Losing Paradise
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - February 14, 2018 - 12:00am

President Duterte describes it as a “cesspool” arising from untreated sewage, and he has threatened to file charges against negligent local government officials.

Boracay residents prefer to see benign green algae that comes out during summer, fed by sunlight and higher nutrient levels.

We can’t be sure if Duterte is exaggerating the pollution problem or if the residents are in denial. But a number of neutral observers have also expressed concern in recent years about the pollution in Boracay.

Perhaps the truth is somewhere in between. Aquatic experts say green algae is largely beneficial, serving as food for various organisms. The experts say that Taal Lake’s bed of black volcanic soil, which traps sunlight, produces a rare algae that serves as food for fish and plankton. The lake ecosystem, said to be unique in the world, turns talakitok or freshwater trevally into succulent maliputo and makes all fish species in the lake taste exceptionally delectable.

The literature on blue-green algae, on the other hand, can be scary enough to make you cry cholera. Its common name, pond scum, says a lot about this organism. Blue-green algae or cyanobacteria are, as the name implies, colored bluish-green, but they can also be blue, or brown, or reddish purple, or green, which can make people confuse the organism with green algae.

Cyanobacteria are blamed for red tide and release toxins that can cause diarrhea if ingested plus all the other afflictions associated with pond scum. But certain types of cyanobacteria have reportedly been found to be effective against viral afflictions including HIV and herpes. The anti-oxidant health supplement spirulina is a cyanobacterium.

Both green and blue-green algae thrive on sunlight and tropical heat, so Boracay residents are telling the truth when they point out that whatever algae is spotted on the island’s shores appears only during summer. There is no green algae during the rainy season, they say, and in fact algae growth is seen as a sure sign that summer has arrived. So, they ask, how can it be caused by sewage?

*      *      *

My idea of cyanobacteria is the greenish-black scum that we see in Metro Manila’s heavily polluted creeks, stinky and vile-looking, and made even more horrible by an occasional floating corpse or aborted fetus. Those are natural cesspools. I doubt if the water anywhere around Boracay has deteriorated to such an extent.

According to previous reports and file photos, the green algae is usually most visible at the Boracay station where the majority of commercial establishments are located.

Administration officials say of about 150 commercial establishments on the island, only 25 are connected to the sewerage system. The rest, along with many residential homes, reportedly spew their sewage directly into the sea – the reason for Duterte’s complaint that the island smells like “s***.”

Aquatic experts both local and foreign have been warning for some time that the island needs to upgrade its sewage treatment system as Boracay tourism booms and its population, currently at 50,000, continues to surge. Combined with its visitor arrivals of two million last year, the island has been overwhelmed since 2010.

Regular Boracay visitors have been complaining for some time now that the island has become overdeveloped. The sewage and other pollution problems, they grouse, are just among the consequences of unplanned and poorly regulated development. Business establishments have also been built too close to roads and the sea.

*      *      *

For sure the President realizes the negative impact of his words on Boracay, which makes about P56 billion annually from tourism. But he’s also correct in saying that the cleanup will be good for the long-term viability of the island and the health of its residents and guests.

Since he’s started it, Duterte might as well set his sights on other top tourist destinations. Baguio City, where I lived for three years as a kid, is a lamentable example of unplanned development. Its pine trees are depleted and its once scenic slopes look like the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. A powerful earthquake can cause horrific deaths in Baguio. Session Road looks like the commercial alleys of Quiapo. The city isn’t a cesspool, but it smells like EDSA on payday Friday.

Bontoc, once postcard-pretty, is rapidly going the same way. And in Banaue, the panoramic view along the ridge leading to the town center is now blocked by nondescript houses and other structures.

Tagaytay is also in danger of overdevelopment. It’s the same sad story all over the country. Once an area becomes a popular travel destination, the big developers come in, snapping up the most strategic spots and ruining the view.

Zoning is unheard of in this country. We don’t have to look far. Bonifacio Global City was supposed to be a model for sustainable urban development, but now it’s turning into just another crowded commercial enclave in Metro Manila, prosperous, but one of the most unsustainable megacities in the world. Every inch of space, vertical and horizontal, has to be maximized for profit.

Some of the early settlers in BGC still provide breathing space in the area with their low-rise structures on spacious grounds. At least one has told me, however, that their property is relentlessly pursued by developers, with the latest purchase offer being made only recently.

*      *      *

Duterte has given Boracay government officials and private stakeholders six months to clean up or the island will be closed to tourism.

Upgrading the island’s sewerage system and requiring all commercial establishments and homes to be connected to it are reasonable demands. What’s uncertain is whether this can be accomplished in six months.

To speed things up, perhaps the national government and private stakeholders can provide more support to the Boracay government in infrastructure construction. Aid and multilateral organizations can be tapped to advise local officials on sustainable development.

Many other quarters have sounded the alarm: unless Boracay cleans up, it will become Paradise Lost. It’s not too late to reverse the trend.

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