Will we ever see a clean Manila Bay?

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Award-winning lawyer and environmental activist Tony Oposa Jr. suggests three practical pathways to clean our waters.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Twenty years ago in January 1999, a group of concerned citizens, led by law students from the University of the Philippines, filed an ambitious lawsuit in a trial court south of Manila. The petitioners, including the Manila Bay residents of the tahong (mussels) and talaba (oysters), sued practically the entire Philippine government for a simple prayer: Please clean up Manila Bay.

For water to be swimmable, the fecal bacteria content must not be more than 100 units per cubic meter. In January 1999, when the case was filed, the fecal bacteria in Manila Bay was one million units per cubic meter. Twenty years later, in January 2019, one would expect it to be little lower.

But guess what? There are now 330 million units of fecal bacteria for every cubic meter. In some parts of Manila Bay, it is 1 billion.

Wow, that is pure s**t. So much for the triumph of the Rule of Law.

Way forward

It is said that in the Philippines, laws are only suggestions. This seemed to have become the destiny of the 20-year-old story of Manila Bay.

It had to take someone who is not from Manila, a Bisaya, to start cleaning up our seas. It started with Boracay. And now it is Manila Bay.

Here are three practical pathways to clean our waters:

1. Solid waste (basura - the most visible dirt)

The Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) is on the right track. Last December 2018, the DILG directed an environmental compliance audit (ECA) of the local governments surrounding Manila Bay. This region-wide inspection will reveal which local governments, down to the barangay level, are complying with the law on solid waste management. Simple points to consider are: separation of wet and dry wastes, no-separation-no-collection rule, materials recovery facilities, and visible garbage on roadsides and public spaces.

The inspection exercise should not look for who is not complying. Finding what is wrong is easy. What the government should be looking for are the people and communities who are doing good things on solid waste management. We should shine upon them the spotlight of recognition.

2. Sewage and septage from humans (the primary source of fecal bacteria)

These words refer to the water used — to bathe, wash, laundry, etc. — and the human wastes that are discharged every single day. Where does it go? Is this why in 20 years the fecal bacteria in Manila Bay rose from 1 million to 330 million?

That is the legal duty of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) and the local water districts. In Metro Manila, the MWSS contracted the task to private concessionaires Maynilad and Manila Water. Please check your water bill. Part of what we pay for every month is a sewerage fee.

Do we now have a sewerage and septage system? If we do, why has the fecal bacteria in Manila Bay risen? Where did all that money go?

Instead of quarreling with them, a little word of advice. Nature has given us all the answers. We only have to humbly listen. Septage and sewage can be treated by nature in the form of mini- and micro-wetlands. Unlike a conventional sewage treatment plant, natural septage treatment plants (STPs) do not need a lot of space, time, and money to build and operate. In fact, it is so simple and inexpensive that it can be done right away in small modules for homes and communities.

If everyone can only get together, hand-in-hand, shoulder-to-shoulder, in the spirit of bayanihan — we may yet see and swim in a clean Manila Bay in our lifetime. Bayanihan, after all, is made up of two beautiful words: Bayan which means community and cooperation, and bayani which means hero. It essentially means cooperative heroism.

3. Relocation of informal settlers

This is the more challenging and interesting journey that is better left to the powers of today. But it need not take long, nor must it be expensive. We have real-life models: Look at the 40 sq. meter ‘condos’ near the Baywalk of Puerto Princesa City in Palawan. A project of an enlightened mayor many years ago, they look even better than the condos of BGC. And guess how much it costs? ₱800 per month.

Why was that possible? Because it was an honest-to-goodness effort (without kickbacks) to provide decent, affordable, and convenient housing for our people. Yes, Build, Build, Build. And let’s build, build, build more affordable housing, especially for our young and soon-to-be-homeless people.

The Iloilo River restoration is another success story worth watching. The clean-up, dredging, relocation of informal settlers, and the remarkable river quality improvement took only about 1,000 days.

Lessons learned

Using the law as the thinking tool, almost a lifetime was spent trying to right wrongs done to the Land, Air and Water (the LAW) of Life. Here are a few lessons learned.

1. Planting seeds

“Perhaps anything that is worth doing cannot be done in one lifetime.” In this lifetime, we can only plant seeds of hope. If, by some good luck, during our time we see the seeds spring to life, salamat po.

2. The power of positive energy

The greatest human hunger is not the hunger for food. It is the hunger of the heart for appreciation.

It is time to change the narrative of the law from being an enforcer to being an enabler. It is time to shift the emphasis of law from the negative energy of enforcement to the happy energy of positive reinforcement.

The government can launch a Manila Bay region-wide search for success stories and good efforts. Then we can identify the moving spirits behind the good stories, and then give them due recognition. Perhaps this can even be held in the Heroes Hall of the Malacañan Palace. Yes, it is time to generate the positive power of appreciation and recognition.

As an Asian philosopher once said, “Kind words do not just praise the goodness of others. Kind words have the power to change the destiny of a nation.”

A little difference

Twenty years ago, young Filipinos took the government to court to tell a simple story — to care for Manila Bay. After a long and lonely journey, they got a court judgment ordering a dozen government agencies to do what they should have done 50 years ago.

Yes, it is a lonely journey to have as clients the sea and the fish, who do not pay attorney’s fees. But just when the concerned citizens had lost almost all hope that the Manila Bay will ever see the light of day, something sparkles.

Emperors come and go, empires rise and fall. But a story lives forever. A story of the sea.

But “never doubt for a single moment that a handful of thoughtful and committed men and women can change the world. It is the only thing that ever did.”

To those of you in positions of power today, with your passion and focused action, you are on your way to making a big difference.