Manila Bay has long been a sight of deep dismay for the public. A once often visited site for swimming and fishing right in the heart of the capital has accumulated so much pollution over the years. The bay walk running adjacent is deserted at times despite its famous view of the sunset.

On Jan. 27, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) attempted to spark new hope for the coast as it launched a massive cleanup drive, mobilizing thousands. For this, the agency garnered significant applause. According to the Laguna Lake Development Authority, the fecal coliform levels of the bay were as much as seven times higher than what is considered ‘safe.’

However, the rehabilitation of Manila Bay was called into question with the revelation that the endeavor would eventually lead to the displacement of almost 300,000 informal settler families and a number of local establishments. Both have been pegged by government as the main culprits for the current state of pollution in the water.


Credit: AP / Alejandro Ernesto

Cabins built out of garbage on a dock in Manila Bay.

Moreover, old fears of a cleanup leading to huge reclamation projects resurfaced. Lawmakers and environmental groups alike warned of corporate reclamation schemes behind the rehabilitation. The Makabayan (Nationalist) Bloc in congress called for an investigation into the matter to ensure no undue harm would come to nearby residents. Kalikasan [Environment] People’s Network said that pursuing reclamation would do more damage to the area.

The Presidential Palace. for its part. has been vague on whether the DENR’s efforts are directly linked to a larger plan for reclamation. They have not denied the fact that there are pending projects and Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo has said that reclamation in itself creates jobs and betters the economy.

Manila Bay is certainly a strategic place for commerce. Its 190-kilometer coastline spans five provinces including Metro Manila and, in the past, it had served as the gateway for pre-colonial trade.

Manila Baywatch

Last December, DENR chief Roy Cimatu singled out the poor means of waste disposal done by communities of informal settlers around the bay area.

Kalikasan National Coordinator Leon Dulce, however, contested this by accounting for the average waste disposed of per person across different social strata.

“On average, middle-class families produce more waste than those in the lower class,” Dulce told The News Lens. “Even World Bank principles say that more purchasing power leads to more consumption and hence more waste. Although, we should not discount the fact that industrial waste plays a much bigger role.”

In their initial findings, Kalikasan estimated that an average of 48 percent of solid waste comes from middle-income families while only 5.01 percent came from informal settlers. Dulce added: “It is not the poor who should be blamed. It is the persistent lack of mechanisms to deal with proper waste management.”


Credit: AP / Alejandro Ernesto

Should the government blame the poorest residents of the Manila Bay area for its pollution?

Congressman Ariel Casilao of the Makabayan Bloc hit out at the entire project, saying: “The Manila Bay rehab should not be a prelude to massive dislocation and reclamation endeavor that will benefit only a few business groups and corrupt government officials.”

Instead, he called for a more democratic rehabilitation plan that could work around violating the livelihood and communities of those in the vicinity. The lawmaker also filed a bill to declare Manila Bay a reclamation free zone to put a stop to 43 reclamation projects which will cover around 32,000 hectares of land.

Fears of large-scale evictions are not unfounded. According to a presentation by the DENR on the planned rehabilitation, out of the 43 billion Philippine peso (US$823.6 million) allotted funds, P36.58 billion (US$701 million) will be coursed towards relocating the slum dwellers while only P6.37 billion (US$122 million) will be put towards the entire clean up and maintenance.

One of the more recent and grand plans for the bay was signed in 2017 and dubbed the “New Manila Bay – City of Pearl,” to become Southeast Asia’s first Smart City. This ‘city within a city’ would be built on 407 hectares of reclaimed land. By comparison, the city of San Juan in Metro Manila is just 595 hectares.

The site is set to rise in the within the next decade and is headed by the UAA Kinming Group under executive director Kitson Kho. Kho, a Hong Kong based property developer, held two private meetings with Duterte in June 2018 to discuss the City of Pearl.

A rendering of the futuristic 'City of Pearl' in a video by Ho & Partner Architects.

Hands off

“There is no truth that the rehabilitation plan was conceived as a prelude to reclamation,” DENR Undersecretary for Solid Waste Management Benny Antiporda told The News Lens in an interview. He added that reclamation was not a priority and they just wanted to concentrate on the cleanup itself.

“Applications for reclamation have been there prior to the Duterte administration,” said Antiporda. “The DENR cannot yet say whether it is for or against reclamation especially since cases of reclamation have not yet entered the office of the secretary for study.”

With regards to the handling of the informal settlers, Antiporda explained the relocation will take place only when there is an adequate relocation site – a community relocation area with basic facilities like such as schools. He said this will be done with the help of an inter-agency task force as well as local government units.

At the moment, however, planning for the relocation of those affected is still ongoing. Antiporda did not elaborate on future plans, saying the inter-agency task force would address such matters.

In the meantime, the DENR plans to erect communal septic tanks and sewage treatment facilities as a temporary solution to release the clean water into the bay. Antiporda said this will be completed very soon.

However, questions remain about the sincerity of the government’s intentions to go about the cleanup. Although the DENR denies directly working towards any sort of reclaimed land in the future, the timing and situation seem to serve that purpose either way.

The City of Pearl, among other projects, are not going build themselves around the poorest sections of the Metro. They need a ‘clean up’ for their target market.

Read Next: In South Taiwan, a Polluted Village Prepares for Relocation

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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