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TURNING POINT: Resuscitating Boracay

NAAWAN, Misamis Oriental (MindaNews / 22 Feb) – President Duterte’s threat to close Boracay if it is not cleaned after six months was beyond everyone’s expectation. It scared the hell out of the island’s tenants. The President’s order to Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu to spearhead the cleanup and to close all establishments that are found to have violated waste management and other environmental laws is unprecedented. It is a political will that may become a showcase in the country’s political landscape once the tourism jewel island is objectively found healthy and clean after the prescribed period.

The beautiful island of Boracay, a world-known tourist destination, was an environmental disaster waiting to happen. As early as the ’90s there were already studies on the alarming levels of pathogenic bacteria, E. Coli, in the island’s coastal waters. The bacteria that mostly come from human feces can cause gastrointestinal illness (stomach pains and diarrhea), pneumonia, ear infection and may reportedly damage the kidneys and other internal organs. It may also cause shellfish poisoning and cholera outbreak.

Doubtless, the proliferation of the pathogenic bacteria is primarily caused by the release of sewage from septic tanks and other waste holding systems through leaks into groundwater that flow into the sea through sand and limestone. In fact, some establishments nonchalantly release their sewage directly into the sea via pipelines. This short sight and similar greed common in the island is now killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Today the coastal waters stink and the smell of human waste wafts the air. The luxuriant growth of green algae along the beach indicates that the waters are already heavy with nutrients that do not only endanger the health of humans but also of demersal fish, shellfish and crustaceans. The pollution of the waters is also damaging the health of and may eventually kill the corals in the area.

Obviously the carrying capacity of the island has long been exceeded. Not only the tourists have multiplied several times over the years, but also the migrant population from different places who settled in the tiny island, attracted by its booming business opportunities. Commercial establishments and housing units have competed for constricting space, sacrificing sanitation and health concerns.

The local governments were blind to the worsening plight of the island thinking only of the resources that were coming into the official coffer and into their own pockets. On the other hand, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the Department of Tourism (DOT) and other responsible agencies of the government had been hot and cold on the issue, and at no time had shown serious concern and will to defuse the ticking environmental time bomb.

Indeed, the surprise move of the President is a welcome respite to the long history of neglect and inaction of local and national officials on Boracay.

Nonetheless, the cleanup ought not be a palliative measure. Sustaining a clean and healthy Boracay demands that all sewage and other waste holding tanks should be made leak-proof and the contents of these tanks are regularly emptied and moved by barges outside the islands. For the purpose, a huge waste holding system or several of such kind may be constructed with the strength of water dams in mainland Panay. A team of agricultural scientists may be commissioned to convert the sewage together with other organic wastes into fertilizers, akin to the midnight fertilizer of China, to benefit farmers. Solid wastes should likewise be transported to and processed in the mainland to unburden the tiny island.

The groundwater in the island is by now heavily contaminated and unsafe for human use. Thus, drilling of wells may now be prohibited. In its lieu, if it is not done yet, the island should be connected to the water system of any nearby water-rich municipality in the mainland.

It is hoped that the drive to clean and rehabilitate the island will not suffer a ningas cogon end, that is, a thing abandoned and forgotten after a while when nobody is watching anymore and talking about it. It is everybody’s responsibility to always remain vigilant and keep a watchful eye on the coveted jewel.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. William R. Adan, Ph.D., is retired professor and former chancellor of Mindanao State University at Naawan, Misamis Oriental, Philippines.)

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