Saving Manila

Early this week, news came out about the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) teaming up with the Office of the Ombudsman to file charges against barangay officials who would allow waterways to be polluted again after their Estero Blitz clean-up operation. I would say this must definitely be out of frustration on the part of the MMDA after ‘possibly’ realizing that clean-up drives are futile when communities do not have the will — and the local governments too, do not really have the political will, to put into effect policies that should have been implemented over a decade ago.

Indeed, it is absolutely frustrating to remove tons and tons of wastes along Metro Manila waterways, only to see the same area flooded with garbage again just after a few days.  I know because I used to be part of a similar project where we did clean-ups, educated communities, taught proper solid waste management, and even provided livelihood opportunities. Sadly, the problem has become so gargantuan that any effort comes off as ineffective.

Are We Really Ineffective?

The answer is NO.

As far as legislation is concerned, we are not ineffective. The Philippines has the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act (Republic Act 9003) in place, which mandates the creation of the National Solid Waste Management Commission (who reportedly filed the case against the erring officials) and Solid Waste Management Boards in every province, city and municipality; the mandatory segregation of solid wastes; the systematic collection and transport of wastes; the establishment of Materials Recovery Facilities; prohibition against the use of open dumps; and the provision of incentives, rewards, and financial assistance, among others.

Implementation-wise, we still have a long way to go. I believe, however, that we are there walking along the road. There are local governments that are dead-serious in their solid waste management programs. Segregation is in place, especially in schools. There are dedicated MRFs in barangays or clusters of it. Water bodies are loved and respected. Information drives are on point. Metro Manila is admittedly a different case though – and maybe, it has a lot to do with it being densely-populated and too commercial.

Too Much to Handle

Manila is so bright, it attracts too many people. While this is not entirely bad, there is a heavier responsibility attached to managing a mega-city. Where there are people, there would be garbage – and Manila has a lot of people, so there lies the crisis.

There is not enough land in Manila to house all of its population. Manila has become commercialized – too many malls, too many infrastructure in so little area. The required perimeter space needed between waterways and houses are sacrificed and disrespected, to the point of being “reclaimed”. With limited land, the cost of living (which primarily includes housing) increases, and people who cannot afford to pay rent end up building shanties along the creeks, sidewalks, and even under bridges. These people do not have access to proper sanitation facilities, so they end up using creeks as areas for sanitation. It’s easy to spot garbage under almost every estero shanty in Manila. The wastes coming from these illegal structures, including those that get block, form the bulk of the garbage problem in the city. If only there would be enough opportunities in places outside Metro Manila for people to earn and live decently, no doubt, most would move. The city would then be depopulated, there would be balance in the country, and every one’s needs would and could be provided.

Is there Hope?

Of course. While depopulating Manila seems extremely idealistic and far-fetched, the government has actually been doing something about it. In an article, then Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said that “the flood management master plan (of the Department of Public Works and Highways) will not work if informal settler families will not be removed from the waterways. The plan is to move 20,000 families in 12 months from the 3-meter easement abutting the waterways. By the end of Aquino’s term in 2016, all those choking the waterways will be gone”. Hopefully, this is being met.

There is also the public-private partnership called the “Adopt-an-Estero Program” which encourages the private sector, national and local governments and the civil society  to join forces and together, undertake expanded environmental improvement of water bodies, conduct information and education campaigns, community mobilization activities, and trainings for concerned stakeholders.

Back in 2011, Metro Manila mayors also forged an agreement with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to ensure the establishment of an ecological solid waste management program at the household level, particularly in condominiums and subdivisions.

Now, we have inspiring young Filipinos in the likes of Amin Hataman who won awards for having invented biodegradable plastic bags from coconuts, and of Kyle Mabasa who is among the many members of the Youth for Environment in School Organizations all over the country.

All these, among all the other initiatives by schools, offices, private organizations, and non-government organizations, are what Metro Manila has been doing to solve its garbage crisis.

What Now?

There is hope if we all work together.

Well, we need to keep doing what we are doing — and more. Solid waste management is more than physical, it is behavioral. Filipinos are very “chill” by nature. We have mastered mañana habit to a destructive fault. We always say, “I’ll do it tomorrow”, but say the same when ‘tomorrow’ comes — and this translates to us not tackling our garbage problem head-on, even after disaster strikes. To most, disasters are not deadlines after all (perhaps, just reminders of the deadline). We also have this “out of sight, out of mind” attitude. What we can’t see won’t hurt us, so we don’t really have a problem with it. Don’t we really?

I feel that an easy solution would be to increase the number of segregation bins – one for recyclables, another for residuals, for visibility and convenience. The Solid Waste Management Boards should make sure that every home, or building, should have an appropriate number of garbage of bins – the same in public spaces, so people would know where to throw their garbage. The bins themselves would make great information tools – people will know that there’s a proper place for their garbage. The recyclers (the barangay, or junkshop operators in the area) could pick up the bins for recyclables, and the city government could get the residuals. Income will be generated from recyclables, and the city would be clean.


Boys segregating steel from the garbage floating on the creek.

As for the esteros and creeks, dredging is really needed. About four years ago, when we were doing surveys, barangay officials would tell us that they, too, want the creeks cleaned. They want the creeks dredged because apparently, the waterways have not been dredged since the time of the Marcoses, and given how long ago that was, so much garbage and silt have already accumulated through the decades, causing the esteros to be shallow. They also wanted “trash traps” so each barangay would have an accountability as to where the crazy amount of garbage along and in esteros come from. They are in dire need for help too, from the national government and the public, because their barangays are also their home.

Lastly, I hope our politicians – especially those who are now aspiring for positions – would have the environment as, if not the top, a major action agenda.  Economic growth is important, but it is not the most important – environment is. I remember Jack Ma’s words when he was interviewed by US President Obama during the APEC CEO Summit 2015 in the Philippines. He said, “If we do not care about the earth, if we do not care about water, food, environment; nobody can survive, whether you’re big or small”. I am pretty positive Jack Ma knows money, business, and economy too well – but he knows that environment is and should be number one.

In all honesty, I feel that we all have the best intention for our beloved Philippines. So, let’s work together now, before we all end up in the dumps. Manila is the window of the country – it is the city most tourists get to first step on when they visit. We are a country known for natural beauty, let us keep it at that.


How about you? What do you do for the environment? Share on the comment section below so we can all learn together.


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  1. Iva Maurin 6 years ago

    Hi, Micah! Yes, we can only do so much – but every little action put together screams a lot. The national government has programs as we have mentioned, and with Ms. Gina Lopez as the new Environment Secretary (and her being popular and influential), hopefully, the media would give more mileage on environmental issues so more people will become ‘informed’; and more private organizations would be willing to support the cause. It’s really all about making people aware of what they must do – the laws are in place, people just need to know them.

    Infrastructure-wise, I really feel that the national government should also listen to the “dredging needs” the local governments have been asking for these past couple of years. The esteros can only accommodate so much, and with the years of us not having dredged the creeks, we can only imagine how much trash there is underwater.

  2. Micah Suarez 6 years ago

    I have to agree with you, the situation with our environment is very alarming and maybe for some, citical. But don’t you think that we in our current state can only do so much ? do you have any suggestions / thoughts on how can we minimize the current sitution with what we have at hand ?

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