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Bay Rehab Reveals Duterte’s Soft Side

Many Filipinos are now beginning to appreciate the soft side of President Rodrigo Duterte despite his tough stance on his war on drugs. Mr. Duterte, not to the surprise of many, also cares about the environment and its benefits to the population, tourism, and the economy in general. His initial success in cleaning up Boracay Island gained the support of the Filipino people and was lauded here and abroad. It started the momentum to rehabilitate other tourist attractions in the Philippines.


President Duterte now faces the most daunting task of all: the very ambitious and long-delayed cleanup of Manila Bay. No past presidents of the republic have succeeded in restoring Manila Bay to its original state, where one can swim in its clean waters and enjoy its spectacular sunset without the sight of filth and floating garbage.


Manila Bay will not be rehabilitated in three years, or until the expiration of President Duterte’s term in 2022. The more relevant question, for me, however, is what can be done in three years? I believe the government can accomplish many things in cleaning up Manila Bay, and Pasig River for that matter, in three years and that those deeds will speed up the momentum and lead to an irreversible trend to finish the job, whoever succeeds President Duterte.


The Manila Bay rehabilitation will not be a success, of course, without the support of his Cabinet members and the international community, which has long urged the Philippines to do the job soon. The cleanup is also a perfect complement to President Duterte’s tough stand against drugs, graft and corruption, the New People’s Army and terrorism. For me, the rehabilitation of Manila Bay represents the soft side of the President.


But his soft side should not be mistaken for a weakness in his character. President Duterte was firm in his directive in early January to rehabilitate Manila Bay and warned establishments along the bay that he would not hesitate to order their closure if they challenge his call.  “Whether they like it or not, all of them, including the hotels, must put water treatment for their waste discharge or else I will shut them down,” said the President.


Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Roy Cimatu, meanwhile, is lucky to be given the opportunity by the President to rehabilitate Boracay Island and Manila Bay. Mr. Cimatu may be remembered in time as the best environment secretary of the Philippines after receiving the full support of President Duterte in implementing these rehabilitation projects.


Mr. Cimatu so far is implementing President Duterte’s directive to the letter. He has urged 178 mayors of the cities and municipalities surrounding Manila Bay to do their share in the bay’s rehabilitation by cleaning up their rivers and esteros.


“We have to clean all 47 esteros and all the rivers that contribute to the pollution of Manila Bay. Nobody should be left alone, we will one by one ask them [to help],” he said.


He reminded local officials to implement environmental laws and clear the waterways of squatters, and asked them to identify the sources of water pollution in their areas and do something about it.


“Once we clean the esteros and rivers, garbage will not go out to Manila Bay. We’ll make it a point that the water that reaches Manila Bay is clean,” he said. “Even if it takes us one, two or three years to clean these rivers, we have to do it.”


The absence of wastewater- treatment facilities along the tributaries and waterways of Metro Manila and nearby municipalities are largely contributing to the high coliform content of the waters of Manila Bay.


Mr. Cimatu has the full support of President Duterte, who minced no words in his early warnings against hotels and other commercial establishments contributing to the pollution of Manila Bay.


“Do not challenge me. If we do not have tourists, so be it. We are not going to die without them. You do something about your waste there, or we will have you closed down. That’s for sure,” said the President.


I am confident President Duterte’s directive to clean up Manila Bay will be a success and set the tone for other similar projects. A strong political will and his high popularity ratings are backing him up.