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Many Philippine Rivers Are Dying – OpEd

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A study conducted by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources showed that 180 of 421 rivers and other bodies of water nationwide are so heavily polluted they may soon be declared biologically dead. The DENR study showed that the biggest culprit was domestic sewage followed by commercial and industrial wastes.

If the Philippines will not protect its rivers and rehabilitate those dying and dead ones, the people will definitely face a dire consequence: ecological catastrophe and economic debacle.

Such warning was echoed by Senator Franklin M. Drilon in a speech delivered during the first Philippine International River Summit convened in Iloilo City two years ago

The dying rivers are resulting to water shortages in many cities and provinces.

Enough water but unavailable for all

It may be unthinkable because according to Dr. Peter H. Glieck of the Pacific Institute for Environment, the country happens to have 323 km3 per year of total renewable fresh water supply, third-most bountiful in Southeast Asia after Indonesia and Malaysia. But think again.

Of that amount, the country can only withdraw a total of 29.5 percent yearly of water.

Glieck reported in the 2012 edition of the World Water that the Philippines will need some 393 percent of total withdrawal until the next 10 years.

Of the total withdrawable amount, 18 percent is consumed for domestic use, 21 percent for industrial purposes and 61 percent for agricultural irrigation.

Luzon itself is a paradoxical case. Even with the Gran Cordillera, Caraballo and Sierra Madre ranges, which cradle three giant river basins—Agno, Angat and Cagayan—water scarcity has not only become a problem in the country’s biggest island. It is also causing sanitation constraints and increasing incidences of water-related diseases. The amount of land irrigated is falling as competition for agricultural water is being strained to the limit.

Deforestation and water mismanagement are culprits

Not surprisingly, massive deforestation is behind the problem.

Deforestation is rampant nationwide. If the country’s deforestation rate pegged at 1,500 hectares a day as of 1995 by the World Resources Institute is not scary enough, deforestation rates in several provinces are more alarming with many provinces falling below the ideal 60:40 forest-settlement ratio to maintain ecological balance.

The Cordillera Ecological Center (CEC), an environmental nongovernment organization, said at least six provinces in the Cordillera region have only between 20 percent and 30 percent forest cover, based from Landsat satellites estimates, with the province of Benguet having the least forest cover.

The Philippines itself has only a little more than 4 million hectares of forests left, 700,000 hectares of which are virgin forests as bared by former Senate Committee on Environment head, Sen. Loren B. Legarda.

But it may not be long before these are wiped out, what with the deforestation rate far outstripping reforestation efforts.

According to former director of PCWS, Rory Villaluna, deforestation is not the only cause for worsening water inadequacy. Rather, water resources—like river basins, rivers, creeks, brooks and underground water—are inadequately protected, conserved and rehabilitated.

She said water levels have not only gone down. These are being polluted at an alarming rate such that it is not fit for domestic or agricultural use.

Such statements only prove Legarda’s lamentable revelation that only one forester guards and protects every 3,000 hectares of forests in the country.

“We often equate water with forests, but actually ill water management and use has only aggravated the sad state of our watersheds—our main sources of water. Much water, if not polluted and poisoned, can be used back for the burgeoning population,” Villaluna said.

“We ask what forests can give us, but we don’t do enough to give back to conserve our forests and water,” she added.

Rivers no longer deep and wide

The Philippines has 412 principal river basins in 119 proclaimed watersheds. However, only 19 are considered major river basins. The longest river is the Cagayan located in Region II. Other important rivers in Luzon include the Agno and Pampanga, crossing the plains of Central Luzon; the Pasig, a commercially important artery flowing through the center of Metro Manila, providing the main drainage outlet for most of the waterways; and the Bicol, the primary river of Region V.

In Mindanao, the principal rivers are the Rio Grande de Mindanao (known as the Pulangi River in its upper reaches) and the Agusan (where the world’s largest crocodile was caught).

“A healthy river is a niche of biodiversity,” writes Ricardo M. Umali, former undersecretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). “Depending on temperature, salinity, level of pollution, and especially the speed of water flow, different aquatic species will thrive in a river, its banks, or surrounding environment.”

Unfortunately, some of the country’s major rivers are undergoing various degradation. “Today, our rivers are facing threats and challenges that we, as stewards of Mother Nature’s assets, must address,” Senator Drillon said.

“Among them are urban growth and development, lack of concrete or sound land use policy, climate change, flood risk, agricultural activities, pollution and increasing poor water quality.”

The Agno River of the Philippines is a very good example. While it feeds three dams—San Roque, Ambuklao and Binga which generate 1,200 megawatts of electricity—it is dying.

From its headwaters in Mount Data and Loo, Buguias in Benguet, now the country’s center of highland vegetable production, toxic pesticides find their way to the river.

Along its stretch, vegetable gardens using dangerous broad spectrum pesticides exist. The deadly chemicals eventually find their way to the river through soil and water surface, as well as underground run-off.

As the river reaches Itogon municipality, cyanide and mercury from the various mines and hundreds of pocket miners seep to the river. A Japan International Cooperation Agency study in 1990 showed that at Lingayen Gulf, Pangasinan, the delta of Agno, shellfishes have trace deposits of cyanide and mercury.

Mercurial and cyanide poisoning cause weakening of the human body, and these are characterized by symptoms coughing, vomiting, reddening of eyes, nausea and difficulty of breathing, said the Dr. Charles Cheng, a noted medical researcher and director of the Baguio-based Chinese-Filipino General Hospital.

Because both have cumulative effects, they may not kill instantly in small deposits in the human body. But when accumulation defeats the tolerable level of the human body, instant death occurs, said Cheng, who has recently passed away.

Besides the two deadly chemicals, an independent assessment team commissioned by the Friends of the Earth and the International Rivers Network found several more harmful chemicals in Agno’s river. Dr. Sergio Feld of the team identified these as lead, selenium, molybdenum, iron, manganese, zinc, arsenic, copper, nickel and even radioactive compounds like uranium.

The Manila-based Upland NGO Committee (Unac) said 27 rivers which used to provide household water, irrigation, fishing haven, and washing and swimming grounds are “crying in silence” as they go to die in dams or either run dry.

Unac member and secretary-general of the NGO Bantay Mina, Nestor Caoli, said six of the 27 rivers—Balili, Agno, Baroro, Balincaquin, Bued and Dagupan—are biologically dead due to mining.

Six more rivers are heavily polluted and silted by mining activities. These are Naguillan, Upper Magat, Caraballo, Santa Fe, Amburayan and Pasil.

Expanding agricultural operations are pouring pesticide elements into the river, Caoli said. The dead and dying rivers are adversely affecting economic and social activities of people living within and along the rivers’ headwaters and tributaries, Unac added.

CEC added that one river that feeds the country’s vegetable bowl, Balili River, is being killed mainly by solid-waste pollution, including human excrement from Baguio City, a known highland tourism city. An estimated 3,000 tons monthly of human excreta is treated by the Baguio Sewage Plant but still find their way to Balili river.

The Cordillera, it appears, is fast turning out to be the region of not only the “dammed damned, but also of dying rivers,” CEC said.

The government’s Environmental Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources came out with a different view but still complements the findings of the NGOs. It said Amburayan and Baroro rivers in La Union are dead, so are Agno and Dagupan of Pangasinan.

Even the rivers in the provinces of Bulacan and Batangas are dying; Balagtas, Bocaue, Guiguinto, Marilao and Meycauayan in Bulacan, and Dumaca-a in Batangas.

In Luzon’s heart, Metro Manila, nine river sub-basins may soon have only poisoned water. These are Obando-Malabon-Navotas estuary in Balut and Malabon; Tullahan in Valenzuela; and the three Taguig-Napindan river basins in Taguig and Taguig-Napindan in Fort Bonifacio.

These are in the most critical situations among the country’s 18 river basins whose areas total to more than 110,000 square kilometers.

No water means death of communities

The dead and silent rivers are now the subject of fierce rhetoric from environmentalists hell-bent on protecting what is left of the country’s water sources. NGOs in Luzon look squarely at logging companies, mines, dams and insensitive farmers as culprits.

Forester George Facsoy of the CEC, for instance, sees the death of rivers as the decapitation of communities from the ecosystem that once supported them.

In the Cordillera, “water is looked upon as life itself,” as the Igorot hero Macli-ing Dulag once said.

Death of a river means people will suffer deep economic recession. There will be no farms and fishing areas, and people will be marginalized, making them dependent on outside culture difficult for them to adapt to, he said.

The precious water from rivers replenishes the paddies and deposits fertile silt onto thousands of hectares of farms which foster populations along rivers. If and when the rivers run dry, the imprint of many centuries of human civilizations’ cumulative toiling, ethnic culture and identity will be forever lost, he said.

Groundwater will be affected

The extinction of rivers will directly affect underground water resources, the National Water Resources Center warned. Of all the nation’s provinces, only 12 have groundwater resources that are expected to provide water in the near future. Not one of these has a groundwater area of more than 30,000 hectares—meaning—population density will definitely bear hard on water that these sources can provide.

Groundwater, often looked upon as an unreliable resource, is possible of being lost. It is very vulnerable and with the water and sanitation sectors’ poor management of it, like surface water, it may soon be lost to oblivion.

If so, biodiversity will be lost too, and economic and social activities will altogether be disrupted, especially in the lower regions.

Water wars in this millennium

The specter of water crisis will cause communities to fight tooth and nail for its possession and use.

The politics of water is as difficult as preventing a war. It makes rivers no longer “deep and wide” as the song goes, but the rift between communities.

Sandra Postel of the influential Worldwatch Institute said: “In efforts to seek and prevent water as flashpoints of conflict, there is a must for mediators to allocate strategies where communities or nations can agree to equal sharing.”

Easier said than done, especially so when no law exists where pressure is put on lower communities to either pay for the water that flows or die without. Moreso, putting water scarcity to the already crowded policy agenda of the government has not yet been done with genuine interest by Philippine lawmakers, even though the challenge to recognize water scarcity as an increasingly powerful cause of political and social instability is so great.

In fact, politicians have yet to pass a Code of Conduct for the water and sanitation sector.

“Communities will go to war,” warned Facsoy, “and the government may find it too late to act.” This year’s drought, the impending long, hot summer and El Niño need not spell these out.

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Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan

Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan

Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan wrote for the British Panos News and Features and GEMINI News Service, the Brunei Times, and US Environment News Service. In the Philippines, he wrote for DEPTHNews of the Press Foundation of Asia, Today, the Philippine Post, and Vera Files. A practicing environmentalist, he holds postgraduate degrees in environment resource management and development studies as a European Union (EU) Fellow at University College, Dublin, Ireland. He is currently a Fellow of Echoing Green Foundation of New York City. He now writes for Business Mirror and Eurasia Review.

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