Open letter to Erap: Stop Manila Bay reclamation

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The votes are in and it is not surprising that you won, Erap.

I imagine that as the congratulations poured in, so have the countless proposals and suggestions on how to run Manila. I’m sure you’re aware that many of these suggestions are premised on hidden agenda and private interests.

I am hopeful about how you might navigate the corruption and palakasan that is intrinsic in offices of power such as yours. You used to say walang kaibi-kaibigan, walang kama-kamaganak. I voted for you then for President. That the city of Manila has elected you into office now is telling of how we all might still believe that you hold in your hands the possibilities for change.

And while there is so much to change, there is no reason at all to change the landscape and seascape of Manila Bay.

Your office says you are still studying the reclamation project of the Manila Goldcoast Development Corporation (MGDC), the one that promises to create the Solar City in two years, making land out of water, from the Cultural Center of the Philippines to the US Embassy.

That is the expanse of what we see of the sunset of Manila Bay, every day. That is what this development will be covering up, even as it insists it will create a viewing deck from which the public can watch the sunset.

A manufactured city within the city of Manila will mean disenfranchising the masses, the ones who voted for you. The masses – and every one of us – can currently sit on Baywalk and watch the sunset every day, without having to pay a cent, or without needing to get dressed, or being made to feel poor. Even as the promise of MGDC is that of employment for Manila’s poor.

Yet Nora Juat, convenor of Alyansa ng Maralita sa Maynila Laban sa Reklamasyon, says that MGDC is nothing but a “demolition job against the less privileged” , adding the development would not be inclusive. Worse, it “would cause more floods because it would impede the flow of water to the bay during rainy season.”

But there are countless other reasons to stop the MGDC reclamation, and an unimpeded view of the setting sun is only one of them. That it didn’t push through in 1992, the first time it was proposed, supports this position. The project was stopped to preserve Manila Bay, and keep it as part of cultural heritage. The task then as now is to save the bay from environmental degradation.

Manila Bay is “not just an ordinary waterfront”, says Ivan Henares of the Heritage Conservation Society, pointing out that World War II battles were fought there and galleons docked there 300 years ago. Cultural Center of the Philippines chairperson Emily Abrera says it must be preserved as a place for children to enjoy. Doris Magsaysay Ho, who fought this same project in 1992 – and succeded in stopping it—sees the waterfront as a sacred space, where Roxas Boulevard “is a promenade accessible to both rich and poor. Urban planner Daniel Burnham envisions it as “a space that belongs to everyone.” Another urban planner, Paulo Alacazaren, says sale of public recreational spaces to private developers is “a recurring story.” It shouldn’t be so, especially for Manila Bay, where sunset can be viewed by everyone for free.

This space brings the rich and poor together. Anyone who has been to Baywalk knows how true this is. Here is where the manong selling taho and balut sits with you as you take photos of the bay. Here is where anyone at all might stop and watch the moment pass.

MGDC claims that they will make things better. They claim that they will only improve on things and nothing else. They claim that the bay is dead, and there is no livelihood to be had there. They claim that there is no other way to create development in Manila but by reclaiming land, and Solar City will be a “new economic zone.” In mid-April MGDC threw around numbers like employing 250,000 to 500,000 individuals, as they have been wont to use big words: tourism boom, urban renewal, cultural renaissance.

These are big numbers and even bigger concepts that are nothing but empty if one is to consider that there is no transparency here, and no one knows of how exactly MGDC plans to even engage with the city in this manner.

In fact all we have are their words, and your predecessor’s approval of this plan, Erap – a plan by the way that is so confidential that we are kept in the dark about it.

Meanwhile what is as clear as day is the fact of Manila’s congestion and flooding. What we know is that the lightest rain means an accumulation of water on Roxas Boulevard. What we remember is how homes and families were adversely affected in the Habagat rains last year, as they were by Ondoy and Sendong.

Architect Jun Palafox has said that the disadvantages of doing a reclamation project are many: “it can worsen flooding, block the views of existing waterfront development, harm aquatic resources, environment and heritage historic sites.” Lory Tan of the World Wildlife Fund says that given how “highly vulnerable we are to the worst impacts of climate change” having a reclamation project such as this one can only be dangerous.

Dr. Kelvin S. Rodolfo agrees that this is a bad idea. Given how Metro Manila is subsiding rapidly. The growing population has meant the over-extraction of groundwater, and as such “the local sea level is rising 10 times faster than the rate of sea level rise due to global warming.” This has meant worsened flooding and storm surges, which can only become worse given the threat of stronger typhoons due to climate change.

Abrera responds to the idea that reclamation’s been done before, so what’s wrong with it now? “At the heart of the issue is the science of it. It is being studied. We know better. So why didn’t anybody raise a hoot when the first areas were reclaimed? Well, we didn’t know then what we know now.”

Dear Erap, it seems to me that no matter the promise of employment, or development, or profits, the lives of the Manileños are more important. There is no proof whatsoever that a reclamation project like MGDC’s will mean no more floods. In fact given how secretive they are about their plans, it seems easier to think that MGDC is hiding something. At the very least, the lack of transparency in the process of signing this contract with the previous Manila government, and the lack of a clear plan, points to a refusal to be held liable for how things might turn out, and the probable adverse effects of the Solar City on the rest of Manila.

Pre-elections, MGDC was full of itself, talking about how no matter who won between you and Alfredo Lim, that they would have the cityhall on their side, and all their plans would push through. MGDC Vice Chair Edmund Lim also blames politics for the delay in the reclamation project, and a recent MGDC press release talks about the project languishing since Cory Aquino’s presidency, and now there is hope in PNoy.

I hope you prove them wrong Erap.

Your office has said that you have yet to study the MGDC proposal, and will take a stand about it when you formally take office.

But studying the proposal is beside the point, Erap. Because to begin with, that contract should not have been signed, that agreement not entered.

The MGDC contract was signed with Alfredo Lim’s Manila government, after the latter revoked a 1993 City Council of Manila Ordinance prohibiting any form of reclamation along Manila Bay from the US Embassy to the CCP Complex.

Alfredo Lim as mayor had the City of Manila sign that contract with MGDC despite the fact of RA 7586, which states that Manila Bay “should be among areas considered as protected landscape and seascape of national significance.” Resolution 20120-04 of the National Historical Commission also declares Manila Bay and Waterfront as National Historical Landmark which would mean it is protected by the National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009.

Your predecessor ignored all these laws when his government signed the Solar City contract with MGDC. The previous Manila city government also ignored both common sense and science in its refusal to believe that between climate change and congestion, storms and floods can only get worse. That Manila government was blinded by the possibility of huge profits, and refused to work at improving what it already had. It also decided to forget how nationally valuable Manila Bay is, not just for those who go and watch the sunset, but also for those who live off and around it.

I’d like to think yours will be a government that will not forget, Dear Erap. Very simply, the task at hand is to cancel that contract altogether, and refuse to sign off on something that your predecessor irresponsibly pushed for.

Dear Erap, kill the Manila Bay reclamation, and you would be making the best first decision as mayor of Manila.

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