MANILA — Five years after the Philippine Supreme Court ordered authorities to clean up one of Asia’s most polluted bays, government agencies are still struggling to make progress.
It all started with a lawsuit 15 years ago. An environmental lawyer called Manila Bay a “toilet bowl,” said it wasn't fit for swimming. He said Philippines authorities should be held responsible for fixing it.
The government agencies resisted until the case landed in the supreme court. The high court ordered them to clean and maintain the bay and make it is safe enough to swim in or else face sanctions.
But five years after the order, the “toilet bowl” status lingers.
The Manila Bay Coordinating Office was created to help comply with the order. Every quarter, it collects water samples to measure the number of coliform bacteria -- the bay's chief pollutant -- which are found in feces.
Director Noel Gaerlan checks the numbers regularly. On this morning, he looks at the most recent figures, from the third quarter of last year.
"Oh, it's now in the billion level! One billion forty," he said.
That is one-billion parts of microorganisms per 100 milliliters of seawater. Gaerlan said the acceptable level for swimming is 5,000 parts per 100 milliliters. He said the coliform counts for Manila Bay are usually in the millions, if not billions.
Gaerlan is working on a comprehensive cleanup plan that must be submitted to the court by 2015. That plan includes relocating tens of thousands of squatters from waterways. An estimated 11 million residents in metro Manila are without proper sewage infrastructure, which meaning their untreated waste ends up in the bay.
In addition to human and industrial waste, garbage is a major problem.
As part of the interior and local government agency’s efforts to meet the court order, municipalities like Navotas City, just north of Manila, have been hosting twice-monthly garbage cleanup events for almost two years.
On a recent Saturday, scores of volunteers clear away trash from a small stretch of the 3.5-kilometer Navotas shoreline, which is piled with garbage.
“There’s still a lot but compared to the previous year, I think we’re going in the right direction. I think people are more conscious," said Navotas Mayor John Rey Tiangco, who leads the project. "But again, it won’t change in a day, a week or a month. It has to be a habit.”
Tiangco said his grandfather’s tuna business had to fish further and further away in cleaner waters and now they are based in Papua, New Guinea.
The Navotas shore has hundreds of squatter shanties. Salvador de la Cruz and his wife Priscilla have lived here for more than 30 years. Salvador used to shrimp at his doorstep long before plastic bags and fast food utensils proliferated. Now he travels an hour north to shrimp, but still catches some plastic debris.
Today the couple struggles to keep trash away from their shanty.
They said garbage keeps being dumped there and when they try to stop the dumping, people fight back.
Gaerlan of the Manila Bay Coordinating Office said once the comprehensive plan is in place, cleaning up will be more efficient.
“We still have hope, although we’re looking at a 20-25 year program. But, if we do this right, implement everything, enforce the environmental laws, no political agenda, then we could do something about it," Gaerlan stated. "So this time, we need to be serious.”
Getting serious about the bay’s cleanup is likely to be expensive. Gaerlan estimates his office needs some $3.7 billion - 10 times the entire budget of the government department his office belongs to.