20-21 JANUARY 2003
Boracay's Road to Ruin

by NEREO C. LUJAN


Our latest series deals with something that has not been in the news for some time — the coliform crisis in Boracay. If you will recall, in 1997, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources issued a report that revealed the high levels of coliform in the waters off Boracay. That report was widely reported in the newspapers and prompted a flurry of tourist cancellations. This forced then President Ramos to create a multi-agency task force to look into the problem and offer solutions.

World-famous powdery white sand beaches of Boracay Island [photo by Nereo Lujan]Nearly six years later, the problem remains. As Iloilo-based journalist Nereo Lujan reports, rising cases of gastroenteritis among Boracay residents provide evidence that coliform levels in Boracay remain high. The exact level of contamination are difficult to determine, however, as that there has been no testing for coliform on the island since 1998. In addition, resort and tourism development continues, defying a master plan that put restraints on such development. This is not surprising, considering that the local officials that have ruled Boracay, including the current mayor and vice mayor, are resort owners themselves.

As this report states, overdevelopment and poor governance are at the root of the island's woes. Unless something is done soon, Boracay will become a wasteland. Already, resort owners are resisting paying higher amounts for sewerage disposal and other changes that will lead to better management of Boracay's natural resources. They are looking at short-term profits rather than the long-term sustainability of an island that is famous around the world for its long stretch of powdery white sand beach.


BORACAY ISLAND — This island famous for its powdery white sand beaches and crystalline waters is paradise to many people, including about 75,000 foreign tourists who come here every year. But to long-time resident Diosdada Casidsid, Boracay is becoming a harder place to live in.

Last year, her family's already meager income shrunk even more after the youngest among her 10 children was hospitalized thrice for what she describes as "stomach ache, vomiting and diarrhea." A 46-year-old laundrywoman who is married to a fisher, Casidsid attributes her one-year-old daughter's recurring illness to their drinking water, which comes from a deep well.

The young Casidsid was just one of the 752 patients diagnosed at the local hospital to have acute gastroenteritis from January to September last year. Because of water contamination and poor sewage facilities, the ailment has been prevalent here in the past five years and has become the leading illness in Boracay.

When news broke out more than five years ago that the waters off this tourist magnet of an island were contaminated with coliform bacteria, national and local officials crambled to assure both visitors and residents that the problem would be solved. They also promised that everything would be done to ensure the health and general well-being of the people as well as the protection of the Boracay's fragile ecosystem.

Multimillion-peso projects aimed to accomplish these have been inaugurated here in the last few years. But Boracay — one of the main come-ons in this "Visit the Philippines Year" — remains in danger of becoming a health and environmental wasteland, largely because of greed and dismal governance.

Dumpsite in Barangay Balabag [photo by Nereo Lujan]Both resort owners and local officials continue to ignore, among other things, the guidelines in a decade-old master plan for environment-friendly development on Boracay. Resort owners, claiming they are being charged "exorbitant" rates, have also dug in their heels against a new water and sewerage system aimed at averting a water shortage and cleaning up waste disposal.

Environmentalists and development experts say all these could lead to ecological and financial ruin for Boracay, where tourism revenues totaled some P2.2 billion in 2001, 23 percent more than the previous year.

Experts like Francis Gentoral, program manager of the Canadian Urban Institute (CUI) in the Philippines, point to clear evidence of the island's ruin: the algal bloom that now appears near the shore from December to May, the peak tourist season here, and the rising number of cases of water-borne diseases.

"If no alternatives to septic tanks and to groundwater source are introduced to Boracay," he says, "the situation will not improve."

An extension of a coral reef, Boracay is a 1,038-hectare island at the northwestern tip of Panay. It has only a thin layer of topsoil covering coralline limestone, a porous material that can hold little water and weight and sustain only a few hardy crops. Domestic wastes and effluents easily penetrate the porous soil, contaminating both the groundwater and the coastal waters, wrote British marine scientist Pierre Pillout in a 1996 study.

"The septic system predominating in the developed tourist area of Boracay is prone to leaching wastes... due to a combination of local soil conditions, unregulated building which has gnored setback limits, and poor construction and maintenance of the septic system itself," said Pillout. "The situation is exacerbated further by the high population density levels along the White Beach and the very high water table, which has inevitably led to pollution of groundwater supplies."

In 1997, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) released a report saying Boracay's swimming area and groundwater were contaminated with coliform bacteria (Escherichia coli).

Coliform belongs to the bacteria family known as enterobacteriaceae. One of its subgroups is present in huge numbers in the feces and intestines of humans and other warm-blooded animals and can enter water bodies from human and animal waste.

Swimming in waters with high levels of coliform increases the chance of developing illness from pathogens entering the body through the mouth, nose, ears or cuts in the skin. Coliform commonly causes gastroenteritis, which is characterized by watery diarrhea, abdominal cramps, low-grade fever, nausea and malaise.

When the DENR report came out, resorts and tour operators immediately received calls for cancellation of bookings from around the world. That year, annual tourist arrivals in Boracay dropped by 7.6 percent, from 163,727 in 1996 to 151,264. It went down some more in 1998, decreasing by over 10 percent or to 135,944.

Alarmed government officials, including then President Fidel Ramos, quickly sought to reassure tourists that nothing was wrong with the waters of Boracay. Ramos also formed an inter-agency task force composed of the departments of environment and natural resources, health, tourism, and science and technology, which was supposed to check the quality of Boracay's waters.

That task force, however, never functioned. Samson Guillergan, director of the environmental management bureau in Western Visayas, also admits: "After our 1996 tests, which was the basis of the 1997 coliform report, we did only one test and that was the one made in July 1997. There was no more test after that because we have no funds for any follow-up test."

The second test was the basis of the August 1997 declaration by the Department of Tourism (DOT) that Boracay's waters were safe for swimming. The announcement was made during a three-day media junket called "Rediscover Boracay," which was sponsored by resort owners to help the island recover from the damage wrought by the coliform report.

By 1999, Boracay's tourism industry had bounced back and continues to do well to this day. Yet another — sadder — reality is that Boracay has remained in the same ecological quagmire it was in five years ago.

According to an October 2000 study by the Water Resources Center of the University of San Carlos (USC), the island's aquifer still has human fecal pollution, with coliform or E. coli counts of mostly above 10 per 100 milliliter. "This points to the idea that septic tanks in the high density area are not doing good for ground water," said the authors of the study, which was commissioned by Aklan Governor Florencio Miraflores.

The study also blamed septic tanks for the contamination, saying that even if resorts install three-chamber septic tanks, "such engineering design would mainly affect the solid removal, rather than on bacteriological and dissolved solids." It noted that most septic tanks in Boracay do not have properly constructed seepage tile to further purify the effluents.

Although the USC study did not include the water quality of the swimming area, Pillout's dissertation showed a strong link between groundwater and coastal waters. Pillout found an abundance of ammonia, nitrate and phosphate in the coastal waters of the island, causing the algal bloom that comes this time of the year.

Since Boracay has no manufacturing industry or agriculture that could help explain the presence of ammonia, nitrate and phosphate in the coastal waters, Pillout said the algal bloom could be caused only by the flow of sewage from septic tanks and other on-site sanitation systems.

Poor families are bearing the brunt of groundwater contamination. Dr. Edwin Ilarina, chief at the Don Ciriaco Señeres Tirol Memorial Hospital (DCSTMH) where Casidsid's daughter was confined, says more than half of the acute gastroenteritis cases handled by his hospital can be attributed to untreated drinking water. Islanders had been told to use chlorine or boil their drinking water, he says, but ordinary residents cannot afford chlorination and they think boiling water is too time-consuming.

"Water is a major health issue here and unless everyone has access to clean, potable water, the cases of water-related diseases can never be minimized," says Ilarina. Other water-borne and water-related diseases like parasitism and amoebiasis have been recorded at the DCSTMH as well. In 2000, it had 230 cases of parasitism; 1,000 cases in 2001 and 214 cases from January to September 2002. Last year, the hospital had 50 cases of amoebiasis.

Boracay's groundwater is contaminated not only with coliform but also with seawater because of the overdrawing of water, according to the USC study.

The main culprit is the tourism industry. During the off-season, commercial users consume some 1,400 cubic meters of groundwater a day. During the peak season of December to May, this could reach 2,300 cubic meters daily. The study estimated that the island's groundwater could take a daily maximum extraction of only 1,500 cubic meters.

PTA-BWSS water reservoir in Barangay Manoc-manoc [photo by Nereo Lujan]The USC recommended the full implementation of a piped water system and a sewerage system with a wastewater treatment plant. It said, "Access to piped drinking water supply and sewerage system are globally known to prevent water-borne and water-related diseases. (These) facilities must be maintained and operated sustainably for reason of maintenance of public health."

Boracay has two water utilities: the Boracay Tubi System (BTS), which began operating in 1999, and the Boracay Water and Sewerage System (BWSS), which started supplying water in January 2002.

The BTS was established to provide water to a giant and posh resort, but a few other resorts and residents later opted to become concessionaires. The Philippine Tourism Authority (PTA)-operated BWSS, meanwhile, now has 82 commercial and 526 residential concessionaires. There are 217 resorts and other business establishments in Boracay and about 2,306 households.

Both BTS and BWSS source their water elsewhere, getting it to Boracay through underground pipes. Unlike the BTS, though, the BWSS was set up specifically to address the problem of coastal and groundwater contamination.

The BWSS is part of the P600-million Boracay Environmental Infrastructure Project (BEIP) inaugurated by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in October 2001. Aside from supplying water, the BWSS has a sewerage system set to be operational this month. Once concessionaires are connected to its central sewerage system, all septic tanks in Boracay will be decommissioned.

On September 12, the National Water Resource Board (NWRB) also ordered the closure of all deep and shallow wells, citing the findings of the USC study. But the implementation of the order has been shelved, pending a public hearing on water rates. As of this writing, there were still at least 117 wells operating in Boracay, with resorts among their owners.

Boracaynons have been grumbling about the BWSS rates, but it has been the business establishment owners who have complained the loudest, a reaction bound to be repeated once the BWSS starts charging for its sewerage system.

Dionisio Salme, president of the Boracay Foundation Inc. (BFI), an organization of resort and business establishment owners, notes that in nearby Kalibo, the cost of water is only an average of P12.50 per cubic meter.

In comparison, the BWSS charges commercial establishments P500 for the first 10 cubic meters, with rates increasing as water consumption rises. Residential consumers also pay P500 for the first 10 cubic meters, but are charged less than half the commercial rates for consumption above this amount.

The proposed monthly rate for the sewerage system, which is to operate in January this year, is P500 for residential concessionaires and P1,000 for commercial concessionaires.

Agnes Bocar, PTA's project officer for Boracay, says, "People should realize how expensive it is to transfer water from Malay to Boracay and in treating the sewage that tourists leave behind."

But she also says that BWSS's rates were formulated after it conducted a market study. Bocar points out as well that the PTA is currently subsidizing the cost of water in Boracay and that the BWSS has a socialized rate scheme.

The BFI and the PTA are now talking about possible lower rates. Yet there are many ordinary residents like souvenir vendor Gloria Magbanua, a 44-year-old mother of six, who says, "I'd rather pay for clean water than spend a big amount of money when my children get hospitalized."

Environmental activist and artist Perry Argel, head of the Center for Art Creativity and Consciousness here, for his part comments, "The cost of water is not an issue. The big issue here is the deterioration of Boracay's environment."

He says that if resort owners want to keep attracting tourists, then they should pay the price of keeping the ecological balance of the island. Argues Argel: "Boracay deteriorated because all that resort owners want is profit. Once the beauty of this island fades, I'm sure they will realize that they had killed the hen that lays golden eggs. And when that time comes, it will be too late for them to resuscitate it."

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