Juan L. Mercado

Toxin-laced symbols

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“Only when the last river has been polluted, the last tree cut and the last fish caught, will we realize we cannot eat money.” Is this why 50 of the country’s 421 rivers are “biologically dead”?

 

Rivers form a community’s circulation system. But a growing number have been clogged with trash, toxic spill from factories and waste dumped from homes sans toilets. These morph into cesspools. When oxygen is sealed off, the river dies.

All five Cebu City rivers, for example, are kaput. So is Marilao in Bulacan, as Greenpeace inspectors found. But the Philippines has no monopoly on sewerage dumps.

Ganges and Yamuna in India, Tietê in Brazil, Yangtze and Jian in China are among the world’s most toxic rivers. So are the Mississippi in the United States, plus all Jakarta rivers in Indonesia.

To revive the Pasig and 47 tributaries, President Aquino committed P10 billion a year, says Gina Lopez, chair of the commission for the river’s rehabilitation. Half that money will relocate 300,000 squatters who huddle along the banks or esteros.

Since 2010, the commission rehabilitated four  esteros. Over 6,500 squatters were relocated from the 2.9-kilometer Estero de Paco alone. It now sports tree-lined boardwalks, Agence France-Presse reports. Significantly, vendors stopped using it as a refuse bin. Work will start on 16 esteros this year.

Pasig River’s water remains badly polluted, cautions Asian Development Bank’s urban development specialist Javier Coloma Brotons. Problems range from lack of sewage treatment plants to geography. The Pasig River links 3,813-square-kilometer Laguna de Bay to Manila Bay. At high tide, waste from Manila’s huge ports and crammed communities surge back.

“To clean up Pasig, address problems with the bay,” Coloma Brotons urges. The political system’s “general chaos make a coordinated approach extremely difficult,” ADB notes. Vested interests interlock. And these took their toll “in repeated and costly failures to transform Pasig.”

The Aquino administration has dusted off the moribund Clean Water Act of 2004 by pinpointing eight rivers as critical “Water Quality Management Areas.” They are geographically  spread.

In Luzon, there are the Sinocalan-Dagupan rivers of Pangasinan, the Marilao-Meycauayan-Obando river system, areas within the Laguna Lake Development Authority’s jurisdiction, plus the San Juan River in Metro Manila. For the Visayas, these are the Tigum-Aganan watershed and the Iloilo-Batiano river system. The Silway River and Sarangani Bay, and Taguibo River in Agusan del Norte, are in Mindanao.

Citizen-based initiatives are sprouting: Cebu held a “River Summit 2013” and its academe network taps research facilities and expertise from universities—among them, San Carlos, University of the Philippines, Southwestern, San Jose-Recoletos, Cebu Institute of Technology, Cebu Doctors. Cebu Mayor Mike Rama pledged that the city’s Risk Management Council will cooperate. If it delivers, Cebu could set a model. But the work is grueling. And like other cities, Cebu haphazardly enforced laws on clean water and solid waste.

Global climate change is inflicting a heavy toll, warns the 2013 World Bank report titled “Getting a Grip on Climate Change in the Philippines.”

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This study follows up the bank’s earlier “Turn Down the Heat” report. That warned current efforts to tamp down global warming, below a

2-degrees-Celsius surge, were faltering. A 4-degrees-Celsius hotter world will wreak havoc everywhere. “Things can get ugly fast.”

The bank ranks the Philippines as the third in the world’s list of countries most vulnerable to weather-related extreme events—from droughts to sea level rise. More than 20 typhoons annually lash the country’s northern and eastern parts. (In the last three years, three storms slammed a Mindanao that used to have a typhoon barrel through every 12 years or so, notes 1992 Ramon Magsaysay Foundation awardee for public service, Angel Alcala.)

Floods rampage through Central Luzon and southern Mindanao. And there have been disastrous landslides. “These climate-related impacts will reduce cultivatable land,” the report foresees. That in turn will whittle down “agricultural productivity and increase food insecurity.”

“In a 4-degrees-Celsius warmer world, sea levels will rise between 0.5 and 1 meter by 2100 and could affect cities in the Philippines. Coral bleaching and reef degradation will accelerate in the next 10-20 years.”

Last Friday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in New York: Scientists are “virtually certain” that man’s fossil-fuel-related emissions drove global warming. “Each of the last three decades has been  probably warmer than any time in the past 1,400 years.”

“The heat is on,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said. Act now or face disaster.

In Sweden, 195 member-nations meet this week to discuss IPCC’s study. Even if the greenhouse gas emissions are curbed, they’d still breach the critical threshold of 2 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. “Those who choose excuses over action are playing with fire,” US Secretary of State John Kerry warned.

The Philippines must urgently cobble adaptive capacity to increase “climate resilience of agricultural practices,” World Bank stressed. This can create jobs, alleviate food insecurity, reduce malnutrition, and help conserve water resources.

“Future development (should) be carried out with accommodation to climate change in mind. Otherwise, the country could be locked into infrastructure development, land use changes, and urbanization processes that are more vulnerable to climate risks.” The Philippines should “employ a sustainable green growth strategy expanding on mitigation opportunities.”

The unacceptable alternative is symbolized by those toxin-laced rivers.

 

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