Lights out at Boracay Island

From ToxicLeaks

Lights out at Boracay Island[edit | edit source]

Boracay Island in the Philippines is one of the most popular tourist destinations on the planet, named the Best Island in the World by Conde Nast in October 2017 – for the second time. It’s off the northern peninsula tip of the main Panay Island, and visitors flock to its high-end resorts and white-sand beaches. On March 17, 2018, however, they were in the dark. The Boracay population shut off all of their lights for eight minutes to protest a plan by President Rodrigo Duterte to close down the entire island for one year, one they say will ruin their lucrative industry and cause it to “go dark” on the destination island.

The problem is pollution from raw sewage, coupled with a rise in flooding, that have threatened the island for years. The country’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) described it as being on the edge of disaster in 2015. Commercial operators and residents alike have failed to tie into the Boracay Island Water Company (BIWC) sewer system, which in any case the provider has been slow to complete. In December 2017, two-thirds of BIWC customers had no water amid historic island floods.

Yet little has been done while the tourists keep coming. More than 1.6 million visitors came to Boracay during the first 10 months of 2017, and stays were up 10 percent in early 2018. Guests from the United States, Russia, Australia and Taiwan top the list of those who come, but the island is bearing the burden.

Tourism causes an island’s environmental crisis[edit | edit source]

The environmental issues on Boraclay grew with the tourism industry, and water quality problems date back 20 years. The island – once known only to backpackers – was by 2015 the home to 300 hotels and resorts, 107 restaurants and bars, 34 coffee shops and Internet cafés, diving rentals, souvenir shops and more. A centralized sewage treatment plant opened in 2003, but only 51 percent of the hotels and restaurants were connected and just a quarter of all residents. In February 2018, there was little change: Just 50 to 60 percent of establishments were in compliance, Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu said.

That’s caused cancellations and lost revenue already, but the Philippines needs a long-term solution to the Boracay problem – and beyond, because other islands such as Panglao and Mactan are taking note. Coliform bacteria on Boracay’s Bulabog Beach reached 47,460 mpn per 100 ml in recent years, while the threshold is just 1,000 mpn per 100 ml, and visitors have complained of itchy skin and illness. At least 200 businesses are now in violation, and the Filipino tourism chief agrees the island is a risky cesspool.

Duterte plan to close the island[edit | edit source]

Duterte in February called the islands a cesspool and insisted on action, and Tourism Secretary Wanda Tulfo-Teo said she supports a full but temporary Boracay closure to address water and garbage issues. She is a member of a task force, along with the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) and DENR head Cimatu, recommending a one-year halt to tourism business that Duterte would approve.

On March 16, a Duterte threat to send the country’s Marines into Boracay got the island’s attention when he threatened to dynamite businesses operating illegally. Duterte also vowed to arrest anyone who refuses to cooperate with his island rehabilitation efforts, including local Aklan province officials he views as negligent for their lack of environmental compliance enforcement. His spokesman confirmed that local officials have requested troops to assist them if need be. The statement is typical of Duterte’s authoritarian stance, but it’s more realistic that his plan to close the island for cleanup will succeed.

It was opposed by Senator Joel Villanueva, who has spoken out against any scheme that would cost an estimated 90,000 jobs, and the revenue and tax hits to Boracay. He wants to see the island protected as an environmentally critical area with limits on construction, while blaming DENR’s Environmental Management Bureau for failing to ensure compliance from businesses already operating on Boracay.

Future of Boracay[edit | edit source]

Boracay residents, workers and guests took to the streets with the peaceful “lights out” campaign to show opposition to Duterte’s plan, but it’s clear that an environmental crisis needs to be addressed in the present, while preparing for issues such as flooding from climate-related sea level rise in the future.

Beyond public health concerns that include the sewage and water access are serious garbage problems, traffic congestion and other planning-related challenges. Some 90 tons of trash are generated each day – 2.2 kilograms per person – but only 30 tons are removed. That’s for a population of 34,000 full-time residents living in 7,000 households, and an additional 22,000 tourists on Boracay at any given time.

Additional environmental degradation is seen in sand and shore erosion, often-toxic algae blooms, and alarming evidence of coral bleaching. The DENR found that a 2008 plan to protect the island was ignored for another decade, leading to the current state. It’s new “Operational Plan: Regain Paradise” is meant to restore the island and its tourism industry by 2022 and maintain its future sustainable development.

Yet in the meantime, construction continues. A Macau operator’s plans for a $500 million casino-resort on Boracay are approved and moving forward, despite a Dutarte moratorium ordered on January 11.