Last week, thousands of volunteers braved one of the most dermatologically dangerous and aromatically affronting frontiers in Manila – the bay shoreline. They did this to undertake the massive task of cleaning up the famously polluted water body.
Thanks to their efforts, social media has been littered with photos of a very much litter-free Bay. Throughout the week, people have been strolling the shores and even taking dips in the water.
But folks, don’t judge a book by its cover and definitely don’t confuse a lack of plastic waste for actual change in the sanitation and water quality of the Manila Bay. There’s definitely still more bacteria in the water than you can shake a finger at or that your stomach can stomach.
So while Sunday’s volunteers did achieve a lot (10 dump trucks worth, at least), their well-meaning and deft hands probably weren’t able to pick out of the water the massive amounts of coliform and other bacteria from the hyperpolluted Manila Bay.
In fact, the DOH released an advisory to would-be aqua-adventurers to please refrain from swimming in the water just yet. The sands of the bay have only been freed from their blanket of single-use plastics and cigarette butts for a week. And as anyone knows, a “weeksiversary” is not anything to celebrate. Health Undersecretary Rolando Enrique Domingo asked the public to wait for comprehensive water tests to show that the bay is ready for swimming.
“After cleaning the beach, the water will still have to be tested to see if it is safe for swimming. Laboratory tests will show the level of coliform in the water and tell us if it is within acceptable levels,” said Domingo.
Coliforms are a broad class of bacteria. Their presence in water samples may be indicative of harmful, disease-causing organisms or pollutants such as feces (particularly fecal coliform bacteria). Most coliforms don’t cause serious illness to people on their own, but some rare strains like E. coli 0157:H7 pose serious health risks.
The maximum coliform levels allowed for water bodies to be classified as safe for swimming is 100 most probable number (MPB) per mililliter. Some parts of Manila Bay have almost 100 million. The latest tests show fecal coliform levels at 330 million most probable number per 100 milliliters.
Any victory dances (or laps) for this environmental win may have to be postponed for these tests, but hopefully not for too long.
According to the Integrated Manila Bayanihan Database System for the Manila Bay Coordinating Office, there are currently no areas of Manila Bay that are safe for swimming.
But the DENR hopes that this may change by December this year. An interagency task force has been formed to attempt to bring down to safe levels the amounts of fecal coliform found within the bay. This P47-B major rehabilitation effort is the “Manila Bay Action Plan”.
It’s also called the “Battle for Manila Bay” and rightly so. It will take all the muscle possible to muster from DENR and the other dozen agencies mandated over the last decade to oversea some part of the Bay’s management. Cleaning up the toilet of the Metro involves tackling resettlement issues, addressing sewage problems, enforcing existing quality standards and guidelines to ensure that the Bay will recover from how much we’ve polluted it and that we cannot pollute it to the same extent again. It will take arguably even more political will than it took to enforce the shutdown of Boracay, since addressing the issues of the Bay crosses multiple political boundaries.
The beach clean-up was just the start, but the Battle is far from over. So for now, please, please, please don’t swim in Manila Bay. It’s not worth it and it will not be fun.