land reclamation in the Philippines

[OPINION] Land reclamation demands a delicate balancing act

Jayson Edward San Juan

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[OPINION] Land reclamation demands a delicate balancing act

Raffy de Guzman/Rappler

'Land reclamation is a tool, neither inherently good nor inherently bad. Its impact largely depends on how it is employed.'

News ran rife of the suspension of land reclamation projects in Manila Bay. While there seems to be conflicting details in the statements of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and his Environment Secretary Maria Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga regarding the suspension order, it is certain that land reclamation as an undertaking has gained renewed attention in the public discourse. After all, land reclamation alters the natural environment in ways other human activities do not.

Land reclamation — the process of creating new land by filling or dredging water bodies — has long vexed economic managers and environmental advocates. The suspension of land reclamation projects in Manila Bay highlights the debate between economic development and environmental preservation.

As an urban planner, I believe it is essential to approach this issue with nuanced perspective. Land reclamation is a tool, neither inherently good nor inherently bad. Its impact largely depends on how it is employed. While it can undoubtedly serve as a catalyst for urban development under optimal conditions, the potential harm that land reclamation poses to the environment demands cautious and responsible implementation.

Land reclamation as a development tool

Land reclamation has historically played a crucial role in the expansion of urban areas and the creation of valuable land resources. Well-executed land reclamation can offer a solution to the land scarcity issues faced by many coastal cities. By creating new land in densely populated urban areas where every inch of available land is precious, reclamation can provide opportunities to accommodate growing populations, establish new economic centers, enhance essential infrastructure, and unlock economic potential of land that can result to improved living standards and urban vibrancy.

The earliest known land reclamation activity in the Philippines took place in the 19th century when Spanish colonizers dredged the waters in the western portion of Intramuros to construct the old port (now Port of Manila).

In the 1970s, portions of Manila Bay encompassing Manila, Pasay, and Parañaque were reclaimed. This strip of land currently hosts the Cultural Center of the Philippines Complex, GSIS Building, Senate Building, SM Mall of Asia, and Entertainment City, among other structures, and was intended to be a cultural and entertainment center.

Under the best circumstances, well-planned reclamation projects can stimulate economic growth by attracting investments, creating jobs, and fostering a conducive environment for businesses to thrive. By strategically placing reclamation near existing urban centers, these projects can bolster connectivity and accessibility, enhancing the urban experience for both residents and tourists.

Flipside: Land reclamation alters the environment

Land reclamation, however, comes with significant environmental and ecological risks. Its benefits must be carefully weighed against its potential negative impacts, especially in ecologically sensitive areas like Manila Bay.

Land reclamation irreversibly alters the natural environment; it disrupts the natural coastal ecosystem, and with that, marine and aquatic habitats. Mangroves, coral reefs, and other sensitive marine environments are often irreparably damaged during the reclamation process. These ecosystems provide critical services such as flood control, water purification, and habitat for marine life. The loss of these services can lead to increased vulnerability to natural disasters, degradation of water quality, and loss of biodiversity.

These ecological consequences can, in turn, affect local communities that depend on coastal resources for their livelihoods. Early this year, fishers expressed concerns on the possible negative effects of land reclamation projects along the Parañaque and Pasay sides of Manila Bay, as the projects threaten to destroy breeding grounds of aquatic resources.

Land reclamation — ill-advised and improperly executed — will destroy the balance that natural coastal ecosystems provide, and consequently, all living things dependent on this delicate dance for survival.

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Rigorous and transparent environmental impact assessments must be conducted before any reclamation project is approved. These assessments should consider the long-term effects on marine biodiversity, water quality, and shoreline stability. Additionally, regulations should be in place to ensure that reclamation projects adhere to sustainable practices, including habitat restoration, mangrove planting, incorporating green infrastructure, designing resilient waterfronts, and implementing strict monitoring and mitigation measures.

Further, residents of the local community, environmental advocates, and technical experts should have seats at the table to voice their concerns, provide insights, and help shape the projects to align with the community’s best interests.

Land reclamation is a tool that can yield significant benefits under the right circumstances. However, its potential to disrupt ecosystems and communities underscores the importance of responsible planning and execution. By prioritizing sustainable practices and stringent regulations, we can harness the potential of land reclamation while safeguarding the natural resources that our cities and communities depend on. As urban planners, we must embrace rigorous planning practices and foster collaboration to pave the way for a future where our cities can thrive without compromising the ecosystems that support them. –

Jayson Edward San Juan is a licensed urban planner. He is the President of the Philippine Institute of Environmental Planners National Capital Region, the largest chapter of the sole PRC-accredited professional organization of environmental (urban) planners. His views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of any of his affiliations.

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