What we need to do in Manila Bay

"It is time now for the Supreme Court to remand this case to the lower court for execution of its final order."


Last Saturday, I wrote about the 2008 decision of the Supreme Court Decision which ordered the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and other government agencies to clean up, rehabilitate and preserve Manila Bay in their different capacities. This continuing mandamus order, according to the Court, would remain pending until the cleanup was achieved.

Two months after that historic decision, on Febr. 10, 2009, the Court En Banc created the Manila Bay Advisory Committee (MBAC), composed of two members of the Court and three technical experts (I was one of those originally appointed but stayed only for three years because of other commitments). MBAC was created to monitor the execution of the Court’s decision and was chaired by Justice Presbitero Velasco, the ponente of the 2008 decision.

Following the recommendations of MBAC, the Court issued another resolution on Feb. 15, 2011 giving timeframes and tasks for the concerned agencies to implement the 2008 decision. In that decision, Associate Justices Antonio Carpio and Maria Lourdes Sereno dissented on the basis that the resolution constituted judicial overreach by usurping and performing executive functions by giving specific orders to the agencies on what to do to clean up and rehabilitate Manila Bay. The majority of the Court disagreed as for them the issuance of subsequent resolutions by the Court was simply an exercise of judicial power under Article VIII of the Constitution, the execution of the decision being an integral part of the adjudicative function of the Court. It should be noted that the 2011 Resolution was based on the discussions with the concerned agencies and none of the directives were new to them.

I summarize below these directives to emphasize that the government does not have to start from scratch in doing its work on Manila Bay. The 2011 resolution might be a good starting point now that the executive branch is giving the highest political priority to Manila Bay.

First, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) was ordered to submit within a specified period the updated Operational Plan for the Manila Bay Coastal Strategy. It was further ordered to submit the names and addresses of persons and companies in Metro Manila, Rizal, Laguna, Cavite, Bulacan, Pampanga and Bataan that generate toxic and hazardous waste.

Second, the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) asked by the Court to order the mayors of all cities in Metro Manila; the governors of Rizal, Laguna, Cavite, Bulacan, Pampanga and Bataan; and the mayors of all the cities and towns in said provinces, to inspect all factories, commercial establishments and private homes along the banks of the major river systems to determine if they have wastewater treatment facilities and/or hygienic septic tanks, as prescribed by existing laws, ordinances, rules and regulations.

Third, the MWSS was ordered to submit to the Court on or before June 30, 2011 the list of areas in Metro Manila, Rizal and Cavite that do not have the necessary wastewater treatment facilities.

Fourth, the Local Water Utilities Administration is ordered to submit on or before Sept. 30, 2011 its plan to provide, install, operate and maintain sewerage and sanitation facilities in said cities and towns and the completion period for said works.

Fifth, the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) was ordered to submit, among others, the names and addresses of the informal settlers in Metro Manila.

In addition, the Departments of Agriculture, Health, and Education, the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA), and the Philippine National Police (PNP) were also ordered to do specific tasks related to the cleanup.

This was a comprehensive order but clearly it was not enough and 10 years after the original decision, Manila Bay is even more polluted; its environment degraded.

In my view, it is time now for the Supreme Court to remand this case to the lower court for execution of its final order. There is no value in this case remaining any further in the Supreme Court. Justice Velasco, the MBAC, and the Supreme Court were diligent in pushing this to the limit but clearly it is the executive branch, and specially the DENR and DILG with the local governments, that should get this done.

With the executive branch firmly in charge again of this monumental task of cleaning Manila Bay, I suggest an overall approach to that effort that would be based on two pillars—sustainable development and environmental justice. These two principles should guide the government strategy and interventions in Manila Bay.

Sustainable development is defined as development that meets the needs of present generations while not sacrificing the interests of future generations. Obviously it is not an option to stop economic activities in the Manila Bay area, a region which comprises all of Metro Manila and several Central Luzon and Southern Tagalog provinces. In fact, if anything, given the needs for the future of this region, more development is needed—but development that is environmentally smart and climate friendly while also sustainable and equitable, For that to be achieved, a long-term masterplan must be adopted, and faithfully implemented. Such a plan is now being developed by a team commissioned by the National Economic Development Authority (disclosure: I have a mirror advising role in this project) and should be ready for presentation to the government this year.

As I pointed out last Saturday, the first thing to do is to accelerate the putting into place of a comprehensive sewerage system for the region. We must all be connected to a modern sewerage system in ten years. This was the big mistake of the Ramos government when it privatized the water system of Metro Manila; it should have embedded into the contracts of Manila Water and Maynilad stipulations that required them to prioritize sewerage.

As I have written, before, all major reclamation projects in the Manila Bay region must be stopped. It is immoral and criminal to allow activities that would lead to the destruction of Luneta, Manila Hotel, Intramuros, Chinatown, Ermita, our national museums, and other heritage sites. Thousands of lives could also be lost when the impact of reclamation combines with subsidence (the sinking of Metro Manila and surroundings because of unsustainable extraction of water) and climate change impact (sea level rise and storm surges) in future disasters.

Environmental justice must animate the clean-up of Manila Bay. The burden should fall principally on those who have polluted the Bay the most and those who have the resources to bear the costs. I support the DENR’s enforcement efforts being directed first at the big malls, hotels, and condominiums in the Roxas Boulevard area, but these efforts should be expanded to the whole region as every discharge from every establishment, village, household, and building ends up in the bay and if untreated pollutes its waters. The rich should be targeted first because they have the means to put up facilities to manage their waste and treat their waste water.

Informal settlers should be given a just transition, their relocation on or near their places of work and business (and their children’s schools) to be given priority. It is never right to use the law to further marginalize and disadvantage the poor even for a good cause like a clean environment. In fact, environmental injustice usually backfires and makes matters worse for the environment.

Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu is a visionary and decisive leader. He has said that fixing Manila Bay requires a change of culture, in my view from a culture of reckless economic and bad land use decisions to sustainability as the norm for those decisions—from treating the poor terribly to making development truly inclusive. With sustainable development and environmental justice as our guiding principles, we will yet save Manila Bay.

Facebook Page: Professor Tony La Viña Twitter: tonylavs

Email: [email protected]

Topics: Tony La Viña , Manila Bay , Metropolitan Manila Development Authority , Department of Environment and Natural Resources
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