News Analysis Tourism

Don’t drink the water

Boracay Cimatu

In a country that’s never been short of scandals, what’s one more? Well, this one has the ability to shut down a Philippine town – at least the commerce on which it depends. Ironically, though, it’s those businesses which are now facing possible closure that to some extent have brought this situation on themselves – them, plus a local government that failed to do its job and a joint-venture project steered by a subsidiary of the country’s oldest conglomerate, the Ayala Corporation, which has failed to deliver.

The town in question is Boracay – a premiere holiday resort, in Aklan province in the Western Visayas region. The scandal is that the crystal-clear waters, which lure around 1.7 million visitors a year, are teeming with water-borne diseases; inevitably including the virulent E-coli bacteria.

Short-sighted and greedy proprietors in Boracay have been turning what has been a tourism gold mine into a “cesspool”, while the local authority effectively looked the other way and the Boracay Island Water Company (BIWC) – a JV of Ayala’s Manila Water and the government-run Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (Tieza) – proved to be incapable of coping with the sheer volume of sewage it needs to safely dispose of.

Now, government inspections of 150 commercial establishments in the seaside resort reveal that just 25 were connected to the town’s sewage system. The rest, it would seem, piped their untreated sewage through illegal sewers directly into the sea to be ‘enjoyed’ by bathers, snorkelers, jet-skiers, wind-surfers, parasailers, and anyone tumbling off the back of the banana boat.

These waters, their outcrops of coral populated by loud-coloured tropical fish, are what attracted 2,001,974 vacationers to Boracay last year – a 16% jump from 2016. They left behind PHP56,147,744,220 in tourism earnings and made this 1,032-hectare resort one of the Philippines most successful tourism destinations.

But – at the risk of sounding indelicate – that’s not all they left behind. They also deposited a volume of human waste that had nowhere else to go but into the waters that lap up on the town’s iconic white-sand beeches.

Now, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has stepped in, and – warning of a looming environmental disaster – has put the errant business proprietors and the local government unit on notice. “I will close Boracay. Boracay is a cesspool,” he told a business forum in Davao City last Friday. And he’s given his Department of Environment and Naturalesources (DENR) chief, Roy Cimatu (photo), six months to “clean the goddamn thing”. Improving Boracay’s water quality is now right at the top of Cimatu’s priority list.

This scandal, however, has been brewing for years. In fact, it’s yet another problem which Duterte inherited from past administrations. Previously, the policy seems to have been – if not to keep a complete lid on the scandal – to do precious little to resolve it. Certainly, there were plenty of warnings.

In 2011, a study around Boracay conducted by the Faculty of Fisheries of Japan’s Kagoshima University was already sounding the alarm bells. Under the heading ‘Environmental degradation’, it said this: “… wastewater is not properly treated and [there is] evidence of sulfide spills over to the shorelines. This has resulted in the sand having a strange smell and implications for the future remain negative”.

Sometime in April 2015, five months before Duterte became president, the DENR’s Environmental Management Bureau for the Western Visayas carried out a series of water tests at Boracay. Those tests showed that coliform-bacteria levels from one drainage outlet that poured into the sea were 47,460mpn per 100ml – the safe level for swimming and human contact is 1,000mpn per 100 ml. The abbreviation, mpn, stands for most probable number – a way of quantifying the concentration of viable micro-organisms in a sample.

In other words then, the water danger to bathers was more than 47 times higher than the acceptable level. And yet, to our knowledge, no signs went up on Boracay’s beaches warning tourists that the sea was a soup of rod-shaped bacteria and possible disease-causing pathogens and that they should stay out of it.

Like the mayor of Amity Island in the film, Jaws, maybe the local authority had more-pressings concerns. The peak season for tourists was getting into full swing, and a scare like that could damage the resort-island’s economy. The last thing visitors needed to know right then, presumably, was that swimming in those waters could result in nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps and bloody diarrhea – and possibly worse.

And so, when news of those tests came out, the local government agency went into damage-control mode, explaining that the main resort beach was not affected; that the waters there were “very safe”. The only problem, they said, was at the “back beach” which was less popular with swimmers – though, actually, more popular with water-sports enthusiasts. To us that sounds less like a reassurance and more like a promo for a game of Russian roulette.

Similarly, regularly reported “blooms of algae growth” in the area were put down to “waste nutrients” that had managed to “over-fertilize” the water, enabling the algae to multiply quickly. That almost sounds like a natural wonder – something for which tourists might want to make the trip to Boracay to check out specially.

And yet in a five-year study conducted between 2010 and 2015, the Japan International Cooperation Agency had clearly identified the cause of the algae ‘phenomenon’ as “untreated water”. Among its findings was that the poor water quality was due to the discharge of waste into the sea. It also warned that if this practice continued it would eventually render Boracay unsafe for swimming and all other water activities.

Meanwhile, the thrust of all official messaging has been, the water’s safe. According to its blub, the Tieza Regulatory Office “continuously exercises its mandate to oversee BIWC in its undertaking to promote the protection and sustainable development of the waters and the water supply system of Boracay”. And it adds: “Together, we shall continue to keep Boracay Island the paradise that it is today as we become instruments in the Island’s continued growth and development”.

The fact is though, with a sewage-disposal system that would have felt at home in mid-19th century London, a pervading stench of fecal-methane that would take your breath away and a level of water-borne bacteria that’s off the scale, Boracay looks more like Paradise Lost.

Following their investigations in 2015, the DENR laid much of the blame at the door of residential and commercial establishments that had failed to hook-up to the BIWC system. The fact is though that this system – operational since 1 January 2010 – had either not been fully completed or had failed to keep pace with Boracay’s growth rate; particularly its growing arrivals numbers. In short, there was no part of the sewage grid that many homes and businesses could hook-up to even if they’d wanted to.

And, perhaps that’s not surprising. BIWC has a 25-year concession, ending around 2035, to deliver – among other things – sewerage services to some 1 million Boracay tourists and 30,000 island residents. But – residents aside – as we’ve seen, last year 2 million tourists converged on Boracay. Furthermore, in 2016 there were 1.72 million; in 2015, 1.56 million; in 2014, 1.47 million; in 2013, 1.36 million.

If BIWC’s Boracay operation only has the capacity to cope with 1 million tourists – and now it’s double that – it’s no wonder that householders and businesses have been making their own arrangements for discharging their waste. In fact, they’d have to have been doing that since 2013 at least.

Cimatu will certainly be looking into all that as well as making sure existing ordinances are being fully enforced. But the bigger picture is this. Boracay’s development is limited to its small land area. And the more hotels and restaurants and tourists facilities that are crammed into that – attracting ever greater waves of visitors – the greater the pressure to increase the size of the island’s sewage-disposal system.

Logically, therefore, there would come a point where the footprint of the sewage plant would be so large that it would be the biggest thing on the island. And, unlike the algae in full bloom, a massive sewage facility will stand little chance of pulling in the tourists. Mayon Volcano, Bohol’s Chocolate Hills, the Banaue Rice Terraces, the Puerto Princesa Underground River, Boracay’s Monster Sewage-Treatment Plant – no, don’t thing so.

Last year, a group of environmental planners – citing the town’s worsening water quality – urged Boracay’s stakeholders to put a cap on tourist numbers to the island. They warned that if those numbers continued to climb at current rates – given the capacity of the present sewerage infrastructure – Boracay boom will turn to Boracay bust. Sustainable-tourism development specialist, Mark Evidente, said this: “Right now it’s a boom. It’ll continue for five to 10 years, but after that it’ll come crashing down and it will be a sad place”.

Tourism is a multi-billion-peso industry in the Philippines. And once new infrastructure is put in place under the government’s PHP8.5 trillion ‘Build, Build, Build’ programme – new roads; enhanced and expanded regional airports – it should become an even bigger revenue earner. But it won’t if what’s awaiting visitors at their holiday destination is a bout of E-coli. That’s one thing that won’t be ‘More Fun in the Philippines’ – and one thing they’ll remember when they come to book their next vacation.

Irresponsible behaviour by businesses and a local authority that’s supposed to regulate them will exact a very high price – not just on one town’s tourism but on the sector as a whole, and consequently on the wider economy.

Roy Cimatu will have his hands full sorting this out in six months; but sort it out he must. Because if Boracay’s troubled waters keep heading in the direction they are, this award-winning showcase of Philippine tourism will find itself dead in them.

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