[ANALYSIS] The bad economics of dumping fake white sand along Manila Bay

It’s a policy as dumb as a dolomite rock.

Manila residents and visitors were greeted in early September by mountains of synthetic white sand that suddenly materialized along the Manila Baywalk.

In fact, those were some 3,500 tons of crushed dolomite rocks shipped all the way from Alcoy, Cebu, ostensibly to “rehabilitate” Manila Bay and promote it as “another Boracay within the country’s capital.”

It’s part and parcel of a P390 million “beach nourishment, coastal restoration, and enhancement” of the Manila Baywalk.

To justify the project, especially its timing, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said it might help improve people’s mental health during the pandemic.

But many groups saw the project for what it truly is: a cosmetic and ill-thought waste of money. Heck, a disaster scientist foresees that the dolomite rocks will simply be swept away and washed to the bottom of the sea.

The project is also profoundly “insensitive,” as Vice President Leni Robredo rightly put it, and ill-timed given the global pandemic we’re still battling.

All in all, it’s a stupid policy. But what’s new?

Fake sand, fake rehab

Defenders of this beautification project like to point to a 2008 Supreme Court case (MMDA vs Concerned Citizens of Manila Bay) where the high court ordered government to “clean up, rehabilitate, and preserve Manila Bay.”

This landmark case is so important that the Manila Bay Advisory Committee, tasked to monitor government’s compliance with this order, is headed by no less than the Chief Justice.

Officials of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), primarily in charge of the project, also point to President Rodrigo Duterte’s Administrative Order 16 which created the Manila Bay Task Force in early 2019.

In other words, government is bound by law to rescue Manila Bay.

But various environmental groups have denounced the DENR’s shipping of dolomite rocks for focusing on the aesthetics of Manila Bay rather than its genuine rehabilitation.

Aside from failing to hurdle proper environmental impact assessments, it also did not benefit from public consultations and is said to have violated at least 5 laws. The rock shipment was also not approved by the provincial government of Cebu, and the dolomite mining company involved was apparently not authorized to serve local clients.

The project also doesn’t fit the master plan laid down by the National Economic and Development Authority. One environmental group claims that the white sand can spill over to nearby infrastructure in the event of coastal flooding, to say nothing of siltation and damage to nearby marine conservation areas.

This is hardly the first time the DENR’s policies have been inimical rather than beneficial to Manila Bay’s rehabilitation. The agency has previously issued environmental permits for various reclamation projects that have wrought substantial environmental and ecological damage to Manila Bay.

Mangrove areas in Cavite – home to juvenile fishes, migratory birds, and other fauna – were leveled to make space for a POGO (online gambling) hub. More massive reclamation projects are in the pipeline. (By the way, the DENR also sanctioned the leveling of mangroves in Bulacan to give way to an airport project.)

To truly rehabilitate Manila Bay, it’s much better for government to, say, drastically reduce pollutants at their sources and to protect mangrove areas. By one estimate, the P390 million for the Manila Bay project could be used to plant 13,000 hectares of mangrove forests.

Dumping rocks is as dumb as it sounds.

Policy-based evidence-making

More insidiously, the crushed dolomite rocks themselves could also be hazardous to humans.

The Department of Health (DOH) initially warned that dolomite sand could pose various health hazards, especially respiratory problems, as shown by previous studies.

But presumably to align themselves with the DENR, the DOH quickly softened its statement to qualify that the process of crushing dolomite rocks – not the rocks themselves – was hazardous.

To further appease the public, on Thursday, September 10, the DENR ordered a new study to review the hazards of using crushed dolomite rocks.

But the rocks are already in place and could already be posing health risks to Manila residents and visitors.

Studying the impacts of a policy after it has been implemented is nothing new. Exactly the same thing happened in the 2018 Boracay shutdown. (READ: Enough of policymaking without planning)

Far from pursuing evidence-based policy-making, the Duterte government has grown increasingly – and dangerously – fond of policy-based evidence-making.

Let them enjoy rocks

The beautification of Manila Bay could also not come at a worse time.

There are still thousands of new COVID-19 cases daily, and the pandemic’s end is still out of sight. The health sector still needs all the help it can get, especially as the DOH faces severe budget cuts next year.

Allegedly, only P28 million was spent on the dolomite rocks. Even so, it is part of a larger project that can be safely put off till after the pandemic. Funds for it could be realigned to support more urgent spending needs, such as much-needed health equipment, economic aid, or educational modules for distance learning.

If the synthetic white sand gets swept away by the next big storm, it’s like literally throwing millions of pesos into the sea.

The Manila Bay project also belies Duterte’s spiel that government has no money for economic aid. If Duterte has money to buy and ship dolomite rocks, he certainly has money for economic aid.

Rather than give more aid, though, Duterte would rather Filipinos enjoy rocks. (READ: Filipinos are in misery, but why is Duterte slashing economic aid?)

Build, Build, Build?

Finally, the fake white sand brings to light the absurdity and ill timing of Build, Build, Build during a pandemic.

Although not per se an infrastructure project, the makeover of Manila Bay is emblematic of the shovel-ready infrastructure projects that the Duterte government wishes to pour money on in 2020.

In fact, much of the government’s budget increases next year – totaling hundreds of billions of pesos – will go to infrastructure rather than health, economic aid, or education. (READ: Why you should be alarmed by Duterte’s 2021 budget)

Such infrastructure projects will supposedly boost many other markets around it, sending waves of activity rippling across the economy. For Duterte’s economic team, this will jumpstart our economy currently in the doldrums.

But just as people won’t rescue Manila Bay just because fake white sand is poured on it, people won’t spend and travel like before just because more roads or airports are built. (READ: Why we can’t Build, Build, Build our way out of this pandemic)

Put differently, just as Build, Build, Build doesn’t get to the economy’s root problem (the pandemic), those dolomite rocks also don’t address Manila Bay’s root problems (such as pollution, overfishing, degradation of habitats, and loss of biodiversity).

In the teeth of our country’s most serious problems, the Duterte government has only learned to use Band-Aid solutions. When will they stop? – Rappler.com

The author is a PhD candidate and teaching fellow at the UP School of Economics. His views are independent of the views of his affiliations. Follow JC on Twitter (@jcpunongbayan) and Usapang Econ (usapangecon.com).

JC Punongbayan

JC Punongbayan is a PhD candidate and teaching fellow at the UP School of Economics. His views are independent of the views of his affiliations.

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