OPINION: There’s a 20-year backstory in the Manila Bay project that people need to know 2
A man looks on as workers spread synthetic white sand along a portion of the Manila Bay coast on Thursday. Photo by Jonathan Cellona

OPINION: There’s a 20-year backstory in the Manila Bay project that people need to know

A former Manila resident says the pile of sand is there as the result of a process.
RAFAEL A.S.G. ONGPIN   | Sep 06 2020

There’s been a lot of noise since yesterday about a pile of sand on Roxas Boulevard. It’s just a pile of sand, but it has begun to assume the proportions of the Sierra Madre.

The point of this piece is not to defend the government’s actions, but try to examine this issue a little more objectively. In fact, let’s talk about science, and numbers.

The pile of sand on Roxas Boulevard is a tiny component of a project that originated well before the pandemic was even on the horizon. This project, formally named the “Manila Bay Rehabilitation” was launched on January 26, 2017, by DENR Secretary Roy Cimatu, and you can read about it right here.

OPINION: There’s a 20-year backstory in the Manila Bay project that people need to know 3
View from the ocean. The author on a sailing trip took this picture Saturday, September 5, around 3:30 PM.

It should be noted that this project was forced upon the Executive Branch by the Supreme Court, in a decision dated December 18, 2008: The government commenced planning and data gathering for the project shortly thereafter. So any claim that the Dutertards might try to make about him being the only one having the political will to finally get this project rolling, rings hollow.

The Supreme Court decision above was the result of a petition by a determined group of private individuals calling themselves the “Concerned Residents of Manila Bay”. The group included Atty. Jaime Agustin Oposa, who is the son of the legendary environmental activist Atty. Antonio Oposa, a Ramon Magsaysay awardee. 

On January 29, 1999, the Concerned Residents of Manila Bay filed a civil suit at the Regional Trial Court of Imus, Cavite, to force government agencies to clean up Manila Bay, as they were mandated to, by their own policy. In response, the government sued them, and lost; the process took almost 10 years. In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that the government had to do it. It took another 10 years before the project was actually implemented.

In other words, the pile of sand is there as the result of a process that stretches a full twenty years back into the past.

Again, the pile of sand is an almost insignificant component of the project. The main goal is to stop the flow of pollution into Manila Bay from Metro Manila and the eight provinces which border Manila Bay. 

This is an enormous undertaking, as it involves finding these sources of pollution, and redirecting the solid components to places where they can be left to decompose in peace, and the liquid components into water treatment plants, which heretofore did not exist, and thus had to be built. The pollution, by the way, originates as far away as Pampanga and Tarlac and Bulacan in Central Luzon, although the great bulk of it is, of course, generated by the most densely populated city in the world, Metro Manila.

There is one such water treatment plant, solar-powered, by the way, just down the road from the pile of sand, right before the Manila Yacht Club. It takes the effluent from the open canal that runs from the slums of Leveriza, between De La Salle University and the Rizal Memorial Coliseum, under the Manila Zoo, and past the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas. This plant is a major milestone in attenuating pollution in the bay, although it was just put into operation in March. Yet, hardly anyone has noticed it, whereas a pile of sand…

The person, or “czar” (as this government likes to call them) responsible for the execution of this project is DENR Secretary Roy Cimatu, formerly Chief Of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Cimatu is a demonstratedly competent manager and leader. He studied engineering in college before joining the Philippine Military Academy Magiting Class, where he graduated as the Baron, or valedictorian in 1970. He also earned a Master’s degree in Business Administration from the Ateneo de Manila, studied command management at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, and is a licensed pilot for both fixed and rotary wing. He has an exemplary service record.

Mr. Cimatu, who I have interviewed in the past, is not a loquacious person. He prefers to do, not talk. He is not inarticulate, simply prioritizes action over explanation. After he, Sec. Ed Año, and Sec. Berna Romulo Puyat executed the Boracay cleanup, Duterte assigned Cimatu alone to clean up Manila Bay.

OPINION: There’s a 20-year backstory in the Manila Bay project that people need to know 4
In this file photo taken on July 2019, Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu mentioned the possibility that a portion of the Manila Bay may be fit for swimming by the end of the year or even earlier. Photo by Jekki Pascual, ABS-CBN News

Let’s talk about baseline data. 

In 2018, at the start of the project, Cimatu noted that the inshore level of fecal coliform contamination found on the small strip of beach adjacent to Salas St., along Roxas Boulevard was 54,000,000 mpn per 100 ml. of water, whereas the maximum DENR safe level standard for swimming is just 200 mpn per 100 ml. “MPN” here means “Most Probable Number”, and is statistical jargon for “average”. Fifty four million mpn is 270,000 times as much fecal coliform bacteria as what’s considered safe, which is 200.

But 54 million mpn/ 100 ml. was just the median measurement. The raw water outlet leading from Leveriza Street and emptying into the Manila Yacht Club basin measured at— get this— 210 million mpn/ 100 ml, or about 4 times the median, and almost exactly a million times the safe level.

The next raw water outlet, leading from Remedios Street, measured 160 million mpn/100ml. This was the principal reason the DENR had to shut down water supply to the Aristocrat Restaurant in Malate, January 2019. The Laguna Lake Development Authority, with the DENR, issued the establishment, along with the Gloria Maris in CCP and the Esplanade San Miguel by the Bay, a cease and desist order for pollutive water discharge and not having a suitable wastewater facility. 

Essentially, the baseline observed measurement was that Manila Bay, along the coastline, was liquid shit. I think you might agree that cleaning this up was something of a challenge.

In one year, Cimatu and the two or three dozen agencies involved in the task force, as well as the dozens of local governments along the 190 km of coastline of Manila Bay (not counting Corregidor), were, through various measures, able to reduce the median measurement from 54 million to 7 million. This was in January 2019.

In January, 2020, the DENR noted that the Padre Faura outfall was down to 920,000 mpn/100 ml, from its pre-rehabilitation level of 7.21 million mpn/100 ml., while the Rajah Soliman outfall went down from 35 million mpn/100 ml to 11 million mpn/100 ml.

Now, let’s talk about the pile of sand.

I mentioned above that there is a small strip of beach outside the sea wall on Roxas Boulevard, adjacent to Salas St.(named after Rafael Salas, statesman). It has always been there, since the boulevard was reclaimed by the colonial American government. However, in the last few decades, it was so covered in plastic garbage that people simply forgot it was a beach. In fact, the famous staged photo of the DPWH/ DENR officials happened right there, after a cleanup, in which they removed dozens of truckloads of plastic garbage and uncovered the sand and rocks for the first time in decades.

Do people swim there? You bet they do. I lived in Malate for 20 years, and I would see sizeable crowds there on weekends. Notoriously, the Manila City government has always shrilly emphasized that swimming is not allowed in Manila Bay, but they never, to my knowledge, enforced it, and certainly not in that area. When Mayor Lito Atienza built the Baywalk, in fact, that part of it became choked with parked jeepneys and AUV’s of the petit bourgeoisie and working class.

I went sailing with some friends, on Saturday, June 27, and saw that they were doing some earthmoving there. There was a couple of barges, a backhoe, a dredge, some sheet piles… a minor reclamation, actually. At the time, I thought nothing of it.

Well, guess what: that’s what the pile of sand is for. It’s not to create a beach, the beach was always there. It’s to improve it. The goal of the Manila Bay cleanup is to reduce the level of pollution to what the law calls ‘Class B, suitable for swimming, scuba diving and other aquatic activities.’ 

OPINION: There’s a 20-year backstory in the Manila Bay project that people need to know 5
People came to check out what a clean Manila Bay looks like in this photo taken last January 2019. Photo by George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Are people going to swim there? You bet they are, and the government cannot stop them, short of posting a battalion of Marines to guard the place. So what the government is doing is at least giving them a safe and somewhat comfortable place to swim in, in the future, when they have made the water clean enough.

Is this a cosmetic measure, lipstick on a pig? To some extent, for now, yes. But if the DENR achieves its target of maximum 200 mpn/100ml., i.e. safe to swim in, this beach will be a monumental achievement.

So, go ahead, throw your rotten tomatoes at the government, if you like. But to my mind, Sec. Roy Cimatu and his team are doing their job, and it’s a big job. The pile of sand is merely a small and somewhat inappropriate symbol of what will be an actual Herculean achievement.

I’m not saying he is a hero. Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t; you decide. But I can tell you this: to me, Roy Cimatu is a genuine public servant, and for that alone, I hope he will keep his chin up.