The Manila Bay challenge

"May we not betray the trust reposed in us by future generations."


Amid the euphoria that the massive cleanup of Manila Bay has generated among netizens, we are one again faced by the rude reality that the problem of cleaning up Manila Bay is not only gargantuan but is so complex that it requires more than a simple makeover. Removing tons of garbage and dredging the sludge in Manila Bay are not enough because the overwhelming stench and pollution of the Bay is symptomatic of a much bigger metropolitan problem such as poverty, government neglect, commercialism, etc. This notwithstanding, it is good that the government is once again putting some effort into solving the problem of pollution in Manila Bay which has been ordered by the Supreme Court ten years or so ago.

I welcome this effort, appreciate President Duterte prioritizing this as his predecessors did not, and trust in the leadership and integrity of the men who will be the field generals of this effort, former generals (pun intended) and now Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu and Local Governments Secretary Eduardo Año.

One must recall that ten years ago, on Dec. 18, 2008, the Supreme Court promulgated a decision in Concerned Citizens vs MMDA, a  case that was filed a decade earlier in January 29, 1999, when concerned residents of Manila Bay—UP Law students and colleagues of the great environmental lawyer and Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Tony Oposa—filed a complaint before the Regional Trial Court in Imus, Cavite against several government agencies for the clean-up, rehabilitation and protection of the Manila Bay.

The main allegation of the complaint was that the water quality of Manila Bay was no longer within the allowable standards set by law through Presidential Decree No. 1152 or the Philippine Environment Code. This fact was not denied and was in fact supported by testimony from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, officials of the  Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS), and the Philippine Ports Authority.

On ruling in favor of the concerned citizens, the Supreme Court, speaking through the visionary Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco, was unequivocal: it issued for the first time a writ of continuing mandamus that ordered several government agencies and local government units to clean and rehabilitate Manila Bay. The mandamus was to continue until the goal of a clean and sustainable Manila Bay was achieved.

According to the Court: “The cleanup and/or restoration of the Manila Bay is only an aspect and the initial stage of the long-term solution. The preservation of the water quality of the bay after the rehabilitation process is as important as the cleaning phase. It is imperative then that the wastes and contaminants found in the rivers, inland bays, and other bodies of water be stopped from reaching the Manila Bay. Otherwise, any cleanup effort would just be a futile, cosmetic exercise, for, in no time at all, the Manila Bay water quality would again deteriorate below the ideal minimum standards xxx”

The Court also observed: “The high level of fecal coliform confirms the presence of a large amount of human waste in the dump sites and surrounding areas, which is presumably generated by households that lack alternatives to sanitation. To say that Manila Bay needs rehabilitation is an understatement.”

Finally, the Court concluded with strong words:

“The importance of the Manila Bay as a sea resource, playground, and as a historical landmark cannot be over-emphasized. It is not yet too late in the day to restore the Manila Bay to its former splendor and bring back the plants and sea life that once thrived in its blue waters. But the tasks ahead, daunting as they may be, could only be accomplished if those mandated, with the help and cooperation of all civic-minded individuals, would put their minds to these tasks and take responsibility. This means that the State, through petitioners, has to take the lead in the preservation and protection of the Manila Bay.

The era of delays, procrastination, and ad hoc measures is over. Petitioners must transcend their limitations, real or imaginary, and buckle down to work before the problem at hand becomes unmanageable. Thus, we must reiterate that different government agencies and instrumentalities cannot shirk from their mandates; they must perform their basic functions in cleaning up and rehabilitating the Manila Bay.” 

Two years after this decision was issued, following the advice of the Manila Bay Advisory Committee (MBAC), there was a resolution supplementing the 2008 decision with specific guidance and orders to the relevant mandamus agencies on what they needed to do to achieve the clean-up. MBAC was chaired by Justice Velasco. I was a member, appointed by Chief Justice Reynato Puno, together with former Environment Secretary Bebet Gozun and Dr. Gil Jacinto of the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute.

Ten years after the main decision and eight years after that resolution (I will summarize that in the next column), there has been no discernible improvement in the state of Manila Bay. In fact, as Tony Oposa has pointed out in a recent article, things are much worse now.

What happened? Well, it’s obvious. The Mall of Asia and casino complex areas became bigger and more populated. Thousands more live, work, and visit the Bay area than ten years ago. Population density has increased in Manila, Pasay, Malabon, Navotas, indeed all of Metro Manila, and all of Cavite, Laguna, Rizal, Bulacan, and Bataan which comprise the Bay region. Government efforts simply have not been able to catch up with the unsustainable development of the region.

Four things are clear if we are to succeed in the whole of country project of cleaning, rehabilitating, and sustainably developing Manila Bay: First, we will not be able to clean or rehabilitate Manila Bay if we there is no 100% sewerage coverage of Metro Manila. We must demand this of MWSS and the two water concessionaires Maynilad and Manila Water. Second, there must absolutely be no more reclamation projects in the Manila Bay area. Approving such projects is immoral, even criminal because it will threaten wetlands, biodiversity, the historic sites of Manila, and people. Third, there must be a jus transition for informal settlers; they should not be targeted first and instead they should be assisted to be relocated within the city, near their jobs and schools. Fourth, decisions on Manila Bay must be based on a long-term vision and a masterplan that is based on current facts and projections of the future (including climate change considerations). That is why it is a serious error for the President to have transferred the authority to make reclamation decisions from the National Economic Development Authority to the Philippine Reclamation Authority. It will lead to even more unsustainable development.

I have said many times that it does not take rocket science to clean, rehabilitate, and sustainably develop Manila Bay. It requires good natural science which we have—accurate data and precise modeling for example. But it also needs solid political science—not just political will but good economics, sociology, and social psychology—an understanding of what motivates people and how to move them together to a better place.

In 2008, the Supreme Court, quoting the earlier decision Oposa vs Factoran, stated that “the right to a balanced and healthful ecology need not even be written in the Constitution for it is assumed, like other civil and political rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, to exist from the inception of mankind and it is an issue of transcendental importance with intergenerational implications. According to the Court: “ Even assuming the absence of a categorical legal provision specifically prodding petitioners to clean up the bay, they and the men and women representing them cannot escape their obligation to future generations of Filipinos to keep the waters of the Manila Bay clean and clear as humanly as possible. Anything less would be a betrayal of the trust reposed in them.”

My hope is that we, not just government, do not betray this trust reposed in us by future generations.

Facebook Page: Professor Tony La Viña Twitter: tonylavs

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Topics: Tony La Viña , The Manila Bay challenge
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