To discredit the recent Manila Bay cleanup is politicking but to funnel the praises to the president is politicking just the same. It is unfortunate that appreciating an environmental action has become a tricky exercise.
On one hand, there was the labor of government and non-government employees, students, and the rest of men and women which joined the activity. The coordination between government agencies and non-government groups that produced the roughly 5,000-strong man-day to collect garbage is already an achievement of its own and that number is just for Metro Manila. Simultaneous cleanups also happened in Cavite, Pampanga, Bulacan, and Bataan—provinces that bound Manila Bay together with NCR.
On the other hand, President Rodrigo Duterte’s unofficial spinners in social media are channeling all praises toward him, citing the event as proof of his political will. Using posts void of context or, worse, facts about the bay’s pollution, his ardent supporters are choosing to propagate the false narrative that this is the first effort (and result) of its kind.
It is right to recognize the immediate outcome. Let us give credits to whom they are due: students, civic and religious groups, employees and officials of various departments, spearheaded by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, at the instruction of the president. Such recognition, however, should not undermine or forget the learnings from earlier recovery efforts.
Cleanups have happened before, but an aesthetically clean bay could only last until the nearest wave pattern that upturns and pushes more wastes to surface and to shore. It just tells the problem goes beyond what is visible from the Baywalk. Officials themselves are warning about the filth beneath and the dangerous levels of coliform in its waters even after the cleanup.
The real solution means cleaning sewages that flow directly to the bay or those that flow through the rivers that end up in the bay. The organization Partnerships in Environmental Management for the Seas of East Asia or PEMSEA identified that 70% of the organic pollution load of Manila Bay comes from households while 21% from Pasig River. So the quality of our rivers (especially Pasig River), tributaries, creeks, and canals bear major factor to the health of the bay.
The government and NGOs since the late ‘90s have been making strides in improving Pasig River away from its “biologically dead” state but as a whole, all the waterways that feed Manila Bay still need heavy lifting.
In the first few months after Duterte was elected, Baclaran, Divisoria, and Quiapo underwent clearing operations that resulted to their passable roads. For each of those locations, the pattern of behavior was the same: cleanup, take a photo, post, falsely claim that the place has never been as clean, and credit Duterte for it. The pictures only served the purpose of feeding the over-enthusiasm surrounding Duterte. As soon as the momentary hype fizzled among fans and lacking any long term solution from the government, these busy districts have since reverted to their pre-cleanup state.
There is a high possibility that Manila Bay will end up similarly. Fanaticism could take the value away from the recent collective effort on the bay. Lies only create a shortsighted view of what really needs to be done.
(A version of this article was printed on the opinion pages of Regioneer, a new Batangas-based newsweekly, on February 11, 2019.)