Funding for Manila Bay 'white sand' can't be realigned for COVID-19 response – Roque

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Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque (FILE PHOTO)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, October 1) — The government can no longer divert the ₱389-million budget to revamp Manila Bay for COVID-19 response or other urgent measures, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said Thursday.

"Nasimulan na po 'yan eh so kinakailangang tapusin na. Ang mga nare-realign ay 'yung mga hindi pa nasisimulang mga proyekto [The project has been started so it should be completed. Funds are only realigned for projects which have not been started]," Roque said in a media briefing in Mariveles, Bataan.

He said the entire amount was spent on the controversial crushed dolomite laid out on a small part of the Manila Bay coastline.

Critics of the bay's cosmetic relief said the project was ill-timed amid the pandemic, especially as it drew thick crowds on the day it was opened to visitors. The overlaying of white sand made of refined dolomite rocks only provided an "aesthetic" solution but offered little help in improving the water quality and the reduction of waste, environment groups added.

Education Secretary Leonor Briones also said that the millions allotted for the beautification would have been used to buy gadgets for students and teachers as they shift to online learning in the new school year beginning October 5.

Vice President Leni Robredo also criticized the initiative as "insensitive,"as the money could have fed 80,000 families left hungry by the pandemic if split into cash aid increments of ₱5,000.

READ: Duterte hits back at critics of the 'white sand' overlaying at Manila Bay

"It's actually for the entire program of government in rehabilitating Manila Bay. Itong project na ito [This project] was proposed two years ago, included in last year's budget and only being implemented now," Roque added.

The Bayanihan law granted President Rodrigo Duterte the power to realign allocations under the 2019 and 2020 budgets to free up funds for coronavirus response, on top of additional borrowing to boost available cash. ​Some infrastructure projects which were stalled had their budgetary requirements slashed this year to be continued and funded under the 2021 spending plan, which Senator Ping Lacson found to be problematic.

The government has spent ₱389.22 billion for COVID-19 response as of September 14, data from the Budget Department showed, with ₱266.5 billion drawn from discontinued projects under the current and past year's budget.

READ: PH debt to hit over ₱10T by December

The Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, which took effect in March, allowed Duterte to discontinue programs, projects, or activity of any agency or state-run company if the allotments remain "unobligated" to be converted into emergency spending for the pandemic.

Earlier, Roque said the "white sand" view could help improve mental health and distract people from the crisis, which has infected over 300,000 people in the country and led to 5,000 deaths.

At the Senate, lawmakers questioned why the Department of the Interior and Local Government is given a ₱54 million budget for the Manila Bay cleanup. Secretary Eduardo Año said the amount was for "monitoring, evaluating and ensuring compliance" of local government units on the rehabilitation plan, which spans Metro Manila, Central Luzon, and Calabarzon.

The funds include "rewards" to local governments able to comply with requirements set by the agency. "Before the pandemic, every week talagang we are there cleaning up the Manila Bay including areas adjacent to it," Año added.

READ: Marine scientists explain why dolomite sand won't help solve Manila Bay's environmental mess