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Is Manila’s new white sand coast a threat to marine life?

The Philippines’ department of environment and natural resources has come under fire after dumping dolomite sand, typically used in construction, on the shores of Manila Bay as part of an US$8 million beautification project.

Philippine authorities’ latest efforts to clean up Manila Bay, one of the country’s most polluted bodies of water, has come under fire after they dumped truckloads of white sand over the shoreline at the end of August.

Mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno celebrated what he called a long-delayed rehabilitation move, but the artificial sand — crushed dolomite boulders from a quarry in Cebu province in the central Philippines — drew a backlash from environmental groups and public officials.

Environmentalists say the project passed over the public consultation phase and lacked the necessary environmental impact studies. Lawmakers and public officials have called it a waste of resources that could have been diverted to supplement the country’s pandemic health response and provide gadgets for public school students grappling with online learning.

“This project is not timely,” Gloria Estenzo Ramos, executive director of marine conservation NGO Oceana Philippines, said in an online press conference. “This will be a total waste of people’s money. Government resources should be allocated more to helping Filipinos affected by the pandemic.”

The 389 million pesos ($8 million) project is part of the “beach nourishment programme” being carried out by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). The programme, in turn, fits into a 22-year master plan that aims to bring Manila Bay, the center of the Philippines’ navigational trade and commerce, back to its former glory. In addition to the economic outcomes, the DENR wants to make the water in the bay fit for swimming and to keep heavy metal and waste contamination at a minimum.

Years of unsustainable aquaculture and fishing practices, exacerbated by industrial and waste pollution, have taken a toll on the bay’s marine life and water quality. Fisherfolk living along the 19-kilometer (12-mile) coastline have reported dwindling fish catches; mass fish die-offs and red tide alerts prompted by algal blooms are an annual occurrence.

The state of Manila’s iconic bay birthed numerous rehabilitation campaigns, beginning in the 1990s, mostly centered on cleaning up the area. A landmark 2008 ruling by the Supreme Court mandated government agencies, led by the DENR, to “clean up, rehabilitate, preserve, restore, and maintain the waters of Manila Bay.”

To complement the ruling, President Rodrigo Duterte issued an executive order last year to speed up the rehab. Since then, authorities have relocated thousands of urban poor residents, started planting mangroves, and kicked off numerous cleanups.

But dumping dolomite — most commonly used in construction — on the shore to make it look like a white sand beach is a step backward, groups say. “One of the objectives of Manila Bay rehabilitation is to decrease the amount of heavy metals in its waters,” said Fernando Hicap of the fisherfolk group Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya).

“Dolomite contains high amount of heavy metals such as aluminum, lead and mercury, which would contribute to the pollution and acidity of Manila Bay,” Hicap said. “Why is DENR leading a campaign that could increase and cause further harm to the bay?”

This P389-million project represents just 0.83 per cent of the entire P47-billion [$968 million] Manila Bay rehab programme. The potential for large-scale corruption, dereliction of duty, and ecological harm is completely unacceptable in these times of pandemic crisis.

Leon Dulce, national coordinator, Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment

Impact studies ‘not necessary’

Environmental groups are pushing for a science-based justification for the DENR’s move, in the form of an environmental impact study (EIS). But DENR undersecretary Benny Antiporda said the EIS and an environmental compliance certificate (ECC) are not necessary.

“It’s a rehabilitation programme, not a construction,” he told The Philippine Star, adding the department had studied the project before pushing through with the implementation. Antiporda said engineering interventions are being done to ensure that the dolomite sand overlay will be preserved and that it can withstand the more than 20 typhoons that barrel through the Philippines each year.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque, however, said earlier this week that the project had passed the EIS and that its budget had been approved prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. Government claims that these funds could not be funneled to Covid-19 response despite the passage of the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, which gave the President legal power to divert national funds for the pandemic.

Oceana’s Ramos stressed the importance of the EIS, which has not been made public. “Under the Fisheries Code, Local Government Code and the Environmental Impact Assessment System Act, government agencies are required to undergo Environmental Impact Study process and Environmental Compliance Certificate for this kind of project,” Oceana said in a statement.

“Ironically, it is the DENR that does not seem to follow the requirements set by law,” Ramos said.

Pamalakaya remains concerned about the artificial sand’s potential impacts on Manila Bay’s marine life, on which the fisherfolk group’s members depend for their daily sustenance. There are fears that the dolomite contains hazardous dust particles and that, once eroded, it will cause marine sedimentation.

Fishing is an important activity in Manila Bay, despite its waters containing high levels of coliform bacteria. The area notorious as a pollution catch basin is limited to the water body near Manila’s port. Beyond the port, shellfish and aquaculture farms flourish.

Last year, a new-to-science sardine species, Sardinella pacifica, was identified from the bay. Once rehabilitated, Manila Bay could become a sardine conservation area, according to the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. Farther out, near the mouth of the bay, the Ecosystems Research and Development Bureau, the DENR’s research arm, also discovered coral reefs thriving in the bay despite the condition of the water.

This makes the environmental assessment report important, said Rodne Galicia of Living Laudato Si’, an environmental advocacy group affiliated with the Catholic Church. “We don’t know what’s under that sand … if there are seagrass beds there,” he said. “If there are seagrass beds, dredging will obliterate the seagrass. And we don’t know yet the impacts on the fisheries sector and other marine life in the area.”

It’s not just Manila Bay’s environment that’s at risk, Ramos said. The quarries in Alcoy, Cebu, from which the dolomite sand was sourced are massive operations that have long threatened the region’s terrestrial species. Cebu only has 1 per cent of its original forest cover left, yet even this sliver of wilderness is home to one of the highest numbers of threatened endemic species in the Philippines, including the endangered black shama (Copsychus cebuensis), a rare and endangered songbird.

“We found out that dolomite sand is also being used for beach nourishment projects in Cebu and nearby areas,” said Rose-Liza Eisma Osorio, chair of the IUCN Academy of Environmental Law and a law professor at the University of Cebu. “It’s being mined in one of the last remaining forest areas in Cebu that hosts endemic species. If this continues, what will happen to our forests?”

At the height of the dolomite issue, the Cebu provincial government said it hadn’t been informed of the Manila Bay project and that it hadn’t issued transport permits for the shipment of boulders to the capital. It subsequently halted dolomite quarrying activities in Alcoy.

Legal recourse

While replenishing the sand on beaches is a common way to combat erosion, studies show that it’s only a short-term solution. Topsoil sand needs to be reapplied and its erosion can cause sedimentation and block estuaries.

It’s an “unsustainable solution to the environmental problems besetting the historic body of water,” environmental youth group Wavefarers said. Instead of quick and aesthetic fixes, the government should have invested in mangrove rehabilitation projects, said executive director Charisse Reganion.

“In conserving Manila Bay and all other environments, DENR must be conscious of actual long-term impacts and not superficial fixes,” Reganion said. “We need a healthy rehabilitated Manila Bay, for the environment and the people.”

For Pamalakaya’s Hicap, dumping artificial sand in Manila Bay is not rehabilitation but a form of land reclamation — the process of elevating existing land or filling in coastal areas such as abandoned fishing ponds to create islands or extend land area. Under the 2008 Supreme Court ruling, “we expected Manila Bay to return to what it was,” Hicap said. “Dumping dolomite, that white sand, is a clear reclamation effort — it’s not rehabilitation.”

Pamalakaya has been actively campaigning against land reclamation in Manila and surrounding provinces. Before the pandemic, 25 reclamation projects had been approved, with most in the construction phase in Manila Bay. While opponents say that reclamation breaches the bay’s protected status, the issue has yet to be raised with or deliberated by the Supreme Court.

Cebu-based Osorio said bringing the issue before the court and invoking the 2008 ruling is the best legal intervention to halt the white sand project.

The Office of the Ombudsman’s environmental team could also investigate the “alleged bloating of costs and cutting of regulatory corners in the Manila dolomite dump,” said Leon Dulce of the group Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment.

“This P389-million project represents just 0.83 per cent of the entire P47-billion [$968 million] Manila Bay rehab programme,” he said in a statement. “The potential for large-scale corruption, dereliction of duty, and ecological harm is completely unacceptable in these times of pandemic crisis.”

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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