A tale of two watersheds

Ferdie Marcelo, VERA Files

Posted at Apr 07 2019 05:42 PM

Normally the water at the La Mesa reservoir should reach up to where the trees begin. Ferdie Marcelo

One nourishes communities. The other has become a source of distress.

The Anayan-Rumangrap Watershed in Mt. Isarog in Camarines Norte provides sustenance to the population living in nearby communities, who in turn take care of it.

The La Mesa Watershed in Novaliches, on the other hand, is in a state of distress; people living in Metro Manila can feel it.

A watershed is a source of life. It is high ground from where water from the uplands flows into several channels.

The state of the watershed determines the water that goes to the land that is consumed by the whole population.

Water is essential in life. A human body needs water to function. In the same manner, water is a vital component of a community. Without water, there is no life.

The water crisis that recently hit Metro Manila hard brought into public attention the La Mesa Watershed, which is supposed to provide fresh water to over 12 million residents to the area as well as neighboring provinces.

The La Mesa Watershed

The La Mesa Watershed is not healthy, said Joanaviva Caceres-Plopenio, officer-in-charge and director at the Institute for Environmental Conservation and Research of the Ateneo de Naga University, during the March 22 celebration of World Water Day in Naga City.

Desiccation cracks at the sides of the reservoir. Ferdie Marcelo

A watershed’s ability to mitigate flooding during the wet season and provide water during the dry season - its adaptive capacity during stressful conditions - is the barometer by which a watershed’s health is gauged.

In this, the La Mesa Watershed seems to be failing, said Plopenio said.

A 2013 vulnerability assessment by environmental scientist Cristino Tiburan Jr. cited two major issues with the La Mesa watershed: erosion and landslide and the biodiversity loss which are being blamed on deforestation.

La Mesa Watershed Preserve Guide Roden Akbayan viewing the dry reservoir. Ferdie Marcelo.

Programs have been undertaken to reforest the La Mesa Watershed in the past years. Unfortunately, policy consistency appears lacking.
The Manila Seedling Bank Foundation had a successful five-year reforestation program that started in 1978. Sadly, when the program ended in 1983, land conversion and illegal harvesting of trees resumed.

The Metropolitan Waterworks Sewerage System MWSS, the agency that is tasked to take care of the La Mesa Watershed has also been questioned by the Commission on Audit for its decision to sell a portion of the watershed to its own officers and employees.
The sale runs counter to Section II Article XII of the 1987 Constitution, which provides that “with the exception of agricultural lands, all other natural resources shall not be alienated.”

Tree planting has been on-going since 2000 but the trees take a lot of time to grow. Ferdie Marcelo.

Despite the Constitutional prohibition, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources issued an Environmental Compliance Certificate for the sale, but Gina Lopez canceled it in December 2016 when she became DENR head.

La Mesa Nature Preserve guide Roden "Denden" Akbayin said the area allocated for the housing of MWSS officers and employees had been fenced, but no building or cutting of trees has happened.

Akbayin said that at the last accounting of families in the area in 2014, there were still 25 families of informal settlers inside the watershed. Kaingin, or slash and burn farming, still occurs though not as often as when he first started working there in 2000.

He said tree planting efforts continue. Old trees are sparse and may be found only in a few areas further into the interior of the watershed.

The Anayan-Rumangrap Watershed

Mt. Isarog in Camarines Sur was established as a national park in 1938. One of its watershed areas is the 317-hectare Anayan-Rumangrap Watershed.

Mount Isarog.Ferdie Marcelo.

It was going the same path as the direction the La Mesa Watershed is taking until the passage of the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act in 1992 that listed Mt. Isarog as a Protected Area.

Prior to the declaration, 60 percent of the Anayan-Rumangrap had been converted to agricultural use and informal settlers already made their homes inside the watershed, according to information from the Metropolitan Naga Water District (MNWD).

Fluctuating water flow from its two primary springs and water shortages prompted the MNWD to work with the DENR for the rehabilitation, management, and protection of the watershed in 1993.

Restricted area in Anayan-Rumangrap Watershed. Ferdie Marcelo.

For many years the watershed has been the source for food, water, and timber - essentially all that the watershed settlers needed to survive.

Some of these settlers can trace their roots back to the indigenous Agta people, who have called Mt. Isarog home long before the Spaniards came, and relocating them was the biggest challenge to the area’s rehabilitation.

But the settlers eventually recognized that the relocation site being given to them offers better living conditions and opportunities.

MNWD Chair Jorge Palma said they had a two-pronged approach to the problem, one of which involved the provision of infrastructure in the resettlement area.

Vegetable farming on rows of split bamboo. Ferdie Marcelo.

With assistance from the Rotary Club of Naga, Plan International Bicol, and the local government of Pili town, they provided the community with a school building, day-care center, and a playground. The Department of Agriculture also provided a multi-purpose pavement-solar dryer.

The other approach involved changing the mindset of the watershed rehabilitators. Instead of looking at the settlers as problems, they recruited the settlers as co-protectors of the watershed.

The last of the informal settlers were relocated to the resettlement site in 2015.

Menardo Nario or Mang Nardo is one of the Mt. Isarog Guardians (MIG), a group organized to protect and reforest the watershed in 1993. He is among those who accepted a home in the resettlement site at the foot of Mt. Isarog.

On top of that, Mang Nardo also guides the occasional tourist adventurous enough to go deeper into the watershed.
His regular clients are bird watchers drawn to Mt. Isarog’s rich ecosystem.