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The Online Magazine for Sustainable Seas
August, 1998 Vol. 1 No. 8

Troubled Waters
Pollution has already killed many of our rivers. Must we allow it to kill our seas as well?






This river is so clean and blue!" There was a time when this observation, pronounced in the amazed tone of one seeing something for the first time, would have sounded odd. But not anymore. Clean and blue rivers are becoming an increasingly rare sight in our country, especially in our cities.

"The state of the waterways running through our urban areas needs no elaboration," said then Environmental Management Bureau Director Rodrigo Fuentes in a paper presented to a 1993 workshop on Environmental Threats to Future Generations. "Their degradation is evident and exemplified by the murky waters of the Pasig and Tenejeros-Tullahan Rivers. Water quality in most river systems in [Metro Manila] has deteriorated and become unfit for human use or even survival of aquatic life."

Rivers die

According to a 1994 survey conducted by the Environmental Management Bureau, of 76 rivers in Luzon, 39 were polluted. Furthermore, a monitoring of 119 rivers in different parts of the country in 1991-92 showed that only 45 met water quality standards. All rivers in Metro Manila, except the upper reaches of Marikina River, have long been declared "biologically dead." Laguna de Bay, the country’s largest freshwater lake is also said to have reached "the end of the line," as one pundit has put it. Studies conducted in 1985 – that’s 13 years ago – showed that coliform content in Laguna Lake was 2 million MPN/100 ml, 400 times the acceptable level for Class C water (water for fishing and industrial supply). No new study has been conducted since because, as University of the Philippines (UP) Chemistry Professor Carlito Barril points out, the coliform level is too high "our microbiologists [couldn’t] count [it] anymore." The lake is so dark, clarity is reduced to 10 cm, a mere 10% of the minimum acceptable level. Don’t even dare touch the waters, Barril warns, or "you’ll get thousands of microbes."

What happened? In a word, pollution. Noted Fuentes in his 1993 paper, "Sewage routinely released into our waterways, as well as discharges from industries and dumped domestic garbage, have polluted these water resources beyond description."

UP’s Barril is not one to run out of words to describe Laguna de Bay, the subject of many of his studies. The lake, he says, is "already in a non-responding stage. It’s supersaturated. Whatever you add there has no effect anymore. It’s a cesspool, a very, very big septic tank. All sorts of pollution is there. Name it, it’s there." The 922-square km lake is ringed by about 3,000 factories, most of which dump their effluents into the lake, accounting for 30% of the wastes discharged into the lake (another 30% come from households and the rest from livestock and agricultural sources). Besides untreated wastes, Laguna Lake – as well as other bodies of water such as the Wawa Dam and Buso-Buso River – receives water emission (Class D, or "industrial water") from the waste treatment facilities of the Metro Manila Development Authority’s (MMDA) San Mateo Sanitary Landfill, where the MMDA is dumping 8,000-9,000 cubic meters of garbage daily.

The sea chokes
Follow the rivers downstream and you’ll find the same pollution problem choking our seas, especially around our urban coastal areas. Manila Bay is clearly under severe stress. The Bay is being used, albeit illegally, as dumping ground of household and industrial wastes, so much so that its nearshore waters have become unfit for swimming and commercial growing of shellfish for food. Meanwhile, not too far to the south, Nasugbu Bay in Batangas, along with its fishing and tourism industries, is "slowly dying," according to the Western Batangas Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The culprit: alcohol and liquor plants that discharge untreated wastewater into the Bay. John Ilao, president of the Chamber, singled out the reopening last August of Absolut Distillers Inc., which was earlier padlocked for causing pollution. Local and foreign tourists who went to Nasugbu after the reopening of the plant complained that the Bay was "dirty, oily and polluted," he said. Fishermen and resort owners in the area have been "suffering for years," he added, because of the Bay’s "long-time pollution problem".

It is not only factories that are to blame, however. The resorts themselves – and, yes, fishers, too – often cause pollution in the very waters on which they depend. Boracay had a bad scare last year when studies revealed high levels of coliform at its famed beach, apparently the result of inadequate waste disposal systems. Though it has since received a clean bill of health, the island has yet to recover its lost glory as a beach destination. As of press time, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has issued environmental compliance certificates to 146 (out of 300) resorts operating here. This has not brought back the tourists who, partly because of the coliform scare (but also because of the Asian economic crisis), have stayed away despite rock-bottom room rates and assurances that Boracay has "no more coliform".

Similar situations play out in different ways in many parts of the country – and indeed the world. Only recently, in the sea resort city of Elat in Israel, a leaking main sanitary sewer pipe burst, sending an obnoxious smelling wave of water into the Red Sea. Authorities quickly ordered the beaches closed because of the danger of infection, as water tests from the Red Sea off Elat found the level of coliform bacteria to be 50 times higher than allowed limits. The mayor declared the incident a "catastrophe" for his resort city, which is a big money-maker for the Israeli economy. The streets will be easy enough to clean up, said one pundit, but Elat’s famous coral reef "will not get over the incident so easily."

In Toba, Japan, many people fear that the venerable Japanese pearl industry may be on the way out following an outbreak of a mysterious disease that has almost made Japan’s pearl oysters an endangered species. In 1996, according to an Associated Press report, only 56.6% tons of pearls were harvested in Japan, down 22% from 1993, the year before the first widespread oyster deaths were reported. "Those deaths were caused by a red tide, a deadly plankton called heterocapsa," said the report. "What is killing the oysters now is unknown, but it is undeniably deadly." Some marine biologists suspect viruses, or even a shellfish parasite called parkinsus, which devastated oysters in the Mississippi River delta nearly 50 years ago. This much one grower is certain: "The environment is terrible. The ocean is polluted and oysters are artificially enlarged so they produce larger shells. Something’s not right."

The bomb ticks on (Can we stop it?)

Something is not right, indeed. Ships dump 600,000 tons of wastes into the sea every year, noxious chemicals are discharged by industries, cyanide and dynamite are used by fishers, and sewage and wastes poured by households. In 1996, some 50,000 volunteers taking part in the International Coastal Cleanup combed 85 kms of coastline in 20 sites in the Philippines and hauled off more than 500,000 kilos of trash, more than half of which was plastic.

As expected, it is the margins of the sea that are most affected by all this pollution. Habitats are being lost irretrievably to the construction of ports, industrial installations, tourism facilities, housing, and fish pens and cages. The destruction of beaches, coral reefs and wetlands, including mangrove forests, as well as the increasing erosion of the shore is evident all over the world. In many places, such widespread destruction has already led to the deterioration in the quality and productivity of the marine environment.

Though it is still relatively clean, even the open sea is not totally safe from pollution. Everywhere you go in our vast ocean, you are likely to find man’s fingerprint -- contamination and litter have been observed even in the far reaches of the open sea. Low levels of lead, synthetic organic compounds and artificial radionuclides are widely detectable, while oil slicks and litter, especially the ubiquitous plastic, are common along sea lanes. Such contamination and litter are at present of minor consequence to the communities of organisms living in the open ocean waters, but, if left unchecked, they can only get worse: By year 2020, 75% of the world’s population will be living within 60 km of a coastline, spewing more wastes, more plastic, more sewage into the severely stressed seas (experts estimate that 44% of marine pollution comes from land-based activities, while 45% comes from air-borne pollution). The sea lanes will be busier than ever, presenting increasing risks of oil spills. Oil spills, as we already know, can cause irreversible damage to marine habitats within miles of the spill and kill thousands of sea plants and animals.

So what can be done? Allan Poquita, senior aquaculturist of the Department of Agriculture Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources suggests, "strict enforcement of the law." Real estate developers, for instance, must be strictly required to install sewage treatment facilities, and those who dump wastes into the sea and other bodies of water must be severely punished. We have enough legal ground to go after polluters. Besides being a signatory to at least half a dozen international treaties related to marine conservation and the prevention of marine pollution, the Philippines has national and local laws designed to protect its marine environment.

But, as Crisolito Agustin, operations officer of the Second Coast Guard Command, points out, law enforcement is just one part of the solution. All of us – not only the government and not only the law enforcers but each and everyone of us – share the responsibility in keeping our oceans clean and healthy.

So what can we do? First, we can learn about our marine environment so we can better respond to issues and problem situations as they arise. Then we can take concrete steps to help solve the problem of pollution. Segregating our household garbage and observing proper waste disposal practices (then teaching others to do the same), for example, are simple, doable steps we can do at once at home with no more than a little extra effort.

Having said that, we must remember that the war against pollution cannot be won solely by concerned citizens waging their own individual, lonely battles. Ultimately, what is needed is sustained and concerted action by all sectors of society to constantly and continuously prevent the further despoiling of our waters. No doubt there will be painful political and social choices – population increases, growing urbanization, rising incomes and technology advances are bound to test the probity of those seeking to control coastal development and protect marine habitats.

Not that we have all that many choices -- or that much time. Said Fuentes, "Given the present industrial and population rates and without the necessary interventions, the pollution of our waters 50 years from now will reach catastrophic proportions." – with reports from Jannette P. Sablada

Marine Pollution

What is marine pollution?

Marine pollution is the alteration of the physical, chemical and biological properties of any body of water as a result of discharges of substances in any form – liquid, gaseous or solid – that will likely create or render such waters harmful, detrimental or injurious to public health (including marine life).

International Treaties

The Philippines is a signatory to the following international treaties:

  1. INTERNATIONAL CONVENTION FOR THE PREVENTION OF POLLUTION OF THE SEA BY OIL (as amended) – To take action to prevent pollution of the sea by oil discharged from ships.

  2. CONVENTION CONCERNING THE PROTECTION OF THE WORLD CULTURAL AND NATURAL HERITAGE -- To establish an effective system of collective protection of the cultural and natural heritage of outstanding universal value, organized on a permanent basis and in accordance with modern scientific methods.

  3. CONVENTION ON THE PREVENTION OF MARINE POLLUTION BY DUMPING OF WASTES AND OTHER MATTER (as amended) -- To control pollution of the sea by dumping, and to encourage regional agreements supplementary to the Convention.

  4. CONVENTION ON INTERNATIONAL TRADE IN ENDANGERED SPECIES OF WILD FAUNA AND FLORA -- To protect certain endangered species from over-exploitation by means of a system of import/export permits.

  5. ASEAN AGREEMENT ON THE CONSERVATION OF NATURE AND NATURAL RESOURCES -- To promote joint and individual State action for the conservation and management of the natural resources of the ASEAN Region.

  6. BASEL CONVENTION ON THE CONTROL OF TRANSBOUNDARY MOVEMENTS OF HAZARDOUS WASTES AND THEIR DISPOSAL -- To set up obligations for State Parties with a view to: (a) reducing transboundary movements of wastes subject to the Basel Convention to a minimum consistent with the environmentally sound and efficient management of such wastes, (b) minimizing the amount and toxicity of hazardous wastes generated and ensuring their environmentally sound management (including disposal and recovery operations) as close as possible to the source of generation; (c) assisting developing countries in environmentally sound management of the hazardous and other wastes they generate.

  7. CONVENTION ON BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY -- To conserve biological diversity, promote the sustainable use of its components, and encourage equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources. Such equitable sharing includes appropriate access to genetic resources, as well as appropriate transfer of technology, taking into account existing rights over such resources and such technology.



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