By Lara Climaco | FilAm Star Correspondent
In an age when wastewater can be recycled to drinking water, it’s staggering to learn that sewage pollution is threatening rich marine biodiversity in Puerto Galera and Coron, two of the Philippines’ top tourist destinations.
Following years of monitoring and continuing concern about coliform concentration, the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) designated Sabang Bay and Coron Bay as water quality management areas (WQMAs) last month.
Puerto Galera, world famous for its proximity to the Verde Island Passage, hosts some of the most diverse coral reef dive spots around Sabang Bay. Just as biodiverse, Coron is popular for wreck diving, trekking, island hopping and honeymoons.
Both destinations are now among 25 areas in the Philippines that need to be protected from further environmental damage. DENR announced its move in a press statement earlier this month, saying that its latest WQMA designations were critical to safeguarding Coron and Puerto Galera from the negative impacts of rapid tourism growth and to sustaining the economic benefits of eco-tourism for local host communities.
“Even before the formal designation as WQMA, the Environment Management Bureau (EMB) Region IV-B has doubled the efforts of monitoring the discharges of the different establishments within the designated area. More stringent policies have been implemented to address the increasing counts (or) concentration of coliform that is detrimental both for human and aquatic organisms. In reference to Coron Bay, a significant decrease in its coliform counts was observed during calendar year 2015. On the other hand, Sabang Bay was observed to have a dramatic increase in its coliform concentration,” EMB Region IV-B’s environmental monitoring and enforcement division told FilAm Star via email.
EMB Region IV-B has jurisdiction over Coron and Puerto Galera since it covers the provinces of Marinduque, Occidental Mindoro, Oriental Mindoro, Palawan and Romblon. It disclosed that water quality had been rated “poor” in both Sabang Bay and Coron Bay after repeated testing. For Sabang Bay, only 18 out of 60 sampling episodes conducted respectively for total coliform and fecal coliform, or 30 percent for each parameter, passed the criteria. Meanwhile, out of 47 sampling tests done for Coron Bay, only five or 10.6 percent passed the criteria for total coliform and four or 8.5 percent for fecal coliform.
While tourists will not be prevented from exploring the waters of Coron Bay and Sabang Bay they, along with local residents, face new regulations.
Upcoming rules will address major threats identified during local meetings and public hearings. According to EMB Region IV-B, the number one source of degradation is the improper disposal of solid waste. Additionally, a mix of untreated and inadequately treated wastewater discharges from households and establishments such as hotels, resorts and public markets, flow to the sea. Poor sanitation facilities, the presence of illegal settlers and agricultural run-offs are the other major threats.
“The resort owners or stakeholders are already obliged to have more efficient sewage treatment plants to prevent the further decline of these water bodies of concern,” EMB Region IV-B said.
The WQMA in Puerto Galera covers about 2.832 square kilometers including 200 meters from the shoreline of Barangay Sabang, where surface water also drains from the town’s 12 other barangays. In Coron, the WQMA extends 55.338 square kilometers comprising eight barangays mostly located in the town center.
These WQMA zones will be governed by a multi-sectoral body led by the director of EMB Region IV-B. Local government units, various national government agencies, business and commercial establishments, the local water utility, civil society and the academe will be part of the governing body. Their main function is to adopt and implement an action plan that would restore the long-term health of water bodies and prevent further damage.
According to EMB Region IV-B, the WQMA action plan should address sustainable sanitation and the need for attainable sewerage management and a centralized sewerage treatment facility. This is also likely to require a review of existing zoning ordinances and comprehensive land use plans. The municipal governments of Coron and Puerto Galera already endorsed their respective WQMA designation last year, paving the way for more changes.
“The objective and process of WQMA has been properly disseminated to all concerned parties through a series of meetings to solicit their opinions and ideas regarding the designation,” EMB Region IV-B said. “The different activities to be conducted to achieve the objective of WQMA have already been presented to the public.”
Earlier press reports indicate the local government of Puerto Galera had embarked on a private-public partnership to build a sewerage collection and treatment plant. Though a build-transfer contract had been awarded by 2009, sewage pollution in Puerto Galera remains an issue due reportedly to an impasse over raising environmental user fees that had stalled plans to upgrade the town’s sewerage facility.
Meanwhile, the municipality of Coron announced plans in 2014 to install communal toilets and garbage nets ahead of trying to relocate coastal-dwelling families. It also penalized establishments with improper waste management systems or no septic tanks.
FilAm Star sought comments from the mayors of Coron and Puerto Galera on the WQMA designation but did not receive a reply as of press time.