‘Not much improvement’ in Manila Bay water quality

Despite the 2008 mandamus to clean up the Bay, the water quality remains way below healthy standards

SWIMMABLE AGAIN? The Writ of Continuing Mandamus for the rehabilitation of Manila Bay instructs the government to make the bay fit for swimming again. Photo by Pia Ranada/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – More than 5 years after the Supreme Court ordered government agencies to clean up Manila Bay, “nothing much has improved” in terms of water quality.

This was the bad news shared by Manila Bay Coordinating Office (MBCO) executive director Noel Gaerlan to Rappler during a Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) event on Friday, February 14.

“In fact, if we’re talking about seasonality, halos pareho lang ang trend (the trend is practically the same). It’s even increasing, if we’re talking about coliform levels.” 

An indicator of water quality, coliform is a bacteria found in the fecal matter of all warm-blooded animals, including humans. The higher the coliform levels, the more likely other bacteria are present, and the more polluted the water. 

The Writ of Continuing Mandamus for the rehabilitation of Manila Bay called on the government in 2008 to restore Manila Bay water to class “B” level, meaning fit for swimming and other forms of contact recreation. The ideal coliform level for this water class is 1,000 MPN (most probable number per 100 milliliters).  

So what’s the current coliform level of Manila Bay now? In the millions, said Gaerlan.

The government hasn’t made significant headway in cleaning up the Bay because of two reasons: growing population in the National Capital Region (NCR) and the lack of water treatment facilities to make sure sewage going into Manila Bay is clean, said Gaerlan.

The agencies named by the mandamus as responsible for Manila Bay’s rehabilitation are the DENR, Department of Public Works and Highways, Department of the Interior and Local Government, Philippine Coast Guard, Metro Manila Development Authority, and the Department of Health. The MBCO is the agency in charge of coordinating all efforts of the departments.

Dirty rivers, dirty bay

It’s largely untreated domestic waste keeping Manila Bay filthy. Much of this waste comes from tributary rivers all over NCR. (READ: 55 die daily in PH from lack of proper sewerage)

“Human waste should have primary treatment meaning, you have to have a septic tank. Many households still do not have this, based on DILG figures. All their waste goes directly to the river system.”

To address this, Maynilad and Manila Water – the two water concessionnaires operating in the area covered by the Manila Bay river basin – aim to provide water treatment to 100% of households by the year 2037. Water treatment reduces the amount of pollutants in waste water discharged by households.

Under their contracts with the government, Maynilad and Manila Water are required to treat wastewater and maintain sewerage systems in NCR, aside from supplying the region with water.

SEWAGE PROBLEMS. Untreated wastewater with human and animal fecal water end up in canals which drain directly into Manila Bay. Photo by Pia Ranada/Rappler

But before they can make their deadline, concessionnaires face challenges.

“The concessionnaires have issues with the local government units, specifically with putting up facilities in the sites they prefer. Most of the time, the location is not available,” explained Gaerlan.

As for solid waste management, Gaerlan gave assurances his office conducts a lot of clean-ups. But garbage does not have as big an effect on water quality as untreated wastewater.  

This summer, Manila Bay is expected to get even filthier. 

It’s during the dry season when the level of coliform bacteria is concentrated. During the wet season, the levels are lower because the contaminants are diluted by rain water.

Boosting efforts

This 2014, the MBCO will implement several projects Gaerlan hopes will make a significant impact on the Bay’s water quality. 

One major project is the formulation of management plans for all the major river systems flowing directly into Manila Bay. The goal is to make sure the river waters are cleaned even before they drain into the Bay.

MBCO also aims to install Real Time Water Quality Monitoring technology to enable the government to predict trends in water pollution and measure how effective their programs are in cleaning the water. 

Another target is to relocate informal settlers who live above waterways that drain into Manila Bay. The MBCO identified informal settlers as major pollutants of these waterways. 

“They don’t have hygienic septic tanks. They don’t have sanitary toilets. They generate solid waste and liquid waste, like the water they use to wash clothes or dishes. They just dump directly into the water,” said Rhodora Flores, chief of the Policy Compliance and Monitoring Division in the DILG during an October 24 Senate briefing.

With the help of the DILG, the MBCO aims to relocate some 20,000 informal settler families living above Manila waterways by 2014. – Rappler.com