Yearender: DENR notches solid accomplishments despite pandemic

Published December 31, 2020, 7:43 AM

by Ellalyn De Vera-Ruiz

Many plans set out for 2020 were delayed, if not put to end, by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) was not spared as the global health crisis had momentarily “disrupted” the agency’s momentum in implementing big-ticket projects, which included the Manila Bay rehabilitation.

“The DENR has been tested a lot this year. Under normal circumstances we do not mind being put to the test. We want to see and to confirm that we can measure up to  challenges if not exceed them,” according to DENR Secretary Roy Cimatu.

He cited how the Department was praised highly for the rehabilitation of Boracay Island’s damaged environment in the past two years.

“That achievement raised expectations and we were rewarded with a much bigger challenge—the rehabilitation of the heavily polluted Manila Bay,” Cimatu said, citing the Manila Bay rehabilitation project dubbed “Battle for Manila Bay,” which was launched in January 2019.

“Then just a few months after we celebrated our first year of the Battle for Manila Bay, the COVID-19 pandemic spread in our country and disrupted our momentum,” the DENR chief pointed out.

“That was not normal but we learned to live with this and accepted that this is now our new normal. We had to adapt by shifting to alternative work arrangements. All things considered, especially the obstructions like the COVID-19 pandemic and the floods, landslides, and other natural disasters that the country has endured this year, we can say that we did well even if we were prevented from doing our best,” he said.

Despite the limited movements and restrictions due to COVID-19, the DENR reported that it was still able to accomplish much to rehabilitate Manila Bay.

DENR’s accomplishments include, among others, employing geo-engineering solutions, beach nourishment project, dredging and desilting activities, and construction of sewage treatment plant (STP).

It has also completed the construction of a circumferential sewage interceptor and communal septic tank specifically for the BASECO area in Manila.

Cimatu also noted the significant improvement in the water quality of the Manila Bay area in Central Luzon but there remains a lot of work when it comes to improving the water quality of the bay in Metro Manila and Cavite.

The installation of three more solar-powered STPs in Metro Manila is in the pipeline, after unveiling the first one along Roxas Boulevard in Manila in July.

Similar solar-powered STPs will be installed along major river systems that drain into Manila Bay: the Libertad outfall in Parañaque River, Tullahan-Tinajeros River, and Las Piñas-Zapote River.

DENR this year also spearheaded a mangrove planting at the BASECO lagoon, which it said was only the start of habitat restoration in that part of Manila Bay.

Massive mangrove planting activities will also be held along the shoreline of Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area, and Parola, at the side of the Pasig River by 2021.

But not everyone appreciated the efforts, as the DENR saw mounted criticisms on its beach nourishment project, a component of the Manila Bay rehabilitation that involves the overlaying of crushed dolomite to create a white sand beach in a portion of the Manila Bay coastline.

The Department was firm in saying it was not bothered at all by what critics say of the government’s rehabilitation efforts, particularly the beach nourishment project. 

It said it had been “transparent” about the undertaking. Of the P389 million allotted for the entire Manila Bay rehabilitation project, only six percent or P28 million was spent for the dolomite overlay.

Manila Bay is only in its second phase of rehabilitation. The third phase, according to Cimatu, is the hardest—changing the attitude and behavior of the people towards the environment. 

This phase, if it becomes successful, would sustain all the efforts that have been done to bring Manila Bay back to its former pristine condition.

Boracay Task Force

In May 2020, President Duterte issued Executive Order (EO) 115 extending the term of the Boracay Inter-Agency Task Force until May, 2021 to achieve all its targets and lay the groundwork for a permanent government body that would manage Boracay.

The task force was originally set to end on May 8, 2020, or two years after it was created under EO 53.

To ensure the completion of critical projects in Boracay, the BIATF has been authorized to undertake the demolition of remaining establishments encroaching on forestlands and wetlands, as well as to enforce beach and road easement rules.

Priority rehabilitation activities for completion before May 2021, include the enforcement of easement law–25+5 meter beach easement and 12-meter road easement–to clear the beachfront and roads of obstructions. 

The task force also continued to enforce carrying capacity regulations in Boracay to ensure that only 6,405 tourists will enter the island per day.

To maintain the island’s good water quality, the Environmental Management Bureau will continue its regular environmental compliance monitoring for water quality and construct more STPs.

Most commercial establishments have also complied with the requirement to have their own STPs or to connect to the sewage line of their water service providers.

However, residential areas still need to install clusters of STPs.

The completion of road projects of the Department of Public Works and Highways and drainage projects of the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority is also a primary concern.

The BIATF will also push for the completion of wetland rehabilitation by its corporate “adoptors.”

Flood solutions in Cagayan, Markina

Destruction from tropical cyclones also made waves this year.

As chair of the Task Force Build Back Better (TFBB), Cimatu has approved the dredging of sandbars in 19 priority sites along Cagayan River as part of the immediate solutions to prevent a repeat of the devastating floods that inundated Cagayan Valley during the onslaught of Typhoon Ulysses last month.

Likewise, among the medium- and long-term solutions being eyed for Cagayan River are construction of flood control dams, installation of revetment structures along its slopes, and reforestation of its watershed and easement areas.

Cimatu also noted that anti-illegal logging operations need to put more focus on prevention and detection instead of confiscation of illegally cut trees.

He ordered the creation of four special composite teams that would augment the anti-illegal logging operations in Cagayan Valley, Bicol region, and the Upper Marikina River Basin Protected Landscape.

He said the creation of augmentation teams is a strategic move on the part of the DENR to shift its orientation in forest protection operation more towards prevention by “going hard and swift” against the financiers and operators.

The DENR chief also recommended the widening of Marikina River to increase its flood carrying capacity to mitigate floods in Marikina City and nearby areas.

Proposed enforcement bureau

The DENR has been calling for the establishment of the Environmental Protection and Enforcement Bureau or EPEB to “help save the lives of our frontliners who are in the trenches of fighting environmental crimes.”

He pointed out that further delay in the establishment of the EPEB “is putting the lives of our environmental frontliners at greater risks.”

With this bureau, the DENR hopes to pursue a strict implementation of environmental laws, policies, rules and regulations, wherein law enforcement agencies such as the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Philippine National Police, National Bureau of Investigation, and government prosecutors will be involved.

The creation of EPEB aims to help fill the gap in the implementation of environmental laws, as well as allow the DENR to focus both on environmental conservation and protection.

“Going forward, our first order of business as a nation is to heal as one and then to recover as one. To this, we in the DENR must contribute our utmost because it is only through this that we can once more be able to fully deliver quality public services,” Cimatu said.