Commentary Earth Files

Unsettling justifications for the ‘Boracay’ on Manila Bay project

The environment department’s project to beautify Manila Bay smacks of insensitivity to the people’s difficulties in coping with the 2019 coronavirus disease (Covid-19) and contradicts President Duterte’s vow to spend public money judiciously, particularly in this time of pandemic.

No amount of excuses can justify the multi-million peso rehabilitation project that includes covering a stretch of the baywalk on Roxas Boulevard with artificial white sand when around five million Filipinos just lost their jobs due to the community lockdown, at least 68,000 patients are fighting with Covid, and countless families could hardly make both ends meet.

It is an insult to the intelligence of the Filipinos for Palace Spokesman Harry Roque to say that having white sand on the coastline can help improve the public’s mental health as it will distract them from the global health crisis.

Where is the reasonableness in that when people are advised to stay at home and avoid public areas to help contain the spread of Covid? Does Roque plan to hold his daily online public briefings with the bay as backdrop so that his audience would be distracted from his updates on Covid?

While it is necessary to distract the public’s mind from the difficulties brought about by Covid and the incompetence of many government officials tasked to respond to the challenges of the health crisis and the corresponding economic slowdown, it is mind-boggling to even think that spending millions of pesos to create a “Boracay” scenery on the heavily polluted Manila Bay would help improve mental health.

It is because of Roque’s crooked thinking like in this case that I refrain from referring to him as presidential spokesman. Yes, he is the spokesperson of the president, but he is far from being presidential. Mere mention of his name brings to mind his disturbing Tik Tok dance posted on social media. Ugh!

Based on a supplemental bulletin released by the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), the total cost for the “beach nourishment, coastal restoration and enhancement” of the Manila Baywalk area has a budget of P397.9 million. Undersecretary Benny Antiporda of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) gave a different amount, P389 million, for the project which, he said, was started two years ago, long before the pandemic.

It is incomprehensible that the government implements this cosmetic project at this time when Duterte has repeatedly been complaining about budget constraints for undertakings meant to ease the difficulties in dealing with the health pandemic, not to mention the perennial funding deficiencies for other basic services like education.

To parry criticisms that the amount could have been better used for Covid-related activities, Antiporda said it was unlawful to juggle the money. He seemed unaware that Section 4(v) of Republic Act No. 11469, or the Bayanihan to Heal as One, authorizes the President to “direct the discontinuance of appropriated programs, activities or projects of any agency in the Executive department, including government-owned and controlled corporations, under the 2019 and 2020 General Appropriations Act, whether released or unreleased, the allotments for which remain unobligated.” Or, probably, the funding was in the 2018 budget.

Antiporda said the artificial white sand from crushed dolomite boulders extracted in Cebu will cover one hectare of the baywalk at one-meter thick. He said he did not know how much of the funds was for the white sand which, according to environment group Greenpeace Philippines, would easily be washed away by storm surges.

Antiporda disputed Greenpeace’s assertion, saying that engineers used a “geo textile” to prevent the sand from being washed away and that putting up a breakwater has been considered to further protect it. That means spending more for a breakwater!

He somehow corroborates Roque’s justification for the project, saying that it “will also sort of relieve our stress in this situation.”

Granting that Antiporda and Roque were correct in saying that the having a “Boracay feel” on the Manila Baywalk would improve mental health and relieve stress as we grapple with Covid, the warning from advocacy group Oceana Philippines that dumping sand on the bay could negatively affect its natural ecosystem is more unsettling.

The project has to be stopped pending a thorough review and consultation with all stakeholders.

Meantime, perhaps it would be a big relief on the taxpayers if the likes of Antiporda and Roque in government are booted out and replaced with competent and dedicated people who would truly serve the public. I believe that there are many of them in the bureaucracy, but they are unrecognized for their hard work because they don’t have political connections and are not media savvy.

The views in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of VERA Files.

This column also appeared in The Manila Times.