MELANDREW T. VELASCO: The promise of Laguna de Bay

Our country is blessed with a pool of water resources. Yet, the problem of water supply persists.

Water is essential to irrigate agricultural lands, drive power plants, and serve the needs of industries and for household consumption. And, the growing market’s water requirements must be met anytime.

One water resource that holds immense potential is the Laguna de Bay.  It is the largest inland body of water in the country and one of the largest in Southeast Asia. It has a total volume of 3.2 billion cubic meters, a shoreline of 220 kilometer an average depth of 2.5 meters. Its water comes from rivers and streams, rainwater, stormwater runoff and sewage.

 The existing uses of the lake include fisheries, flood control, industrial cooling, irrigation, power generation, recreation, and source of potable water.  According to the Laguna Lake Development Authority (LLDA), an estimated 13,000 fishermen depend on the lake for their livelihood with the lake producing about 80,000-90,000 metric tons of fish a year.

It is also used for flood control. The Manggahan Floodway diverts floodwater from Marikina River into the lake. As for power generation, water is pumped to the Caliraya Reservoir to generate electricity.  Although the lake water is no longer as pristine as it used to be, Laguna de Bay is known for recreational activities such as fishing, boating and sailing.  The lake also provides water to irrigate farm lands in the lake region. It is also the source of industrial cooling water and supplies domestic water supply requirement of nearby towns and portions of the Metropolitan Manila area.

Sadly, Laguna de Bay also serves as a huge waste sink.  It has become the catch basin of industrial and domestic wastewater pollution coming from the areas that border the lake among these Laguna, Rizal and the Metropolitan Manila cities and municipalities. Solid and liquid wastes from households, agricultural areas, industries, and livestock and poultry production are carried as surface run-off through the basins of the lake. Polluted water from the Marikina and Pasig Rivers also flow into the lake. 

An article from UN Environment Programme website stated that while agricultural and industrial run-off contributed to the lake’s declining health, the biggest contributor to eutrophication is human waste. “Specifically the domestic waste and untreated sewage that flows into the lake daily from the more than 12 million inhabitants of the 29 towns and hundreds of informal settlements that ring its shores.”

In the same article, LLDA General Manager Jaime ‘Joey’ Medina said:  “Eighty per cent of the biochemical oxygen demand [an indicator of organic pollution] is from household pollution.”

Despite this, the promise of Laguna de Bay as a vast water resource to meet the demands of nearby provinces and the National Capital Region remains. 

Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) concessionaire Maynilad Water Services, Inc. in 2011 formally unveiled its Putatan Water Treatment Plant that taps Laguna de Bay as alternative water source.  Another treatment plant was inaugurated in 2019.  Raw water quality however has affected the facilities’ production capacity particularly during algal blooms.

The cost of treating water sourced from Laguna de Bay is more than the cost of treating water from major dams.  “Rather than investing additional funds to keep upgrading our treatment technology, we think the more sustainable option is to protect the lake,” Maynilad President and Chief Executive Office Ramoncito S. Fernandez said. “Maynilad’s water treatment capacity can be affected by the varying water quality of the lake,” he added.

To ensure the sustainable use of Laguna de Bay and arrest its degradation that has resulted not only in its siltation but also in the decline of its water quality which is categorized Class C and unfit for human consumption without treatment require a holistic approach. Add to this the need to increase the lake’s holding capacity and reforest its denuded watersheds.

A previous project involving a Belgian company, Baggerwerken Decloedt En Zoon (BDC) that was intended to dredge Laguna de Bay and increase its depth to meet global standard for harvesting lake water for purification was scrapped by the government in 2011.

Laguna de Bay stakeholders are proposing the adoption of an action plan to rehabilitate, protect and preserve the biodiversity of Laguna de Bay and promote its sustainable development similar to that adopted in the rehabilitation of Boracay and Manila Bay which involved the creation of a task force for the purpose.

It will be recalled that by virtue of Executive Order No. 53 signed by President Duterte on May 18, 2018 a Boracay Inter-Agency Task Force (BIATF) was created. It was mandated to facilitate the rehabilitation and ensure the ecological sustainability of Boracay Island. Its functions included to ensure that “policies on Boracay Island are consistent with relevant laws, rules and regulations, and fully implement, in coordination with relevant agencies and LGUs, such policies, laws, rules and regulations, including the Boracay Action Plan.”

The Manila Bay Task Force meanwhile, was created pursuant to Administrative Order No. 16 series of 2019. Among others, it is charged with ensuring that the concerned agencies and LGUs undertake appropriate measures relative to violation of environmental laws, and “improve resource management of the Manila Bay and create models of inter- LGU cooperation in ecosystem management, with special focus on the Laguna Lake and Pasig River.” Like Manila Bay, Laguna de Bay’s shore land extends across many local government units and it is essential for them to come up with a concerted effort in the rehabilitation of the lake. The stakeholders believe a task force will be the right body to spearhead the endeavor.

Velasco who initiated the Annual Million Tree Challenge that aims to rehabilitate critical watersheds including Laguna de Bay supports the proposal. He emphasized the need to create a special task force that will take the lead and implement the rehabilitation of Laguna de Bay. Velasco is now Chairman Emeritus of Million Tress Foundation (MTFI).

As a step to recover from environmental degradation, MTFI is pushing for massive reforestation that will involve national and local government agencies, academe, youth, people’s organizations, non-government organizations, and the business sector.  For the degraded watershed areas of Laguna de Bay, MTFI promotes the use of native tree species including bamboo for forest restoration.

“Water is our responsibility,” the late President Fidel V. Ramos once said.  Left unchecked, depleting water supply would cause water stress. Let us do our part to help harness the full potential of Laguna de Bay as a water resource.