Grassroots & Governance

PEOPLE gather at the artificial white sand beach along the shore of Manila Bay. — PHILIPPINE STAR / MIGUEL DE GUZMAN

FROM out of the blue, at a televised meeting of his COVID-19 Task Force, President Duterte justified the dolomite beach “nourishment” project by defending his choice of Roy Cimatu as his Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources. He, typically, cited his personal trust in Cimatu as having worked in Davao when he was mayor there. Therefore, it seems, in his opinion, Cimatu, who happens to be a retired general, can do no wrong.

Look at the facts.

We are trying to deal with a humongous pandemic crisis. There is not enough money to pay for all the vaccines that we need. Nurses and other healthcare frontliners have not been getting their hazard pay, let alone their basic salaries. Millions of people have lost their jobs or their businesses. Government revenues have been decreasing due to reduced tax collections from businesses which are closing or losing money, plus reduced consumer spending: a source of business incomes and VAT collections. Social welfare “ayuda” benefits for the needy, including the newly needy as a result of the pandemic, are not enough to prevent more and more involuntary hunger and deaths caused by inability to pay for expensive anti-COVID treatments. Besides, hospitals, which are losing their frontliners, are unable to cope with the unprecedented demand for rooms, medicines, patient care, and survival equipment.

Government certainly has to prioritize between basic needs and wants.

The Manila Bay artificial beach project at best is definitely not a need, but a want, if at all. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) justifies it as something that the public needs. A beach in the heart of the capital city! We can’t even swim in highly polluted Manila Bay! Can’t we just enjoy the most beautiful sunset in the world? Can’t we just sit on the sea wall and watch for the awesome view like I used to when I lived there?

When the “beach” was opened to the public, the people who went there forgot the social distancing protocols in place because of the pandemic. So, surveillance and security personnel had to be mobilized to supervise the crowds which included children. These required additional operating costs that surely were not anticipated.

After the project was “completed,” when the rains came, as they always do, black sand covered the “white” dolomite fake sand. The DENR claims that the dolomite beach was not washed away by the rain, but that the black sand from the bay covered the dolomite. What difference does that make? The artificial beach was ruined. Engineering cures had to be shoveled in place to keep the dolomite beach from getting submerged. Did that mean more unplanned spending? Marine biologists say that the quick fixes will not last as they work against nature. Dolomite is not indigenous to Manila Bay’s environment. It is destructive to marine life there. The fish kill that followed the construction of the dolomite beach testifies to this. Of the hundreds of “beach nourishment” projects in the world, the Manila Bay project is the only one using dolomite, which is crushed into sand after being mined in Alcoy town in Cebu province. We haven’t even studied the impact the dolomite mining will have on the environment of Alcoy and Cebu province.

If the government persists in operating and maintaining the artificial Manila Bay beach project, are we prepared to allocate more and more funds to this ill-conceived and unnecessary project? We are a poor country and getting poorer. Government loans are already at the record highest in history.

Secretary Cimatu obviously was not asked the usual question that President PNoy would ask his Cabinet: “Is this the best use of the people’s money?” Last I checked, the initial budget for the dolomite beach was P389 million. This year, another P265 million has been allocated. More will be provided for 2022 when the beach “nourishment” project is supposed to be completed. Additional funds will have to be provided annually for the destructive heavy rains and typhoons that come to our Pacific island country. These climate disasters will continue to visit us with increasing frequency and severity with unmitigated climate change.

Mr. President, this is not personal. This is not about relationships. This is about responsibility for the people’s money.

Mr. President, let’s just cut our losses. Drop the project now. Just let it die. We cannot continue to spend money on it that we cannot afford. This is the plain and simple, sensible and practical option among several worse ones. Let’s just acknowledge it as a terrible mistake.


Teresa S. Abesamis is a former professor at the Asian Institute of Management and Fellow of the Development Academy of the Philippines.