Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Poor sewage treatment, sanitation costs P67B

By Ronnie Calumpita, Manila Times Reporter

POOR sewage treatment and sewerage—resulting in bad sanitation—in Metro Manila, if not in the country, is costing the economy at least P67 billion a year, according to government authorities.

The inability to dispose, collect and treat human and industrial waste also sends thousands of Filipinos daily to hospitals, doctors’ offices and drugstores for diarrhea, dysentery and respiratory diseases.

Poor sanitation has polluted rivers, lakes, bays and esteros, principally Manila Bay, the Pasig River and Laguna Lake. Countless rivers in Luzon are considered biologically dead because of industrial and human pollution.

Swimmers, bathers and fishermen have complained of pain, discomfort and diseases after swimming or taking a dip in the Pasig River or in Manila Bay.

Pollution has seeped into tap water and public faucets, restaurants, hotels, cocktail lounges and other public places.

As a result, not only hotels and restaurants but most households have shifted to buying bottled drinking water.

In slum neighborhoods, residents continue to dispose of waste in plastic and paper bags in somebody else’s backyard.

Commuter train passengers have complained about being hit by feces thrown by residents living along railroad tracks.

The blight has turned off foreign and domestic tourists who have complained about eyesores, stench and dirty tap water. They get a bigger shock when they get out of Metro Manila and hit the countryside.

Bottled water

The crisis has produced a booming industry: the distilled or bottled water business. Every middle-class family in Metro Manila supports the business. Water refilling stations abound in the region.

The sewerage system must have begun during the American colonial period, although the waterworks system started during the time of the Spanish governor-general, Luis Dasmariñas, in the later part of the 19th century.

But since Manila (and later Metro Manila) began by fits and starts, by accretion, no centralized planning seemed to have anticipated a modern, citywide sewerage system.

People are asking what Cabinet or government office is responsible for overseeing a modern sewerage system. Is it the Department of Environment and Natural Resources? The Department of Public Works and Highways? The Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System?

Or shouldn’t local governments be responsible through zoning ordinances?

Is there a law calling for a modern sewerage system? The Clean Water Act should have taken care of that. But since its enactment in 2004, nothing much by way of improved sewerage has happened.

Why isn’t the Department of Tourism raising a howl against the problem, which is an eyesore for the tourism industry? The Department of Health should give a care because of the threat to public health and safety. What does the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority have to say?

What is the role of Congress? Does it give a hoot?

Let’s rewind to a time in the not-too-distant past when practically every schoolyard in Metropolitan Manila had a row of drinking fountains from which the grade-school children and their elders in high school could slake their thirst. Practically every household had access to potable water—from their taps.

Even earlier—during the days before World War II—the city of Manila was crisscrossed by numerous esteros—tributaries of the Pasig River that dissect the city—ready sources of freshwater food fish like the ayungin for the residents.

Nick Joaquin, National Artist for literature, in his book Manila, My Manila, recounts that the esteros not only were sources of food for the table but served as avenues of commerce. The cascos bearing most household needs for sale to the residents used the waterways as avenues for commerce.

Not anymore.

Not only are most of the esteros gone (some of them covered and cemented over to make way for the inward expansion of the population) what are left are so filled with garbage of all imaginable variety the stench permeates the atmosphere for blocks on end.

And drinking fountains and potable tap water in households? Forget it. One swig is a virtual invitation to all sorts of gastric diseases with all the viruses wreaking havoc on one’s digestive system.

This is perhaps being alarmist, but fears have been raised that with the quality of water from the faucets, the day may not be very far off when the simple hygienic expedient of brushing one’s teeth (and using tap water) may cause serious dental disorders.

It’s almost that line from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner coming to visit the once Noble and Ever Loyal City: Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.

Downward spiral

How did this downward spiral happen?

Too many people, too many industrial factories and other commercial establishments all dumping their waste into the Pasig and its tributaries, which in turn carry this lethal cargo into Manila Bay.

To illustrate: Take a cruise along the Pasig from its source at Laguna de Bay to its delta past Manila’s Fort Santiago and the Del Pan Bridge. Count the number of factories and shanties of informal settlers—the current euphemism for squatters. Most of the factories have no facilities to treat the sewage they dump into the river. And the squatters? Forget it. Practically all of them do not have what pass for toilets, in the first place.

By the time you go past the Guadalupe Bridge in Makati, you shall have lost count. Worse, you shall be throwing up.

We’ve had countless campaigns to save the Pasig but most of them have been flashes in the pan.

And we’re not even talking of potable, drinking water yet.

Metro Manila’s only remaining watershed and the primary source of its drinking water—La Mesa Dam—has been shrinking from the onslaught of migration even the water it sends down to the antiquated Balara filtration plant in Quezon City is polluted.

Deep well

A good number of people have resorted to the deep-well method. Even that is not too reliable anymore. Decades of indiscriminate dumping of waste have allowed pollutants to seep down to the water table. So what appears to be crystal-clear water may in fact be harboring billions of those microscopic little buggers that spell disease.

But besides posing horrendous health problems, water pollution has an adverse impact on the economy. It costs the country P67 billion annually in economic losses.

Water-borne diseases like diarrhea, cholera, typhoid and paratyphoid and hepatitis A account for 31 percent of the total number of illnesses with an annual health cost of P3 billion. The fisheries production loses P17 billion; tourism chalks up P47 billion in losses every year.

These losses totaling P67 billion annually do not include those traceable to environmental damage in terms of compensation and claims of affected communities that have been displaced, and lost income and livelihood.

Wastewater generation based on the water demand shows that of the total of 7.2 million cubic meters (MCM) generated daily, 5.2 MCM a day comes from urbanized areas, of which 2.4 MCM a day is from Metro Manila alone.

The wastewater, including sewage, must be treated and meet the minimum standards of effluents before they can be discharged to bodies of water. Sadly, such treatment is hardly practiced.

In the domestic picture, only 7 percent of Metro Manila households have access to sewerage service, one of the reasons untreated domestic wastewater has continued to pollute the metropolis’ bodies of water.

World Bank study

Citing a study by the World Bank, DENR Undersecretary Francisco Bravo, also the acting director of the DENR-Environmental Management Bureau, said at least 93 percent of the domestic wastewater goes to Manila Bay through the Pasig River. “There is also a big possibility that ground water is also contaminated.”

Besides the Pasig River, the Navotas-Malabon-Tenejeros-Tullahan river system north of Manila also drains a huge volume of untreated wastewater also into the Manila Bay.

As a palliative solution, Bravo says sewage or toilet waste (feces and urine) should also be regularly collected and treated. “Water concessionaires should be the one to collect it.”

The process should really pose no problems to the residents of areas serviced by water concessionaires.

Regular desludging of septic tanks is one of the provisions contained in the concession contracts of the Manila Water Co. Inc. and the Maynilad Water Services Inc. with the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System.

A precursor to the concessions foresaw this need.

Presidential Decree 856, or the Sanitation Code of 1975, also requires local government units to provide adequate and efficient system for sewage collection, transport and disposal.

This law, whose implementing agencies are the Departments of Health and of Public Works and Highways, however, is not being enforced and monitored as septic tanks are seldom deslodged, a World Bank report said.

Republic Act 9275, or the Clean Water Act of 2004, also mandates that all households must be connected to a sewerage system or included in any sewerage treatment programs of the water concessionaires and water districts such as regular collection of sewage from septic tanks every five years.


Water concessionaires are contract-bound to regularly collect sewage from households that have no sewerage since they are charging their customers environmental fees.

This rate is intended to help fund the development of free desludging of septic tanks and sludge disposal services by the water concessionaires.

Households in Metro Manila and several areas in Rizal and Cavite serviced by the two water concessionaires that have no sewerage are charged an added 10-percent environmental tax in their water bills.

In all of Asia, Manila is next only to Jakarta in terms of poor sewerage service, a World Bank study shows.

“Maybe Jakarta could surpass [Metro] Manila in providing sewerage services,” Jitendra Sha, World Bank senior environmental specialist for East Asia and the Pacific region, said in an interview during a workshop on beach ecowatch program on Boracay Island.

He noted that lack of sewerage to treat domestic wastewater pollutes not only bodies of water but ground water, which also serves as drinking water for many communities that have no access to water concessionaires and water districts outside Metro Manila.

Water samples from 129 wells nationwide show that 75 indicate a high level of coliform bacteria, or 58 percent, a World Bank study said.

Coliform is a type of bacteria that invades the intestinal tracts of humans and warm-blooded animals and also affects plants, soil, air and the aquatic environment.


“This is a challenge for the people and for politicians to solve the sewerage problem. More money must be invested in the sewerage system because it [untreated wastewater] is costing everybody’s health and even the tourism industry,” Sha said.

The World Bank, in a recent Philippines Environment Monitor report, said the improvements in sewerage and sanitation services have experienced delays, causing the two water concessionaires not to meet their targets.

The Bank said Manila Water “did not meet its sanitation target when the company moved away from dumping sewage into the sea and instead set up sludge processing plants.”

The dumping of raw sewage in the waters of Zambales in the South China Sea was stopped after environmental groups in the province and nongovernment organizations, led by Timpuyog-Zambales as well as local officials, protested because of its adverse effects on the province’s rich marine resources.

La Rainn Abad Sarmiento, Timpuyog-Zambales president, said the dumping of raw sewage, part of Manila Water’s Manila Second Sewerage Project, began in November 2001 until March 2002.

Besides lack of available funding, Maynilad Water “had a difficulty in accelerating the desludging services, because these services can only be done during nonwork and nonrush hours and 40 percent of the West Zone comprises depressed areas with no septic tanks. Likewise, the public has poor sanitation awareness and is not keen in desludging its septic tanks.”

Why not build sewer networks then? Out of the question at the moment, because of one factor: the expenses involved

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