Water pollution a rising threat in Coron

Pia Ranada
Even a paradise like Coron Island is not beyond the clutches of pollution

THE OTHER SIDE OF CORON. The beauty of Coron Island is threatened by water pollution due to lack of proper toilets and sewerage in coastal communities. All photos by Pia Ranada/Rappler

CORON, Philippines – Dive shop owner Donna Pabelonio knows she is living above filthy water.

Many of her neighbors in a coastal village in Coron town, Palawan, do not have proper toilets. Instead of going to a septic tank, human waste drops directly into Coron Bay.

But human feces is the least of her worries. 

May mga taong nagtatapon sa dagat ng patay na hayop. Kunwari may patay silang aso o pusa, iba hindi na linilibing, tinatapon na lang sa dagat. Pag high tide, napapadpad dito,” she told Rappler. (There are people who throw dead animals into the sea. If they have a dead cat or dog, instead of burying it, they just throw it into the water. During high tide, they float toward us.)

It’s no wonder that the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) detected water pollution in the bay, right smack in the middle of one of the country’s burgeoning tourist destinations. (READ: Discovering the jewels of Coron)

Coron Island is famous for its pristine beaches, lagoons and dive-worthy coral reefs.

“We found traces of coliform in water samples from Coron Bay. The levels exceed the safe standard of 1,000 MPN/100 mL (most probable number in every 100 milliliters),” said Girlie Abu of the DENR MIMAROPA regional office during a May 16 media workshop.

The presence of coliform, substances that come from the waste of animals and humans, is an indicator of whether or not a body of water is safe for humans, Abigail Favis, a professor of Environmental Science at Ateneo de Manila University told Rappler.

“Fecal coliform is a biological indicator of water quality. It may not necessarily lead to illness but its presence may indicate that other pathogens, for typhoid or hepatitis for example, might be around,” she said. 

FILTH. Garbage floats on the waters of Coron Bay under a house with chicken cages, another source of filth if not maintained properly

If a person ingests water contaminated with fecal coliform, he may get gastrointestinal distress or irritation. (READ: 55 die daily in PH from lack of proper sewerage)

The rising level of water pollution in Coron Bay is likely due to the increasing number of families living above its waters in stilt-elevated houses, said Abu. 

There are now 4,500 households living in Coron’s coastal areas, according to Coron Mayor Clara Reyes. Many of these families are informal settlers who do not have proper toilets and waste treatment facilities. 

Local government employees tasked with picking up floating trash from the bay have a harder time doing their job because of the stilted houses. The rubbish tend to drift under the houses and get stuck in crevices. 

The tourism boom has also led to the opening up of some dive shops and hotels that lack proper sewerage facilities. Lax implementation of building codes and sanitation requirements allowed them to operate this way. Thus, nothing stops their untreated waste from flowing directly into the bay. 

Not in tourist areas

But the level of coliform detected is “controllable” and was only found in Coron Bay, the most populated area in Coron, Abu emphasized.

Coron Bay is at least 30 minutes away by boat from the town’s most famous natural wonders like Kayangan Lake, Twin Lagoons, Barracuda Lake, and the Siete Pecados islets.

These places have so far been safe from high coliform levels because they are sparsely populated. But Onofre Escota, a former program evaluating officer for the Pasig River Rehabilitation Program, said that sea currents can still bring filth to these areas. 

Kayangan Lake and Twin Lagoons are managed and protected by the Tagbanua tribe whose ancestral domain includes these two sites.

SAFE, SO FAR. Kayangan Lake, around an hour from Coron Bay, is still pristine

Four members of the tribe regularly survey the waters surrounding their lands to pick up floating trash, Tagbanua Association Board Member Adornio Biring told Rappler.

Most of the detritus they find are not from tourists visiting the sites, but are brought in during high tide from Coron Bay.

Communal toilets

But detected coliform need not spell the end of a tourist hub’s days. Favis said that with timely action, water pollution can be contained.

“Coliform will die off eventually when exposed to ultra-violet rays from sunlight. Best thing to do is to make sure sewage is treated properly and is not released into water bodies,” she explained.

The local government of Coron is aware of the DENR findings and is already taking steps to keep their famously pristine beaches and lagoons clean, said Mayor Reyes.

To solve the sewerage problem for coastal-dwelling communities, the town will be putting up communal toilets in every sitio and barangay.

They have opted to use container vans as housing for the toilets because a cost analysis showed it would be faster and cheaper compared to building the usual concrete-housed toilets. 

A 20-footer container van with 6 toilets and a septic tank for storing the waste would cost P175,000 compared to the P450,000-worth concrete counterpart. If a concrete toilet house takes two months to build, container van toilets take only 10 days, said Reyes.

The number of communal toilets to be installed will depend on how many coastal-dwelling families are present in the village. Barangay local governments have been given until the end of the month to submit these numbers to the mayor’s office.

The long-term plan, however, is to relocate coastal-dwelling households inland. But this is bound to open up more issues, especially since many of these families depend on the sea for their living, admitted Reyes.

NATURAL WONDER. The view on the way to Kayangan Lake remains one of the most popular images of Coron

The town has also been cracking down on errant business establishments. They have so far been able to inspect 430 business establishments, 42 of which are tourism-related.

They found 15 of these to be guilty of various violations – from lacking a business permit to not throwing their garbage properly.

Under an existing ordinance, businesses with violations are fined on the second warning. On the 3rd warning, the town issues a closure disorder.

Some establishments have already been closed down, said Reyes, but she did not give a specific number.

Preserving paradise

Back in her dive shop, Pabelonio is hopeful about the mayor’s project to build container van toilets in her village. But she concludes that solving the problem will take a more fundamental shift.

Makakatulong yun. Pero nasa disiplina na rin yun ng tao. Kasi alam naman nila bawal yung pagdumi sa tubig.” (It will help. But it also depends on the discipline of people. Because they know it’s wrong to make the water dirty.)

The coast-dwelling locals have no excuse because a dump truck regularly visits their village to pick up their garbage.

It’s not only for aesthetic reasons that Pabelonio wants Coron waters to stay clean. She knows that if the pristine waters and natural attractions go, her dive shop business goes as well.

Baka pagpunta nila rito sabihin nila, ‘Akala ko paraiso yung Coron, ‘yun pala parang maruming siyudad lang.” (If they go here they might say, ‘I thought Coron is paradise, but it turns out, it’s just like a dirty city.) – 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.