Tagaytay's tall buildings spell a water crisis

TAGAYTAY CITY, Philippines – Back in the 1990s, Berniemack Arellano and his family would rent a bamboo and nipa cottage for around P100 ($2.3) for a view of Taal Volcano.

The Tagaytay City he remembers was like a probinsya (province) – cool, relaxing, no traffic, and laid-back.

It was the perfect vacation spot for a grade one student like him from Imus, Cavite, just an hour's drive from Tagaytay. 

"Another thing that I remember about Tagaytay was the bulalo stores in Mendez Junction. I can still remember Tagaytay with its marigold blooms and wide spaces. We would head on to Palace in the Sky to get a 360-degree view of Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, and, on a clear day, the glimmering skyline of Metro Manila," Arellano recalls.

Back then, the top tourist draws in the "summer capital" were the Picnic Grove and Taal Vista Lodge, where you could lay your banig (bamboo mat) on the grass and enjoy the breeze.

But today, Arellano and his family no longer frequent Tagaytay.

He says the city "lost its magic" after being victimized by "runaway tourism." What was once a haven for urbanites is fast resembling an urban jungle.

"The most evident change was the rise of high-rise condominiums, buildings, and theme parks in Tagaytay. Although I am for development, this seems to be runaway tourism and lacking urban planning," Arellano told Rappler.

A visit to Tagaytay now yields not only a view of majestic Taal Volcano down in Batangas province but of several new high-rise buildings, including the 10 towers of SM Wind Residences, each 20 floors high; the 21-story condominium Tagaytay Prime Residences by Cityland; and the 9-story Robinson's Summit Ridge Hotel. There are other major commercial projects on the way. 

The Tagaytay City Planning and Development Office told Rappler there are at least two more: The District Tagaytay of AyalaLand Corporation that will open this year and Tagaytay Fora by Filinvest Corporation set to open by 2016. 

Tagaytay Fora will be a "mixed use" project composed of a 10-story condotel; a commercial block with a Metro Gaisano Supermarket, department store, 4 digital cinemas, and around 300 dining and retail shops; and a forest-like garden that can be used for events. 

The District Tagaytay meanwhile will feature two 14-floor condominium buildings.

Six new condominium buildings were approved last year and will begin construction this year.

It seems development is finally coming to the probinsya of Arellano's memory. But a look at scientific studies commissioned by the Cavite provincial government and a talk with scientists show that Tagaytay's vertical and urban development may spell crisis for the rest of the province.

Know your neighbors

Water is often an overlooked resource, especially for a city rising so near a lake. But water is one of Tagaytay's looming problems.

"Tagaytay may have water today, but it will be an issue in the long run," Professor Noel Sedigo, chairman of Cavite State University's environment studies department, told Rappler. 

Sedigo has been tapped by the province to analyze its water situation. After looking at various studies and making some of his own, he said the picture does not look good.

While Tagaytay has just enough water for its households at the moment, its current trend of vertical development and urbanization is likely to cause a water shortage in the near future.

Water is a problem for the rest of Cavite too. In fact, a 2012 study commissioned by the province shows that the province as a whole is already experiencing water shortage.

The study, conducted by energy and bulk water supply group SUWECO, concluded that the province is already short of water by around 1,200 million liters/day (MLD). 

This is because total water demand for 2015 was pegged at 1,777 MLD while the total amount of water the province can recover from under the ground and from its springs and rivers is only 618 MLD, according to a summary of the report obtained by Rappler.

How will the province manage in 2040 when it is expected to have a water demand of 2,845 MLD?

If nothing is done, Cavite's supply of groundwater (water stored underground for thousands of years) will run out by 2019, said Sedigo.

The SUWECO study showed that the agriculture-intense towns of General Trias, Tanza, Naic, and Imus drink up most of the water for irrigating crops. This is apart from the industrial, recreational, commercial, and residential usage of water.

Thirsty Tagaytay

The shortage is already being felt. According to a 1991 study by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), intense groundwater extraction (the process of pumping groundwater to water pipes) is causing groundwater levels to decrease by one meter annually. 

The province estimates that its groundwater is now 15 to 50 meters below its level in 1990. Thus, to reach the groundwater and be able to deliver it to faucets all over the province, longer and longer pipes have had to be used.

In places as elevated as Tagaytay, 3 pipes, each 25 feet long, are now used instead of just one, adding to the cost of water. Data from the province and Tagaytay City Water District (TCWD) showed that water rates have been rising steadily, from P125 ($2.8) in 2000 to P233 ($5.3) in 2012. 

And what about its new high-rise buildings? Sedigo said lower groundwater means contractors will need more powerful water pumps to bring the water all the way to the highest floors. 

The TCWD, a government-owned and controlled corporation in charge of water distribution, has felt the burn.

That's why it entered into a contract with a water company in 2012 to extract water from other parts of Cavite.

In the contract, TCWD admitted the city's "dire need of additional water resources" due to increasing urbanization.

"Water demand is expected to increase tremendously, even as high as double the normal demand, and upon completion and full operation of all the ongoing establishment and hotels currently being built," it said in the contract.

But after a petition by Cavite residents who claim the water project will deprive them of water, the Court of Appeals ordered the water project stopped until issues were resolved. 

Cavite's 're-charge station'

Tagaytay City plays an important role in this water crisis. Though it may not be the most heavily water-consumptive of Cavite provinces, its path of development determines whether or not Cavite can survive its water woes.

The city makes up the province's upland area, an area that, due to its geographic location and elevation, functions as a re-charge station for Cavite's water supply.

"The monsoon winds bring rain clouds to Tagaytay. Because of the high elevation, the rainwater is able to flow down slowly, giving it time to infiltrate the ground and gather beneath as groundwater," said Sedigo.

Because groundwater comes in trickles, it took thousands of years for the aquifer below Cavite to form and become one of its major sources of water.

With Tagaytay now becoming more concretized, it may take even longer to replenish that aquifer, if at all. The city is developing fast at the cost of trees which help bring rainwater underground.

The more concretized Tagaytay becomes, the less water goes to Cavite's aquifer. 

"If I had my way, I'd keep Tagaytay forested," said Sedigo.

Only around 7% of Cavite is forested. Almost half, 48%, is under concrete, while the rest is agricultural land.

But at the rate Tagaytay is going, Sedigo may be hoping in vain.

Since 2011, the city's number of commercial establishments has increased by an average of 33 establishments a year, said City Planning and Development Officer IV Carlos Zuniga.

Its number of residential units, mostly constructed in existing subdivisions, has been increasing by an average of 205 units a year. The past 4 years alone have seen the rise of 20 new condominiums of various heights (1 story to 11 stories), he added.

More worrisome is Tagaytay's expansion of areas for urbanization. 

In 2009, the city amended its Zoning Ordinance to classify 4 areas as new Primary Urban Core (PUC) zones. These areas are where buildings of up to 20 stories high can be built.

City Ordinance 2009-054 identifies the construction of tall buildings as its strategy for prosperity: 

Today, 3 PUC zones are occupied by the new condominiums and commercial establishments, including the Sky Ranch, a recreational area with rides and restaurants. The 4th PUC zone is yet to be developed. Tagaytay visitors know it well: it's the Picnic Grove.

Define 'sustainable' 

City planning officials defend Tagaytay's path of development.

"We don't see yet at present that the city's urban growth threatens our environment because we provide our own measures to protect the environment and we strictly enforce the zoning ordinance," said Zuniga.

The amended ordinance does control what type of structures can rise in specific parts of Tagaytay. For instance, only one to two-story buildings can be constructed on the Ridge, the highest part of Tagaytay facing the Taal Volcano. 

To ease traffic, buildings inside a PUC zone are required to provide their own parking space and set back their building at least 5 meters from the road.

The current administration has also stopped the construction of additional subdivisions on the ridge area of the city, Planning Officer Lambert Manalo told Rappler.

To keep its water supply free from contamination, households are required to have multi-chamber septic tanks. Establishments like malls, stores, and restaurants must have their own sewerage treatment plant.

But only time will tell if these measures are enough to keep Tagaytay's development sustainable. 

Arellano and Sedigo have a different idea of sustainable. 

Arellano said, if he was in charge, he would "promote proper zoning measures and limited urban vertical development, in order for Tagaytay to sustain its tourism and charm."

Sedigo suggested a shift to ecotourism and "backpacker" tourism to keep most of the city forested. He regrets the trend of building residential units and summer houses that will lead to increased use of the limited water supply.

"Tagaytay should be kept transient. Tourists come, take photos, and then go home." – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.