The recently launched cleanup of Metro Manila’s “toilet bowl” has been long overdue. It actually would not have been needed if only its care and management were not fragmented as it is.
There are 5,714 barangays in 178 cities and towns in seven provinces (Cavite, Laguna, Rizal, Bulacan, Pampanga, Bataan and Zambales) in three regions that throw their waste into Manila Bay. These local government units (LGUs) are at the forefront in the issuance (or non-issuance) of building permits, occupancy permits and business licenses, as well as the enforcement (or nonenforcement) of environmental and sanitation regulations.
Sure, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, the Laguna Lake Development Authority (LLDA) and other government agencies are involved, too, but it is the LGUs that are empowered by the Local Government Code and other laws to police their territories with regard to polluting establishments and informal settlements.
As Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu said at the launching of the cleanup, “… the required effort (for Manila Bay) will be about 330 times more (than Boracay).” He was referring to Manila Bay’s total area of 1,994 square kilometers and a coastline of 190 km—equivalent to 1,700 Boracays. The cleanup also requires the relocation and resettlement of some 40,000 informal settlers living around the bay, and dealing with the polluted waters from several rivers such as the Talisay (Bataan), Pampanga, Meycauayan-Marilao-Obando, Navotas-Malabon-Tullahan-Tenejeros, Pasig-Marikina-San Juan, Parañaque-Zapote, and Imus (Cavite) that flow into the bay.
The deteriorated condition of Manila Bay is not the result of oversight, but rather the continuous discharge into the bay and its rivers of untreated wastewater, garbage, industrial effluents, agricultural runoffs, and toxic oils over the past decades.
With the continuous increase in population, urbanization and industrialization in Metro Manila, Central Luzon and Calabarzon, Manila Bay is facing major issues arising from conflicts in the use of the bay and its natural resources, continued decline in the quality of the bay waters, and rapid destruction of its marine habitats. What was once a beacon of beauty with its glorious sunset is now a stinking cesspool of uncleanliness.
While national agencies such as the DENR, the Department of the Interior and Local Government, and the LLDA have started to close down polluting establishments, including government offices, it is not clear if there is an overall plan to guide all the different actions that are required, as well as to coordinate the efforts of all the stakeholders concerned, especially the barangays and the LGUs. It took several months for the Boracay cleanup to formulate a plan, and it was not even complete. And the magnitude of the Boracay case is miniscule compared to Manila Bay.
Resettling 40,000 informal settlers alone requires a major plan of its own. Requiring hundreds of thousands of business establishments to construct wastewater treatment plants is a massive challenge. And synchronizing the environmental infrastructure improvements of the numerous LGUs and national agencies concerned can be a very frustrating exercise. Orchestrating all these interrelated actions needs a comprehensive plan, as well as continuity of policy and funding.
The plan, if it is to be effective, has to be multisectoral, multilevel, multiyear and even multigenerational. And it has to be sufficiently funded. We have to look beyond the ongoing cleanup. The individual LGUs have crucial roles to play, but they cannot and should not be left on their own, lest parochial interests take priority over what collectively needs to be done.
Sustained cooperation and collaboration among the concerned national agencies and LGUs is critical. Continuity and performance targets should be established beyond individual political boundaries and presidential terms of office. Solving Manila Bay’s problems will be better if acted on together.