses of natural beaches, is a road that hugs the coast, with rest stops along the way, usually at spots that offer the best views. Always, the sea view is not obstructed.

The only commercial establishments that may be found on the beach itself are docks for sea tours or ferry transport, and underwater attractions like the one in Manila’s Ocean Park.

In fishing communities or fishports, an area right by the water may be developed into a commercial wharf, with a seafood market and restaurants. Properly designed, such areas are major tourist draws. Portions of the coastal communities of Cavite used to have this potential, but these areas have almost entirely disappeared.

Tokyo’s sprawling Tsukiji Fish Market remains a top tourist destination, even if the fish auction has relocated. During one of my visits to Japan, I readily woke up hours before dawn to watch the lively bidding for top-grade tuna from all over the planet (some were marked from General Santos City).

The much smaller Navotas fishport could have been developed into a tourist spot. Instead it is now also threatened by the impact of the disappearing bay.

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