‘Cesspool’ tag on Boracay won’t be easy to shake off
(Second of three parts)
BORACAY ISLAND, Aklan — Near the middle of the main road a few hundred meters from the plaza of Balabag village here, malodorous, murky water seeps from a drainage hole cover, creating a puddle.
“It’s a regular occurrence,” said a security guard in one of the island’s high-end resorts.
The sight has become too familiar for residents and frequent visitors to Boracay, one of the country’s world-famous tourist destinations but is now called a “cesspool” by President Rodrigo Duterte.
Dirty pools also appear regularly in other sections of the island’s drainage system.
When heavy rain comes, the already strained system is overwhelmed, triggering flash floods that paralyze vehicular traffic.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has attributed the excess wastewater to illegal connections to the drainage network, which is meant only for rain and surface overflow.
The more essential wetlands — natural repositories of rainwater and biodiversity — have been taken over by buildings that sprang from a frenzy of unregulated development activities.
Four of the nine wetlands are occupied by a shopping mall, a resort hotel and around 100 illegal settlers, according to Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu.
At least 300 hotels, resorts, inns and other commercial establishments, and hundreds of residential structures are also dumping sewage into the drainage canals that are supposed to channel treated wastewater into the open sea, according to the DENR.
These businesses are not connected to the sewage system and will be charged criminally and closed for violating the Clean Water Act, it said.
The DENR has not released the list of violators despite repeated requests by the Inquirer.
According to Cimatu, the DENR will compel the local government of Malay, which has jurisdiction over Boracay, to strictly implement Municipal Ordinance No. 307 that requires sewage connection for all establishments and houses within 61 meters from the nearest canal.
Those outside this area must build their own sewage treatment plants or septic tanks and employ sewage dislodging services.
The ordinance, which was passed in 2012, has been defied by commercial establishments and residential buildings.
Currently, two privately owned or controlled companies—Boracay Island Water Co. (BIWC) and Boracay Tubi System Inc. (BTSI)—provide water and sewage services on the 1,032-hectare island.
BIWC took over the operations and maintenance of the government-owned Boracay Water and Sewerage System. It operates a portion of the island’s drainage system.
BIWC is owned 80 percent by Manila Water, an Ayala subsidiary, and 20 percent by the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (then the Philippine Tourism Authority), an attached agency of the Department of Tourism.
BIWC was set up on April 2, 2009, under a 25-year joint venture agreement.
On the other hand, BTSI provides water and septage management. It is owned 80 percent by MacroAsia Corp., a subsidiary of the Lucio Tan Group of Companies, and 20 percent by businessman James Molina under a December 2016 deal. Molina established the company in 1999.
It is currently impossible, however, for all establishments to connect to the BIWC sewage system, which covers only 61 percent of the island.
The company has only two sewage treatment plants — one at Barangay Balabag and another at Barangay Manoc-Manoc.
Water treatment facilities
Wastewater treated in the plants undergo an eight-stage process before it is released into the sea, said Blanca Eunicia Aldaba, BIWC head of business operations.
DENR Administrative Order No. 35 specifies that treated wastewater should meet “Class SB” standard that is fit for ecotourism and recreational activities, including swimming, bathing and diving.
The Balabag plant has a capacity of 6.5 million liters per day (MLD), and its network covers the village and parts of Manoc-Manoc.
The P258-million Manoc-Manoc plant has a capacity of 5 MLD and covers the barangay and parts of Balabag.
Barangay Yapak on the northern end of the island has yet to be reached by the sewage system.
Few businesses connected
BTSI has a 500-cubic-meter plant to treat wastewater for use in cleaning, irrigation and toilet flushing.
Those that cannot be reached and connected to the network have sewage treatment plants or septic tanks, or illegally discharge wastewater in open canals or through the drainage system.
Despite the availability of the service, only a few businesses are connected to the sewage system.
While 70 percent of BIWC’s total service connections of 6,267 are for residential buildings, only 229 have availed themselves of the sewer service.
Most households either have septic tanks or are discharging wastewater from toilets, kitchens and bathrooms into the drainage system, according to Aldaba.
Some business owners and residents have lamented the high water rates of BIWC and BTSI, and the lack of government regulation.
“The water and sewage rates are exorbitant and this is one reason why many are not connected,” said one hotel owner, who asked not to be named for being a customer of BIWC.
Boracay has one of the country’s highest water rates even if BIWC, one of the two water providers on the island, is partly operated by the national government.
BIWC charges households that consume up to 10 cubic meters a month at least P300.75 and P375.94 if sewage connection is included. Those who use sewage service only are charged five times higher.
Sewage fees depend on the number of toilets.
Commercial users pay at least P1,948.93 for water service of up to 20 cu m and P2,181.19 for water and sewage service.
The rates are higher than those in Metro Manila (P59.75 to P88.73 for residential consumers and P452.59 to P687.26 for commercial users for the first 10 cu m).
BTSI charges residential users at least P33 per cu m for water consumption not exceeding 10 cu m a month. The minimum commercial rate for consumption of up to 25 cu m is P66.10 per cu m.
Aldaba said the rates were much higher than those in Metro Manila due to bigger capital expenditure and operational expenses to make treated wastewater fit for ecotourism and recreational activities.
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