PH reclamation projects reach 187: Can ecosystem loss be reversed?

by Aliah Anne Zyrelle Pine, Andrei Leal, Dyan Dane Chomawat, Jun Vince Dizon, and Maybeline Andres

Currently, there are over 187 reclamation projects all over the Philippines – both proposed and ongoing – that were mostly approved and supported by the local and national governments for economic development.

Land reclamation is the process of creating new land located near bodies of water.

Out of the 180 reclamation projects, 23 are managed by the government, 38 by local government units (LGUs) in collaboration with private partners, 58 by LGUs without disclosed partners, and 51 by private entities. Of the 187, only 16 have been approved and were issued with permits. Below is a projection map showing the locations of these projects.

Reclamation projects vary depending on the projected use of the land. They may take in the form of: (1) islands for migratory birds and marine life; (2) housing and infrastructure; (3) port construction and/or extension; (4) restoration of beaches or islands that were damaged by the weather; and (5) gas and oil installation; among many others.

For a reclamation project to be authorized, the leading proponent must have acquired an environmental compliance certificate (ECC) issued by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

However, there are still many reclamation projects, some of which are LGU-led, that are unauthorized. And despite the environmental regulations in place, these projects, more often than not, cause more harm than good.

MANILA BAY. A street map of some reclamation projects in Manila bay. From Rappler.

Manila Bay is considered to be one of the best natural harbors in East Asia. Its importance to the Philippine economy has been highlighted in large parts of the country’s history – extending even as far back as the pre-colonial times.

As an economic hotspot, numerous land reclamation projects have been commenced for the betterment of the bay. However, it can be said that the recent reclamation projects have proved to be much more detrimental to the bay than they are beneficial.

In January 2019, the Manila bay underwent rehabilitation. This marked the effort of the previous administration to “clean up, rehabilitate, preserve, restore, and maintain the waters of Manila Bay”. The project immediately drew flak from countless organizations and critics, stating that the rehabilitation project will only damage the bay further and demanding for science-based justification. Also, hundreds of underprivileged families that were residing near the bay were forced to relocate as part of this project.

Several environmental groups have also expressed concerns about the danger of the project to the marine ecosystems in the bay. They predict that the dumping of dolomite sands as part of the rehabilitation can lead to severe marine sedimentation.

Examining the consequences

In terms of risks and benefits, the drawbacks of reclamation projects seem to outweigh the benefits. While proponents argue that these initiatives can fuel economic growth and infrastructure development, a closer examination reveals an abundance of negative consequences.

The irreversible loss of coastal ecosystems, including mangroves and coral reefs, disrupts marine biodiversity and exacerbates the vulnerability of coastal communities to natural disasters.

One of the main concerns surrounding reclamation projects is their potential harm to the environment. Mangroves and coral reefs, which serve as natural buffers against storms and provide breeding grounds for various marine species, are often destroyed or significantly impacted during the reclamation process.

The alteration of coastal ecosystems through land reclamation can disrupt natural habitats, endanger marine biodiversity, and disrupt the balance of coastal ecosystems. Such alterations often lead to increased vulnerability to extreme weather events and rising sea levels, posing significant threats to both the ecological integrity and human communities dependent on these coastal areas.

Additionally, reclamation projects can exacerbate the risk of flooding and coastal erosion. The removal of natural barriers, such as mangroves, can leave coastal communities vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, including sea-level rise and storm surges. The destruction of these natural buffers can also result in increased erosion along the coastline, further threatening coastal communities and infrastructure.

An environmental group called Advocates of Science and Technology for the People (Agham) is currently opposing the Pasay City Reclamation Project and other similar projects in Manila Bay due to their negative environmental impacts. The group argues that the promised economic benefits of these projects are outweighed by the harm caused to the environment through activities such as mangrove cutting and seabed dredging.

Agham also raises concerns about the potential alteration of Manila Bay’s physical characteristics and the impact on the Las Piñas-Parañaque Wetland Park. This could result in the loss of crucial habitats for migratory birds and other wildlife, affecting the delicate ecological balance within the wetland park.

Who Truly Benefits?

Data from Philippine Reclamation Authority (PRA) in 2023 reveals that from the 187 ongoing and approved reclamation projects, the government is in partnership with a few prominent corporations in the country.

Private partners for some of these projects remain unnamed. The undisclosed private partnerships could lead to challenges in monitoring and regulating the environmental and social impacts of the reclamation initiatives.

On the social front, the consequences of reclamation are felt keenly by local communities. Tangos fisherfolk of Navotas in 2017 actively resisted displacement and defended their fishing livelihood through organized efforts led by groups like Pamalakaya, a part of the National Federation of Small Fisherfolk Organizations in the Philippines. With over 100,000 members, Pamalakaya stages protests at local and national levels, employing tactics such as community dialogues, direct actions, and discussions with policymakers.

The Tangos fisherfolk successfully halted the construction of the Navotas Boulevard Business Park’s (NBBP) wall through extensive protests, dialogues with NGOs and government agencies, and lobbying efforts.

Confronting threats like Republic Act 10654 limiting fishing, they vocally advocate for a return to free and communal fishing, forging cross-sector alliances through the Kontra Konversion Koalisyon Reclamation.

Ripple effect of reclamation projects

In the case of Laguna de Bay, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, the deteriorating condition of the lake has been considered exacerbated by reclamation projects especially those operating in Manila Bay.

The Laguna Lake Development Authority (LLDA) has investigated the pollutant loading levels in Laguna Bay by conducting a study in the watersheds of Laguna de Bay, Pasig River, and Manila Bay.

These findings imply that the water quality in the watersheds of Laguna de Bay, Pasig River, and Manila Bay have already been polluted by numerous chemicals since 2008, impacting a vast number of communities surrounding these water bodies.

Studies have already shown how the water quality and ecology of Laguna de Bay have significantly reduced due to environmental pollution. Over the years, the lake has been a receiving end of industrial and agricultural waste because of factors such as population

expansion, deforestation, urbanization, and industrialization. This is affected by the lake’s proximity to over 5,009 industrial and agricultural establishments that discharge large quantities of waste products.

One of the identified contributors of microplastic pollution are land reclamation projects, which take place rapidly worldwide due to population growth and increased demand for land. This is due to the extensive use of geotextiles, and polymer fabrics. Under exposure to UV light and salinity, these geotextiles undergo weathering, which consequently releases significant quantities of microplastic particles to the environment.

Globally, microplastics have been widely regarded as a major driver of environmental pollution as well.

A study published by Springer Nature examined plastic pollution in 38 lakes and reservoirs across six continents and revealed that microplastics were found at all the study sites.

Similarly, in Northern America, a peer-reviewed paper from the University of Toronto found that approximately 90% of water samples collected over the last 10 years from the Great Lakes (Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario) carry levels of microplastics deemed threatening to wildlife.

If not mitigated properly, the impacts of reclamation projects may potentially kill the Laguna Lake and its neighboring lakes in Luzon. This means a severe threat to the sustainability of the freshwater ecosystems.

Two-faced development projects 

Transparency issues have been found as a factor as to how limited the data about the details and assessment of reclamation projects. PRA admitted that there are ‘illegal and unauthorized’ reclamation projects nationwide which did not go through proper procedures where projects must be done with the office or the President’s approval. This was only brought up when Senator Risa Hontiveros asked the status of reclamation projects.

Common to infamous reclamation projects and two-faced development projects in the country are issues of profit-led initiatives, displacement of local communities, and environmental degradation. An example of two-faced development projects in the Philippines is the on-going Build Better More program of the Marcos administration, which was iterated from Rodrigo Duterte’s Build Build Build campaign.

Oceana Philippines, an international organization that aims to protect the oceans and everything in relation to it, have long asserted that massive reclamation projects are commonly introduced without proper adherence to the requirements of transparency, regularity, accountability, and lack of public consultation. As long as in the process of reclamation, numerous sectors are compromised simultaneously – people are displaced and environments and ecosystems are damaged further – the quest for development will remain a fairytale.