Boracay: On the edge of disaster

BORACAY, touted as one of the world’s best beaches, is in danger of turning into an environmental disaster due to the spotty enforcement of sanitation and wastewater rules – a problem further compounded by the island’s incomplete sewerage and drainage system.

Just a few weeks ago, Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Ramon Paje expressed alarm over the poor water quality in Boracay. This after the DENR’s Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) office in Western Visayas reported that coliform bacteria levels in a drainage outlet that empties into the sea in Bulabog Beach in Boracay exceeded safety standards, reaching 47,460 most probable number (mpn) per 100 milimeter (ml).

The safe level for swimming and other human contact activities is just 1,000 mpn/100ml.

The dangerously high levels of coliform bacteria suggest that the waters off Bulabog beach are contaminated by human and animal waste. The findings seems to confirm recent TV news reports about the unpleasant odor in the Bulabog beach area as well as the algal bloom littering the island’s sandy beaches.

Scientists all agree that a boom in algae growth is conclusive evidence that Boracay’s waters are becoming polluted by so-called “waste nutrients.” These nutrients, experts say, “over-fertilize” the waters, causing algae to multiply quickly.

Worried about the negative impact of its report, the DENR-EMB’s Region 6 office quickly clarified that Boracay’s famous White Beach, which is located on the other side of the island, is “very safe” for swimming. The 4-kilometer long White Beach is where most resorts and known entertainment spots are located and is considered the best area in Boracay for swimming and partying.

The DENR-EMB says the White Beach was also tested for coliform bacteria recently and the level was only 58 mpn/ml, way below the danger level. Bulabog Beach (known as the “back beach” of Boracay), on the other hand, is not the usual swimming area of tourists and caters mostly to water sports enthusiasts like kite boarders, jet skiers and wind surfers.

The DENR-EMB’s clarification is hardly reassuring. Are they saying it’s okay for Bulabog Beach to be more polluted because there are less people swimming there? Or that it’s not as alarming because it’s happening on Boracay’s not-so-posh side?

Of course, the responsibility for keeping the waters of Boracay safe and clean does not lie with DENR-EMB alone. There is a presidential task force – which includes Paje, (Malay, Aklan) Mayor John Yap and Department of Tourism Secretary Ramon R. Jimenez, Jr., among others – that should be on top of this situation.

Paje points to the failure of many residential and commercial establishments to connect to the sewerage lines being operated by Boracay Island Water Company (BIWC). BIWC is a joint venture of the Ayala-led Manila Water and the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (Tieza) that took effect in 2009.

But even if these establishments wanted to, some would find it difficult if not impossible to connect to the sewerage grid because the sewer and drainage lines in the island have not been finished by BWIC. As a result, untreated wastewater continues to find their way into the coastal waters.

With the onset of summer and the coming Holy Week holidays, expect the sanitation problems – and water quality – of Boracay to get from bad to worse.

Clearly, the massive influx of tourists is putting immense pressure on the island’s inadequate sewerage infrastructure.

Here are the stats: In 2014, Boracay posted a record-high tourist arrival of 1,472,352, just 30,000 shy of its target of 1.5 million visitors. Of last year’s arrivals, 682,832 were foreign tourists while 745,266 were domestics.

Once known only to backpackers, the island now hosts some 300 hotels and resorts, 107 restaurants and bars, 34 coffee shops and internet cafés, 83 massage parlors, 47 motorboat rental shops, 40 diving shops, 104 souvenir shops and 88 pump boat rental shops. All in all, visitor arrivals to the Boracay generated some P27-billion in tourism revenue.

The island’s evolution from its backpacker roots comes with a price.

According to a research paper by Japanese professors from the Kagoshima University, degradation in the island is becoming rampant. Tourism development is causing sand erosion, coastal pollution and adverse environmental changes.

“A wastewater treatment facility was built in joint venture with Japan [but the]wastewater is not properly treated and evidence of sulphide spills over to the shoreline. This has resulted in the sand having a strange smell and implications for the future remain negative,” the paper said.

It’s time for the Paje, Jimenez, Yap and the other members of the presidential task force on Boracay to get their act together. As a first step, they should start cracking down on houses or buildings that improperly discharge wastewater to illegal sewers. If they don’t act quickly, the country’s showcase beach that is Boracay will be internationally renowned as a tropical wasteland instead of a paradise.

Source: The Manila Times. Date: March 9, 2015

Boracay: On the edge of disaster