By Imelda V. Abano
Boracay Island, the Philippines, June 10, 2018
Massive influx of tourists, pollution, untreated sewage, unmanaged waste disposal, construction of tourist infrastructure and damage to the marine environment reflect the growing pressures on beach resorts across Southeast Asia.
The Thai government ordered the shutdown of Maya Bay, the gem of Thailand’s Andaman sea, for four months starting this month, due to environmental damage caused by too many tourists. In April, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the closure of Boracay Island, one of the country’s top tourist destinations for six months to undertake a major clean up over concerns that the resort has become a “cesspool”.
A troubled paradise: Boracay Island’s already fragile environment
Known for its spectacular white sand beaches dotted by beautiful palms and turquoise waters, Boracay Island is one of Asia’s top holiday destinations. In fact, this 1,000 hectares island attracts nearly two million tourists a year and in 2017 generated P56 billion (US$1.07 billion) in revenue. Data from the tourism office also shows that the number of tourists to the island daily to be about 18,00, with arrivals increasing by more than 160% from 2012 to 2017. It’s indeed a perfect destination for local and foreign tourists to unwind, relax and find tranquility in its stunning beauty.
But beneath the inherent beauty of Boracay, lurks a troubled reality – the continuous rise in tourist arrivals, the insufficient sewer and waste management system, and environmental violations of establishments aggravate the environmental degradation and destroy the ecological balance of the island, resulting in major damage to property and natural resources, as well as the disruption of the normal way of life of the local people.
For over a month since its closure and the government’s “state of calamity” declaration, the shores of Boracay are almost empty. Tourists have been banned from setting foot on the island. Establishments are closed. Rehabilitation work has begun. Those who became unemployed either left or were forced to take on clearing or clean-up jobs. Given the rapid pace of rehabilitation, Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu noted that the island may reopen prior to the conclusion of the six-months originally stipulated for the closure.
The government’s proclamation states that it is necessary to implement urgent measures to address human-induced hazards and to protect and promote the health and well being of its residents, workers and tourists. So it will rehabilitate the island to ensure the sustainability of the area and prevent further degradation of its rich ecosystem.
“What has become of the island? What used to be simple, ordinary and manageable was made complicated by decades of apathy, shortsightedness and inaction. The shutdown will surely help but it is just a drop in the bucket,” said marine scientist Miguel Fortes. “What we need is a true rehabilitation to address not just the physical and economic aspect but the more vital biological and psycho-social dimensions of the problems, which would take years to effect the change we aim for.”
Before the shutdown, an inter-agency task force, composed of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Department of the Interior and Local Government and the Department of Tourism, was established to evaluate the sobering environmental state of Boracay. The task force investigated possible violations of existing environmental and health laws, rules and regulations.
The investigations and validation undertaken in March 2018 alone showed that there is a high concentration of fecal coliform in the Bolabog beaches (situated in the eastern side of Boracay) due to insufficient sewer lines and illegal discharge of untreated wastewater into the beach. It revealed a consistent failure in compliance with acceptable water standards, with an average result of 18,000 most probable number (mpn)/ 100 ml, exceeding the standard level of 400 mpn/100 ml. Earlier, the environment ministry identified 195 business establishments, along with more than 4,000 residential customers are not connected to sewer lines. Recurring flooding has also been blamed for the illegal drainage connections and for causing the high bacteria level. The violators will have to pay from P10, 000 (US$193) to P200, 000 (US$3,800) fine.
Most commercial establishments and residences are not connected to the sewerage infrastructure of Boracay, and waste products are not being disposed through the proper sewerage infrastructures in violation of environmental laws, rules and regulations.
Activities on Boracay generate 90 to 115 tons of solid waster per day. The hauling capacity of the local government is only 30 tons per day. This results in approximately 85 tons of solid waste left on the island daily.
Puka Beach’s natural habitats, which provide nesting grounds for marine turtles and roosting grounds for fruit bats, have been damaged and destroyed.
The island has nine wetlands, but only four remain due to illegal encroachment of structures, including 937 identified illegal structures constructed on forestlands and wetlands. These illegal structures enhance flooding in the island.
The damage does not end with the construction of tourist infrastructure and of more than 500 hotels on Boracay. Dirty water also results in the degradation of the coral reefs and coral cover of Boracay, which declined by approximately 70.5 percent from 1998 to 2011, with the highest decrease occuring between 2008 and 2011 during a period of increased tourist arrivals. Data from the Department of Science and Technology also reveals that about 40 meters of erosion has taken place in the past 20 years, from 1993 to 2003, due to storms, extraction of sand along the beach to construct properties and structures along the foreshore.
The direct discharge of wastewater near the shore has resulted in frequent algal blooms and coral deterioration. The algae causing the blooms are normal components of a clean, healthy reef, but when the reef is destroyed, they are brought to the shore by waves. Green algal blooms on Boracay have become more frequent, thicker and murkier in recent years.
Marine scientist Fortes explained that nitrates and phosphates from untreated wastewater and septic tanks, provides excessive algal bloom that can be seen on Boracay today.
“The normal or non-harmful green tide is composed of very few or less dense algae, while the abnormal bloom or harmful algae that can be seen in Boracay most months of the year is so dense, even forming mounds on the beach. The latter is overfed or over fertilized by the excess nutrients,” Fortes explained.
The government said it has proposed a P4.2 billion budget to rehabilitate the island, for which about P29 million is allocated for restoring wetlands, caves and other coastal resources. About P1.1 billion will be used for repairing the drainage system and another P500 million for road network improvement, which include a drainage system.
The Department of Social Welfare and Development, on the other hand, has released more than 1,300 livelihood packages, amounting to P 19.8 million (US$3.76 million) for residents and workers affected by the Boracay closure.
Malay Councilor Floribar Bautista, chairman of the municipal council committee on public works, admitted that overdevelopment for tourism has a great impact on the fragile marine ecosystems’ mangrove forests, coral reefs and sensitive marine habitats.
“We really need to balance our care for the environment and the economic side of tourism. We support the shutdown of the island and we need the support of the national government in the rehabilitation of the island,” Bautista said. “We hope that after six months, we have stronger local environmental policy in place.”
Acs Aldaba, operations manager of the major water supplier Boracay Island Water Corporation, said the water pollution issues on the island have existed for ten years.
“Clean up Boracay as it is needed. The lesson here is that we need to respond to the water supply of Boracay in a way that we consider environmental awareness for sustainability and the social aspect. It is important to bring back the beauty of the island and that we need a clear environmental policy from the local government,” Aldaba said.
The shutdown has a huge impact on island businesses. Nenette Graf, president of Boracay Foundation Inc with more than 150 members, said some businesses have closed their establishments and laid off workers due to the island’s temporary closure.
“It’s a hard blow in our part as business owners as closure is unexpected. We have to let go some of our workers,” Graf lamented. “While we realize that rehabilitation of Boracay is needed, the government should also look into the welfare of thousands of workers who depends only on tourism.”
Records from the Municipality of Malay shows that there are of 17,320 registered local and foreign workers on the island, while unregistered workers are estimated to be more than 11,000. While most of the workers were employed in hotels, some informal workers worked as part-time singers and entertainers, masseuses, tattoo artists, sand sculptors, boat rental owners and coordinators.
The government, however, has allocated some P448 million to cover financial assistance to employees affected by the shutdown.
While they are ready to cooperate with the six-month closure, the business community also said the government must clarify the exact plan for the island. “What will happen to our people and to those investors who invested their hard earned money? We in the business sector believe that doing good makes businesses,” said Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) president Elena Brugger.
A remarkable island for the Ati indigenous group
As the island is compounded with many environmental concerns, Delsa Justo, 58-year-old chieftain of the Ati Tribal Organization, could only wish for the sustainability of life and environment in their once inhabited land.
“Our ancestors were the first settlers of this island. We used to go anywhere and swim in every beach of the island, harvesting abundant food in the forests. Now it is exploited and neglected. And they wanted us out of the island. While we support the government in the restoration of the beauty of our island, they should also include the indigenous peoples in the planning,” Justo said.
On the island’s eastern coast, more than 200 members of the Ati tribe live within a 2.1 hectare area of their remaining ancestral land, which was awarded to them by the government a few years ago.
Somehow, Justo said some of the members of the indigenous peoples were employed to big and small establishments due to tourism. The closure of the island has also had an effect on the education local children who have com come to rely on the teachings thy receive from tourists.
In May, President Rodrigo Duterte directed the government to place the whole island under land reform and to prioritize the indigenous peoples as agrarian reform beneficiaries. The Department of Agrarian Reform initially identified at most 20 hectares that may be granted to at least 80 members of the Ati.
“This is our island. We hope the people also realize that it is our duty to protect our nature, our land and restore the beauty of Boracay,” Justo said.
The Philippine government is now looking into other tourists destination islands where resort establishments and local governments are violating environmental laws.