The way forward for our Boracays and Siargaos

Yes these two islands represent the best of a Philippine island holiday. Sun Sea, surf, nightlife bundled in paradise. In recent months however, its underbelly has been revealed. 

Boracay for its less than nice water quality and dense crowds leaving the island bursting at its seams, despite measures to correct the same problem when it occurred 20 years ago.

Siargao in Surigao del Norte for the lack of emergency facilities given the extreme sports and high waves it uses to attract visitors. Just recently, the son of ABS CBN host Karen Davila suffered injuries while taking surfing lessons in Siargao- only to find a sore lack of facilities for emergency treatment, and that oh so common reality of fly by night surfing instructors who left in a huff after the incident.

Boracay the test case for the Clean Water Act

In the case of Boracay, the sad outcome is that many of the good measures meant to prevent the 1997 were included in the Clean Water Act (CWA) passed in 2004. It will be recalled that this comprehensive  law, written with the help of civil society actors created a lot of the mechanisms meant to ensure the long term health and responsible use of our water resources.

Likewise, a Sewage Treatment system was built and run by the water service provider, something clearly in the spirit of integrated water resources management contemplated in the CWA, where, instead of building expensive individual treatment systems, establishments will pay a fraction of this cost as the larger scale system can treat the sewage at  much lower cost per stablishment. While able to treat sewage of connected establishments, it is not patronized by all, leaving a significant amount of raw sewage flowing into the beaches. The upgraded sanctions for disposing untreated sewage failing to met standards are dire: 10,000 pesos per day of operation. 

Knowing this, we ask the tough questions: If it is true that 300 million pesos is earned yearly from the mandatory environmental users fees collected from every tourist? What were they used for? Why didn’t all the establishments connect their sewer lines to he sewage treatment plant? If Boracays waters were so precious, why wasn't anyone penalized, or at leas called out for disposing their raw wastewater?

Sadly, the real answer may lie in the lack of political will (others claim corruption)by past governments local and national to enforce necessary laws and rules, and the indifference (some say greed) of many businessowners who kept trying to exempt themselves from having to comply with the measures to protect the island’s environment.

Nonetheless, Boracay was, and remains to be a test case for the effectiveness of many instruments set forth in the 2004 Clean Water Act. Perhaps it is time to properly implement it, come hell, or rough water. Our upcoming Boracays deserve the best of our cooperation and attention is we hope for it to provide sustained livelihood and opportunity for all.

Nature and tourism Coexisting beautifully

The recent outcomes on both islands illustrate what is nice, and what is lacking in Philippine tourism. For one, there is that mad desire to make money off beautiful natural attractions, the push to bring the whole world to visit to partake of the treasure.That there are other upcoming destinations waiting to be discovered, like Siquijor, Caramoan, Camiguin, and many others, speaks well of the country's tourim potentials, with 2017 a banner year bringing almost 7 million tourists- a new record. Note that of this record figure, almost a million came from China alone. Expect this number to double next year, pushing our tourist arrivals even higher.

On the other hand, there is the reality of a finite ecosystem, of government agencies unable to help ensure the well being, cleanliness and over-all value for money of the destination they, and the resort owners who make their millions, take pains to promote.It is about time we corrected this false and reductionist "environment vs. development" dichotomy. Nature, safety and tourism can coexist beautifully, as it does in many other countries. Here is what can we do:

  1. Promote and invest in other destinations to keep tourists coming. Lets look beyond these popular islands and seek out new places to spread the opportunity and diffuse the overcrowding that our growing number of visitors bring. 
  2. Engage in long term tourism planning, as the DENR itself called for it.  Let’s determine potentials, put in place the environment, health and safety facilities (including the ruight personnel) to assure our guests of a nice stay, and keep them coming back, while ensuring the benefits for locals.  Above all, let us abide by these plans, and not subvert them to pander to certain interests.
  3. Preserve the environment that tourists came for. The Clean Water Act provides the mechanisms for the cooperation of stakeholders through the establishment of Water Quality Management areas and common funds for monitoring, and if necessary, clean up of damage brought by pollution. This is especially critical for islands whose water need to remain pristine for tourists. Already, Coron, El Nido and Siargao are beginning to show problems with water quality.  Allow them to get dirty and you lose all that revenue.
  4. Publicize results of water quality monitoring so the public may know how healthy the water is, and whether the measures meant to protect it are working.

The good news is that coliform exceedances can go down over time so long as all establishments meet water quality standards and connect to sewage treatment systems to allow nature to clean itself. More good news is that with more tourists coming there will be more revenue and perhaps, it is hoped, better margins for everyone. This gives more people the resources to do the right thing, including waste treatment, or maybe, set up proper health facilities and hire more lifeguards and engage safety patrols. Its time everyone does their share to make sure this happens.

Given the proposals to for a "graduated closure" proposed by the Department of Trade and industry to give time for establishments to adjust, we must all make that commitment to change the way we look at the way we comply with environmental laws we enacted in the early 2000s. No more excuses. No more fingerpointing. No more exceptions. These only allow pollution to destroy these islands, and drive away tourists.  It is time we all follow the law and the rules to protect our island teasures and attractions, which enable tourism to bring the promised benefit for the people.

When he is not writing articles for various publications Mr. Tria is an environmental consultant, being an accredited Environmental Impact Assesment (EIA) preparer of the DENR, and worked with hundreds of companies and organizations helping them meet environmental requirements since 1997. -ed.