Story and photo by Lara Climaco i FilAm Star Correspondent

With just 12 of the 45 islands and islets in its jurisdiction open to visitors, El Nido town is already experiencing a tourism boom. From only 70,000 in 2013, tourist arrivals have zoomed to almost 300,000. That translates to about PHP 60 million in a year from environmental fee collections alone but the municipal government is spending much more to stop environmental degradation. The price tag so far is nearly PHP 300 million to build a centralized water distribution system and sewage treatment plant.

“The water distribution system started in El Nido only in November 2017. Even though we’ve had a tourism industry for a long, long time, it was only last November that we started connecting to households,” El Nido Municipal Mayor Nieves Rosento revealed in an August 1 interview with FilAm Star.

This is considered Level III water supply service in the Philippines, with safe water available on taps across households and business establishments. For years, the town had relied on a communal faucet and deep wells, which made drinking water a very expensive commodity and often unsafe. So far, 400 households and establishments have been connected, comprising about 30 percent of the total connections needed. With 10 cubic meters or 50 drums of tap water costing PHP 362, connected households gain a huge reprieve. The expense used to be about PHP 900 per month for an ordinary household and as much as PHP 5,000 per month for households with extended families.

It took an investment of PHP 80 million to make this happen. The municipal government took out a loan of almost PHP 40 million and received about PHP 43 million in funding support from national government agencies. This is on top of a PHP 205 million loan acquired by the local government unit (LGU) for its sewage treatment plant.

“Sacrifice nga po ang 20 percent (municipal development fund), because syempre we have also health, we have agriculture, we have fisheries, we have infrastructure, pero isinasakripisyo po namin yung iba naming services because of this environmental problem,” Rosento said.

Because of failing water quality in El Nido between 2012 and 2013, when the tourist traffic started to zoom, the town is on the radar of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) for environmental violations. DENR Sec. Roy Cimatu has identified Palawan as one of the four hot spots that would be targeted for clean-up once Boracay Island reopens on October 26.

But Rosento is confident that El Nido would pass the grade, despite an ongoing debate with the DENR regional director about the easement level to be enforced on Corong-corong Beach, which is part of El Nido town proper where restaurants, bars, inns and tourist shops abound. The municipal mayor has already relocated informal settlers from the area and closed non-compliant establishments. Water quality levels are likewise being monitored regularly, including pH and dissolved oxygen aside from fecal and coliform levels. Unlike in 2013, water quality in Brgy. Corong-corong is already within DENR standards, she explained.

“Actually, right now, prior to the pronouncement ni President, we are doing a lot. When I sat as the municipal mayor, so starting 2016, halos continuous na water quality monitoring. I really insisted na every- monthly na nga eh,” Rosento said.

The LGU passed a lot of ordinances starting 2015 to address the environmental degradation, she added. The centralized water treatment project came underway, along with a lot of demolitions to enforce easement requirements.

“Kung i-compare mo siya (now) that we have almost 300,000 tourist arrivals, dumadami yung turista pero improving ang aming water quality,” Rosento said.

Only two trouble spots remain in Brgy. Masagana, another village within El Nido town proper, where coliform levels did not pass the grade, the Mayor said. This is where the LGU is closing down violators.

The easement issue along Corong-corong Beach might take a while to resolve though due to the huge disparity between DENR’s requirement and what is mandated in the LGU’s Comprehensive Land Use and Water Use Plan.

“We are really having a problem because recently the DENR issued a notice that they will be implementing a 40 meters easement — a notice to vacate for those areas in Corong-corong na base naman doon sa aming harmonized land use (plan), it is considered as a three meters easement because El Nido poblacion is considered urban because more than 80 percent of our land is already occupied,” Rosento said.

DENR’s basis for the 40-meter easement is the Water Code of the Philippines, which requires such setback for timberland areas. However, properties on Corong-corong Beach are titled and within the urban zone of El Nido’s land-use plan, the Mayor explained. Thus, she is inclined to implement the 3-meter easement based on the LGU’s land-use plan unless she receives a court order reverting the properties to timberland classification, thus nullifying the land titles.

Rosento is also working on a long-term solution, which is to build a new government center in order to de-congest El Nido town proper and to ensure climate change adaptation is reflected in the updating of the town’s Comprehensive Land and Water Use Plan.

Over the next five years, the municipal hall, other government offices and schools will be relocated somewhere in Brgy. Corong-corong in the new government center that will be master planned by architect Jun Palafox. Public-private partnerships will be explored for building the town’s terminal and public market. A housing program will also be launched so that families could move closer to schools and offices. Once El Nido town proper is de-congested, it will be converted into a walk zone where the entry of vehicles would be restricted.

An immediate improvement can be expected in the town’s connectivity with the LGU approving the permits of Globe Telecom for putting up 12 cell sites. Meanwhile, PLDT started offering commercial fiber plans in El Nido after firing up its initial fiber facilities in June. This means poor internet and mobile phone service should no longer be among the perennial complaints of tourists.

The municipal government is also promoting cultural and agri tourism to develop alternative destinations to Bacuit Bay. “Kaya pino-promote po namin ngayon yung concept ng agri tourism. You’re staying in your home, you have food, you supply us food, you have also tourism,” Rosento said.

In line with this, the LGU is training students on natural farming in order to stabilize the local food supply, which has dwindled through the years as farmers turned to tourism to become boatmen or resort maintenance staff. El Nido brings in food supply, including rice, fish and vegetables, from nearby towns and from as far away as Manila.

Vastly improving the local infrastructure and food supply is the Mayor’s goal before inviting a massive number of tourists with a new airport in El Nido.

“Sabi ko, bago tayo mag-aim for masyadong mass na transport system in El Nido, we have to improve first our place… kasi if we have an airport, andaming darating na turista tapos we are not prepared. No. 1, sa environment pa lang, we are not prepared. Kahit mabagal ‘yung pagusad ng turismo, basta’t name-maintain talaga ‘yung environment. Palakasin muna natin yung ating food industry bago tayo makipagsabayan,” Rosento said.