From polluted shores to flooded communities, the Philippines has faced a number of environmental issues in the past year. Among those that made headlines were the clean-up of Manila Bay, the closure of Boracay, continued suspension of some mining operations, and the opposition to Kaliwa Dam.
While some of these events have brought about positive, albeit temporary, outcomes, environment groups believe more should be done to stop the degradation of the country’s natural resources and address the threat of climate change.
With metal straws becoming trendy and marine animals dying of plastic pollution causing outrage online, environment groups are hoping that Filipinos will finally vote for candidates who can address various environmental problems.
But how do voters determine if a candidate truly understands and knows how to solve the country’s many environmental woes?
ABS-CBN talked to 5 groups who came up with a wish list for the next batch of lawmakers and executive officials.
Based on the discussions, there are 5 questions voters can use as a guide when choosing their candidates. They can refer to the candidates’ platform, statements and answers during debates.
1. How do you solve the country’s massive waste disposal problem, especially when it comes to plastic?
The Philippines generated 40,000 tons of solid waste per day in 2016, according to the National Solid Waste Management Commission. Eighteen percent of this is residual waste, which is mostly single-use plastics. The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, a non-government organization, estimates that 60 billion sachets are being used in the Philippines per year.
The Break Free from Plastics movement estimates that managing all that waste costs between P32 million and P40 million a day.
Not only are Filipinos producing so much waste, waste collection is inefficient and disposal is often done improperly, partly because of a lack of facilities.
A 2012 study by the World Bank estimates that solid waste produced by Philippine cities will increase by 165 percent in 2025 because of the projected population growth.
More important than the cost of waste management is the ill effects of waste to health and the environment.
Greenpeace said that during the first 3 quarters of the year, 3 whales and a dolphin were found dead in the Davao Gulf. They all had plastic in their stomachs. Last month, 40 kilograms of plastic were found inside a dead whale that died in Compostela Valley.
Greenpeace believes the solution is to make companies responsible for the waste they create.
Greenpeace campaigner Virginia Llorin said: “We believe that this problem is rooted in how products are produced. Companies have the capability to change this system.”
She said there are already alternatives to reduce single-use plastic, such as having refilling stations. She said this can be implemented in poor communities as well by allowing people to use smaller refillable containers.
Llorin said government can give subsidies and incentives to companies to encourage them to find ways to reduce waste.
Francis Dela Cruz of the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC) said that while small steps are being taken to address the waste problem, “we cannot just do cleanups. We cannot just bring our own straws. Why are we even creating plastic when we know it is bad?”
Candidates should also note that a Social Weather Stations survey, conducted during the 3rd quarter of 2018, showed that 7 out of 10 Filipinos want candidates to ban single-use plastics in the country. Meanwhile, 8 out of 10 said they support prohibiting non-biodegradable plastic bags at business establishments, such as groceries and fast food chains, according to Greenpeace.
For Ecowaste and No Burn Pilipinas senior campaigner Glen Ymata, candidates should address the problem of waste incineration.
“In layman’s term, incineration is burning garbage. If you burn garbage, definitely there’s pollution. It emits not just carbon dioxide but also poisonous gases,” Ymata said.
While waste incineration is already banned under the Clean Air Act, there are attempts in Congress to amend the law to allow technology that converts waste into energy.
Ymata said advocates do not have any problem with the organic process of converting waste into energy by allowing garbage to decompose naturally. However, he said it is dangerous to use incineration to burn waste and create steam that would power turbines.
“If you burn out . . . and you use different kinds of waste, it’s definitely hazardous and the toxicity level would be high. It will also have an impact on greenhouse-gas emissions so it will contribute to global warming,” he said.
2. How will you ensure clean energy for the Philippines?
The Philippines has been increasing its use of coal-fired power plants in the past several years. From only 27 percent in 2005, the share of coal in the country’s power generation increased to 37 percent in 2011 and to 44.5 percent in 2015.
By 2016, the Philippines has been consuming and importing around 20 million metric tons of coal.
In a report published in 2016, Greenpeace called coal “a major public health hazard” with each stage of the “coal life cycle” — from mining to disposing — carrying health risks such as lung, heart and brain diseases. The study claimed that if new coal power plants are opened, premature deaths due to stroke, heart, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases could increase from 960 each year to 2,410.
A couple of years ago, ash fall due to coal plants reportedly caused diseases in a town in Bataan.
Llorin said residents are encouraged to tell their leaders to turn down or ban coal-fired power plants. Certain areas have already done this. Negros Occidental, for example, now has an executive order banning the entry of coal-fired power plants in the province.
Greenpeace media campaigner Angelia Pago said, “Why not shift investments to renewable energy systems? Now it’s getting cheaper. There’s no excuse to continue using coal, especially since it is no longer reliable.”
Dela Cruz of ICSC said coal plants are no longer economical in the long run. While solar power plants become cheaper the longer it operates, coal plants become more expensive.
He said in addition to increasing the amount of renewable energy in the country’s power mix, the government should also find ways to support homeowners who want to set up their own solar energy sets.
Dela Cruz warned that if countries, such as the Philippines continue to rely on dirty energy, the world would go over the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit for global warming. Going over the said threshold for temperature increase could result in catastrophic effects such as rising sea levels, widespread water scarcity, and extinction of certain animal species.
3. How will you address the issue of food security amid environmental degradation and climate change?
“We have one of the longest coastlines (in) the world yet our ocean is largely unregulated,” said lawyer Gloria Ramos, vice president of Oceana Philippines.
According to Ramos, municipal waters, which are supposed to be only for small fisherfolk, are being encroached upon by commercial fishing vessels. Destructive fishing, which involves the use of dynamite and other explosives, also continue to be a problem.
“We are highly dependent on fish as a main source of our protein diet. However, in a survey with Social Weather Stations, the awareness on the law, the Fisheries Code, was only hovering between 20 to 30 percent,” Ramos said.
Recently, it was announced that the popular fish species Tawilis has become endangered because of overfishing and the spread of invasive fish species in Taal Lake.
Ramos said the law needs an awareness campaign and the involvement of all sectors involved. This is why Oceana is partnering with enforcers in monitoring the seas.
While Ramos said it is the implementation and not the law that is the problem, her group is also open to proposals to turn the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources into the Department of Fisheries. Oceana believes this will give the fisheries sector a larger share of the budget and a more comprehensive scope of activities, including more research and development of inland waters. They are also hoping this would address the problem of poverty among fishing communities.
Besides overfishing, fish species and other aquatic resources are threatened by the effect of climate change.
On the other hand, environment groups have warned Filipinos about the effect of their food choices on the ecosystem.
Greenpeace, for example, has urged Filipinos to reduce their meat and increase their vegetable consumption. A Greenpeace International report said global meat and dairy consumption should be halved by 2050 considering that meat has a greenhouse-gas footprint 100 times that of plant-based food.
4. What is your stand on land reclamation?
Earlier this year, President Rodrigo Duterte transferred the Philippine Reclamation Authority (PRA) to his office through Executive Order 74. The EO aims to rationalize the approval process since in the past, both the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) Board were allowed to approve reclamation projects.
However, Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE) believes the Duterte administration is pushing for more reclamation projects to support its Build, Build, Build program.
“Compared to other drivers of environmental degradation like plastic pollution, reclamation converts the core of our ecosystems — coral reefs, sea grass bed and mangrove forests. If reclamation projects push through, there will be destructive consequences and a long-term impact,” said Kalikasan PNE national coordinator Leon Dulce.
Some environment groups fear that the clean-up of the Manila Bay is just a prelude for reclamation projects.
Dulce said millions of fisherfolk will be directly affected if parts of the bay are reclaimed. If mangroves are removed, there will also be less protection against storm surges and water pollutants.
“Of course it will affect biodiversity in the area,” Dulce added, citing the recent discovery of a new species of sardines in Manila Bay called Sardinella pacifica.
In a forum last March, Oceana, Kalikasan and fisherfolk group Pamalakaya invited experts to explain the effects of reclamation, which include flooding, harming livelihood, and destroying marine life.
5. What is your position on the proposed land use act and the amendment of the constitution to allow 100% foreign ownership of land?
The Philippines in recent years has faced problems related to water and mining. While mostly a management problem, the recent water shortage of Manila Water inconvenienced thousands of residents.
Manila Water has pointed to the low water levels of La Mesa Dam and now the level at Angat Dam has continued to drop amid the occurrence of a mild El Niño.
Dela Cruz of ICSC said the water crisis can be addressed by having a land use policy.
“If we have a land use policy then we would be able to regulate also our land-use resources. We are dependent on ground water and surface water . . . We can’t just have bigger dams . . . How do you conserve the water that you get?” he said.
The proposed National Land Use Act has long been deemed urgent by presidents but it has yet to passed.
Meanwhile, Kalikasan warned against senatorial and congressional candidates who support charter change.
“The major policy there is the economic aspect of the proposed charter change,” Dulce said. “Riding on that are some provisions that could open up 100 percent foreign ownership, land use conversion — for example, converting public domain land to land that can be privately owned.” In the past, amendments included allowing 100 percent foreign ownership of mining firms.
Other issues candidates should also have a say on, concerned citizens say, are mining and dams.
Last year, several mine operations were closed or suspended but the Department of Environment and Natural Resources is expected to clear many mineral-production sharing agreements canceled during the time of former secretary Gina Lopez.
Besides mining, environment groups said candidates should also have a stand on the construction of dams, especially those that could put communities at risk of flooding.
Despite the recent water shortage experienced by Manila Water, groups continue to oppose the enforcement of a China-funded Kaliwa Dam.
All environment groups interviewed agree that there have been improvements in the awareness of Filipinos about environment issues. Whether voters consider it an important issue in these elections is a question mark.
“Environmental destruction is something that we have already seen and felt. If we don’t consider it an important issue, when will we consider it?” Llorin said.
Meanwhile, Dela Cruz said that voters should consider environmental degradation as comparable to corruption.
“If your system is corruptible, a lot of resources will be destroyed,” he said.
Kalikasan PNE and Oceana are more optimistic that Filipinos, especially the youth, are more ready now to prioritize environment issues.
For now, only time — and the results of the elections — can tell.