POSTSCRIPT / September 13, 2020 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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White sand band-aid won’t save the Bay

ONE does not have to be a seasoned environmentalist to see the folly of spreading fake white sand like a band-aid strip on a short stretch of the Manila Bay shore to clean, beautify and rehabilitate it.

Overlaying a portion of the shore with white sand is akin to attempting to lighten dark skin with an application of whitening cream, except that in the case of Manila Bay, the murky appearance of the beach comes from the grime accumulated over time.

The better thing to do is to clean up, stop the influx of untreated effluents from surrounding inland sources, install more treatment facilities, and rally the community in helping restore and conserve what nature has given us. Even now the coliform level near the shore remains unsafe.

Putting a superficial overlay of pinkish-white material, such as the crushed dolomite mined and shipped from Cebu, is not only a waste of time and resources but betrays distorted priorities at this time when other compelling concerns demand focused attention.

Must a beach be white for nature lovers to enjoy it? It’s like asking if one must be fair-skinned to be beautiful. Why focus on the color of the sand when there are bigger concerns like pollution, overfishing, degradation of habitats, and loss of biodiversity in the bay ecosystem?

There are countless alluring black-sand beaches around the world with their own unique appeal. Closer to home in Albay, a popular beach in Bacacay has been drawing tourists and locals with its fine black volcanic sand associated with Mt. Mayon rising majestically west of it.

Before one or two typhoons destroy evidence of the high-level stupidity of the baywalk project, go and see the mounds of synthetic white sand produced from 3,500 tons of crushed dolomite rocks being laid out for cosmetic effect.

A ranking official of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (sir, please raise your hand) said the beauty treatment is part of a P390-million project for the “beach nourishment, coastal restoration, and enhancement” of Manila Bay to look like Boracay beach.

Instead of flushing those precious pesos into the bay, the national capital’s septic tank, officials should have considered using the millions to improve the treatment of the toxic wastes that households and factories dump into the waterways flowing to the bay, among other measures.

The outlay is actually small compared to the massive damage inflicted on Laguna de Bay, the Pasig River and the bay through decades of neglect, corruption and incompetence of officials supposed to rehabilitate and protect these inter-connected waters – but it would have helped.

Or the money could have been used for regrowing mangrove forests that help maintain the balance in coastal areas. Mangroves in Cavite had been removed to make space for POGO (online gambling) centers. More were cut in Bulakan, Bulacan, where an airport is being built.

The dolomite is being spread on a 500-meter strip of the shore to cover the murky sand. But with the bay still polluted, the new layer will soon be discolored by the filthy waters or carried away in the ebb and flow of the tide.

The dolomite will scatter faster during storms when high waves come crashing on the beach. In tempestuous weather, the angry sea  – as if in self-defense — hurls back to the shore the trash and assorted debris dumped into it. Good-bye to the expensive fake white sand.

Citing studies, the Department of Health initially warned that dolomite sand could pose health hazards, such as respiratory problems. But matching press releases with ongoing activities, the DoH said later it was the crushing of dolomite, not the particles themselves, that was hazardous.

Officials left behind by the late DENR Secretary Gina Lopez, the true environmentalist, should take time to reflect on how puny are 3,500 tons of dolomite against the expansive bay waiting to swallow and spread the potentially noxious material where it could harm marine life.

Consider the size of Manila Bay. With an average depth of 17 meters, it is estimated to have a total volume of 28.9 billion cubic meters drained to it by 17,000 square-km of watershed area. (About 49 percent of the water influx is contributed by the Pampanga River.)

In Cebu, Gov. Gwen Garcia has ordered the Philippine Mining Service Corp. and the Dolomite Mining Corp. in Alcoy to stop their activities related to the bay project. She said their lack of an environmental impact assessment violates DENR Order No. 2003-30 and PD No. 1586.

She also said their dolomite mining can damage the ecosystem. Cebu is home to the Siloy or Black Shama, an endangered bird species found only in Alcoy, Argao, and the shrublands of Casili, Consolacion. In 2004 there were an estimated 1,000 to 5,000 of the birds left.

Fishermen who depend on Manila Bay for their sustenance bewailed the continuing reclamation of critical portions of the bay. The buildup has driven them farther out to sea, resulting in more costly and risky operations.

The fishermen’s group Pamalakaya called the project “completely absurd”. Its national chairman Fernando Hicap said: “This artificial rehabilitation focuses on aesthetic appearance rather than address the environmental degradation problems of Manila Bay.”

In Malacañang, however, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque justified the cosmetic project on the bay, saying without explaining the correlation that it might help improve people’s mental health during the pandemic.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 13, 2020)

* * *

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