Venom beach

At low tide, a sliver of white sand appears where Manila Bay meets the American embassy. In a wink, it is filled with naked street children and their scantily-clad elders—dwellers of parks and sidewalks who want to escape the heat. They have probably heard of Boracay and want to know how it feels. But, unbeknown to many, Manila does have an expanse of whitish sand in the BASECO Compound of Tondo, covered with plastics and all manner of detritus. The late Mayor Alfredo S. Lim had planned to turn it into a “masa” resort, had flying voters not stolen the elections for a politico from San Juan del Monte.

Despite the efforts of heritage advocates who rallied behind “ Save Manila Bay!” and government focus groups like the Manila Bay Advisory Committee of the Supreme Court (now headed by Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta), the agencies mandated to clean up this historical body of water, with the most dazzling of sunsets, have hopelessly failed in their mission. The bay remains to be a cesspool, the basin for the city’s sewage; but swimmers at that sand bar behind the American embassy don’t care a fig. They are lucky to have herd immunity. When Manila’s Finest ( the police) try to enforce the local ordinance that forbids dipping, the “beach people” refuse to leave and taunt them to shoot.

It looks like they are going to have their beach, after all. By the 19 th of this month, Retired General, Roy Cimatu, the sitting Secretary of Environment and National Resources, will have finished his pet project – a totally man-made white beach that costs a mean Php 397.9 million. Tons of crushed white dolomite from Cebu have been transported at warp speed to Manila’s bay walk, not to create a Copacabana in Asia but, ostensibly, for flood control and, of course, to clean up the filthy waters of Manila Bay. That remains to be seen.

Did you know that the Archdiocese of Manila has a Ministry of Ecology? It was among the first to complain about Sec. Cimatu’s dolomite beach because, “ coastal communities were not informed and consulted…” Green Peace, Philippines denounced the DENR for wasting tax payers’ money on a project harmful to the environment. The Pamalakaya, an association of fisher folk ,voiced their protest; why not create aquatic resources by growing mangroves and sea grass as provided by the Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998 ( Republic Act 8550)? The president of OCEANA Philippines, Gloria Estenzo-Ramos , has accused the DENR of violating its own environmental impact assessment procedures, but Undersecretary Benny Antiporda cavalierly replied that it is only a “beach nourishment” project, so there is no need for all that.

Our tireless Undersecretary of Health, Maria Rosario Vergeire, warned that dolomite sand and dust can cause respiratory ailments, eye irritation and gastronomical discomfort. I wonder if Sec. Cimatu consulted Prof. Jay L Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines’ Institute of Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea. He also said that crushed dolomite will cause respiratory ailments and is a potential carcinogen. He quoted LeHigh Hanson, Inc. and LHoist North America , two companies that have made extensive studies about dolomites and similar substances. When the dolomite was mined in Alcoy, Cebu, there were animadversions about its negative impact on endemic species protected by the Wildlife Conservation Act .

People are aghast at the expense specially because the country is still battling with the COVID 19 pandemic and we have more urgent needs than a dolomite beach, even if Sec. Cimatu insists that the project will nourish the environment, that it has been on the drawing board since September 2019, with a budget properly earmarked. It looks like it is too late to even complain. Sec. Cimatu is glommed on his ideas of “beautification”. All that pizzazz will not control Manila’s famous flood waters; it bodes badly for the environment. Will it survive a Manila Bay storm surge? We will know soon enough. Put on your masks and face shields when you go to venom beach at the bay walk.