Wednesday, August 31. 2011
A few weeks ago I received an e-mail inviting volunteers to participate in a coastal cleanup of Manila’s most notorious waterway—the Manila Bay. My schedule couldn’t have permitted me to join, but I was with them in spirit; a whirlwind that would sweep all the trash and unsightly establishments that corrupt the glorious history of these waters—informal settlers and titanic malls both included—is all that I would pray for during the thousands of bus trips I’d taken down the coastal road next to the bay, while en route to my hometown.
A few days ago, my prayers seemed to have been answered, but unfavorably. A strong wind has swept the bay away, and the neighboring rivers and lakes from different cities and provinces brought to it what seemed like a millennium’s worth of trash, rubbish, detritus, really, insert as many synonyms here. Before the media hype on yet another tropical storm ended to give way to reports on the great Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao’s preparations for his upcoming bout, the last I heard was that the city’s sanitation officials had already gathered 17 truckloads of trash. I was not surprised. And neither did news of a landslide, killing several people at a dumpsite in the city of Baguio up north.
It is impossible to write about our cities’ gardens without revisiting our trash problem, which I’d also written about a few months ago. We do not have parks and gardens the way other cities have them: open spaces to have picnics on during the weekends and hold historic concerts in. Manila’s green areas are gated reserve areas, which ironically are adjacent to the most polluted roads—some even require admission fees; the rest are even more exclusive golf courses. People would rather go to malls anyway, they wouldn’t risk encountering the stigma usually associated with public spaces in Manila—pollution and crime. Plus, there’s always the threat of an impending tropical storm.
In the last few years, the unveiling of some vile corporate attempts at exploiting the natural resources of the Philippines has prompted campaigns for the environment, which continue to be participated in by people of all shapes, sizes, and social standing. There are now many groups catering to wildlife, biodiversity, the seas, the mountains, the trees—a big word of thanks I believe should go to social networking.
However, the cities are being neglected in the process. We are still without a single agency of government dedicated to sanitation and providing a uniform and systematic waste disposal system, and tasked to promulgate our many relevant laws on urban housekeeping. Even familiar, color-coded trash bins to line the city streets, differentiating what’s biodegradable and not, would suffice! Honestly, I still have no idea how to properly dispose of the water bottles that are accumulating in my dorm room, or my empty ballpens, so that they don’t just end up at a dump site, or worse, at the Manila Bay. Our recyclables are actually in better hands with kariton boys—usually, these are children who push carts around residential areas, collecting newspapers, bottles, anything that could be resold at junk shops. But of course, reliance on this kind of system and allowing it to work that way is equally horrible, and is one that deserves more attention, maybe another column on another day.
While the amount of work that has to be done to completely rehabilitate Metro Manila is very likely to give concerned officials an aneurysm—especially those concerned with budget, there’s still plenty that could be done if we don’t just wait for storms and landslides to happen. Rather than live with these seasonal realities, I hope that more activists would take the cause of the city’s environment as much as there are zealots for the country’s forests and seas; and that the government would take the lead at their urging—which hopefully won’t have to take too much.
A healthy city could do much more than clear up the lungs of commuters a bit. We could have public spaces to congregate in once more, the way our not-so-distant forebears handled their affairs in plazas. (The Luneta Park, commemorated as the site of the execution of our national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, and the Quezon City Memorial Circle, are looking better than they ever were before and serve as good examples. The two are patches of green in Manila and Quezon City, so placed in their current sites each in anticipation of being the country’s national mall.) Also, we won’t have to use the city's natural features, like the Pasig River or the awe-inducing-especially-at-sunset-Manila Bay, as an all-purpose septic tank, preserving the view of both the horizon and the waves, for future generations. Best of all, we'd have more options for al fresco dining—with less concerns about pollution or handbag-snatching—a healthy city after all, has healthy people living in it.
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