[OPINION] Rehabilitation over reclamation for Manila Bay
Manila Bay has long been a symbol of the environmental degradation that has plagued the Philippines for decades. Despite a 2008 Supreme Court ruling ordering government agencies to clean it up, the bay's water quality remains poor. The seemingly conflicting agendas of reclamation and rehabilitation, both being pushed by the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte and some local governments, have sparked a debate about the fate of the area.
However, pollution is not the only environmental problem to be dealt with. Manila Bay and the communities and ecosystems around it are becoming more vulnerable to natural hazards, especially those intensified by climate change.
Currently, 1.2 million people and 55,000 hectares of farmland near the coastal zones of Manila Bay are susceptible to floods. A 4- to 5-meter-high storm surge would endanger 2.8 million people in 31 cities and municipalities.
Recent projections by PAGASA suggest that the Manila Bay area would experience an increase in rainfall, while the Philippines would observe an increase in the frequency of strong storms by 2050. This could mean an increase in occurrences of floods and landslides, which damage agricultural, commercial, and residential areas. This, along with sea level rise and land subsidence from excessive groundwater withdrawal, would threaten an additional 2.5 million people.
Such changes may also cause soil erosion, which worsens the sedimentation of coastal and marine ecosystems, as well as rivers flowing into Manila Bay. Compounded with massive land reclamation and waste pollution from nearby communities, this would make mangroves, coral reefs, and mudflats more vulnerable. (READ: [OPINION] In defense of Manila Bay)
Today, only 1% to 4% of the mangrove forests along Manila Bay from the past century remains. A large portion of seagrass habitat has already been lost due to sediment deposition and land reclamation. Coral reefs are not only being damaged by destructive fishing techniques and construction activities, but also affected by ocean warming.
Protecting what remains of these ecosystems is important to regional development. Failing to do so would not only cause a decline in fisheries, but also deprive coastal communities of ecosystem services such as mangroves as an adaptation measure to sea level rise and saltwater intrusion.
The loss of nearby forests also contributes to the degradation of Manila Bay. From 2003 to 2015, more than 41,000 hectares of forest cover were lost. The absence of trees makes these areas more prone to soil erosion, which releases sediments into rivers and streams that eventually end up in the bay. Without strict enforcement of forest management laws, even communities close to deforested areas would be adversely affected.
Rising sea levels may also have a significant impact on reclaimed land. These areas are highly prone to liquefaction, a phenomenon where soil stability is reduced due to environmental stress such as an earthquake. Sea level rise can result in saturation of the sandy soil usually found in coastal areas, making the lands even more prone to liquefaction.
While the planned massive reclamation along Manila Bay promises to create jobs and generate income for the government, these lands are also exposed to natural hazards. Around 5.5 million people would be affected by high liquefaction under current conditions, a figure that would increase as the coastal population, economic activity, and intensity of climate-related hazards rise in the next few decades.
Potential losses from the environmental hazards enhanced by climate change may offset the economic gains provided by reclamation-based development in the Manila Bay area. No sector would be hit harder by losses than the poor. By 2016, more than 180,000 families classified as informal settlers were living near the waterway easements in the Manila Bay area, which are prone to floods and their associated impacts. In Metro Manila alone, 20,000 families need to be relocated, many of them living along the coasts. (READ: [OPINION] 7 reasons why we should oppose Manila Bay reclamation projects)
The day Manila Bay would be fit for swimming will not come right after removing garbage along the coasts and closing down establishments with inadequate environmental compliance. Its rehabilitation is a continuous endeavor that will only succeed if policymakers have the patience and a collaborative mindset to deal with long-term issues the area is facing, such as climate change and environmental pollution. (READ: Fecal coliform levels in Manila Bay still high – DENR)
The economic growth the Philippines has experienced in recent years has not significantly reduced poverty. Reclamation projects are poised to benefit only the privileged few, while the underemployed Filipinos of today would remain stuck in unideal working conditions.
It is not only the environmental framework for rehabilitating Manila Bay and other critical areas that needs to be changed; the existing socioeconomic policies must also be modified to promote sustainable, inclusive growth that the country needs. Given the current situation, reclamation and rehabilitation of Manila Bay simply do not complement one another. The Philippine government must choose rehabilitation. – Rappler.com
John Leo Algo is the science policy officer of Climate Reality Project Philippines. He earned his MS Atmospheric Science degree from the Ateneo de Manila University in December 2018. He is also a citizen journalist.