The modern-day battle of Manila Bay

The unsatiable desire for expansion is driving reclamation activities in Manila Bay, yet this process guzzles an alarming amount of sand, damaging the environment.

Manila Bay is under siege. In 1898, the vast natural harbor served as a battleground between American and Spanish colonizers. Centuries later, another enemy is invading the bay and its surrounding regions: the pollution caused by human abuse and unchecked industrialization.

The battle began on January 29, 1999, when a group of citizens led by Atty. Tony Oposa urged the government to clean up Manila Bay. Only in 2008 were their pleas addressed in a landmark case for environmental protection. Thirteen government agencies, including the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), had to rehabilitate the area in the span of 10 years.

Despite this order, Manila Bay remains one of the most polluted stretches of water in the country—a toxic porridge of industrial effluent, domestic sewage, oil spills, and chemical runoffs. The situation is worsened by massive land reclamation projects whose economic, social, and environmental impacts have been understudied.  

Beneath the sands

Reclamation is the process of creating new land from the sea. This can be done by building dams that would enclose and drain tidal marshes, leaving behind dry land, or in some cases, soil and stone, which are excavated and dumped along the shore of existing islands to gradually expand the coastline. 

Land reclamation goes as far back as the 15th century for countries like China and Japan to sustain their growing populations. However, in the Philippines, it has been largely driven by economic development through the construction of airports, shopping centers, and residential districts. 

The DENR lists 22 reclamation projects in Manila Bay alone, including the Manila Solar City, the Pasay Harbor City, and the New Manila International Airport (NMIA). However, according to Jon Bonifacio, the national coordinator of Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, this figure may not be accurate, as the Philippine Reclamation Authority (PRA) database had initially listed 50 reclamation projects in Manila Bay but only 23 projects were shown by May 2023.

Despite calls for transparency, neither the DENR nor the PRA could explain this discrepancy. All of this secrecy makes it particularly difficult to assess the cumulative impact of these projects, but Bonifacio asserts that the areas near Manila Bay—including the cities in Region 4A, Region 3, and the National Capital Region—are already experiencing the drawbacks of land reclamation.

Despite protests and criticisms, several reclamation projects in Manila Bay continue unabated.

Artificial land, natural disaster

According to Jerwin Baure, the public information officer of Advocates of Science and Technology for the People, reclamation activities have resulted in the decimation of over hundreds of mangrove trees in Manila Bay. These sprawling forests hold soils in place, buffer the shore from storms, and act as nursery areas for fish. 

In the 19th century, there were approximately 54,000 hectares of mangroves in Manila Bay. Today, there are only 794 hectares left. In a futile attempt to protect these remaining clusters from the NMIA, San Miguel Corporation pledges to plant 190,000 mangroves in Central Luzon. Yet this 76-hectare forest will only do little to minimize the destruction that the 2,500-hectare airport will bring.

“If you destroy the ecosystem there…it will have a cascading effect on the population of marine species, and then eventually, on fisheries production and food security,” Baure explains. Habitat loss can also occur due to quarrying, wherein mud and sand are extracted from the seabed to fuel reclamation activities. The VIL Mines Incorporated, for instance, supplies quarry materials for the construction of Pasay Harbor City.

Moreover, reclaimed lands are not suitable for large populations. Structurally, they are vulnerable to liquefaction, a phenomenon that causes solid earth to become liquid during an earthquake. Manila Bay, in particular, is at risk for earthquakes since it is surrounded by the Marikina Valley Fault System,
the Lubao Fault in Pampanga, and the Manila Trench. Loose soil may also make it difficult to establish new settlements because it has a higher chance of crumbling under an external force than compact soil.

Because many reclamation projects are built near rivers, they can also alter the flow of water. “It’s possible that instead of going to the sea, the water in the rivers
would see low-lying areas,” Baure posits.

’Teeming with life’

Even with these risks, there are still proponents of land reclamation. Many of them are unaware of the organisms being harmed by these projects. Even DENR Regional Director Jeoffrey Santos claims that the bay is biologically dead because of the waste in the area. Baure disagrees, “The truth is [Manila Bay is] still teeming with life.” 

Apart from being a strategic passageway, the bay also houses two out of seven of the country’s Ramsar sites, or wetlands designated to be of international importance: the Las Piñas-Parañaque Wetland Park and the Sasmuan Pampanga Coastal Wetlands. Most recently, Japanese researchers discovered that Manila Bay is the spawning ground of Sardinella pacifica,
a new species of sardines found only in the Philippines. 

Manila Bay also sits at the East Asian-Australasian Flyway and the West Pacific Flyway, making it one of the few stopovers for birds migrating over the Pacific Ocean. These include endangered species such as the black-faced spoonbill, the Chinese egret, and black-winged cuckooshrike. However, due to the increasing number of human activities in the bay, these sightings have declined.

Development for whom? 

Natural landmarks like Manila Bay are a staple of our country’s pride. Opting for its destruction in favor of developing infrastructure poses long-term risks that shortsighted individuals fail to realize. “[We need to] recognize Manila Bay as [a] very vibrant, very critical ecosystem,” Bonifacio emphasizes, adding that negligence may predispose irreversible damage to the natural balance.

The PRA argues that the bay can be rehabilitated through reclamation activities. The Netherlands, for instance, has reclaimed lands for climate defense. Flevoland, one of its provinces, was formed between 1918 and 1986 due to the dangers posed by the North Sea. However, Bonifacio believes that most reclamation projects in Manila Bay are excessive and unnecessary. Consider the NMIA, which does not serve the purpose of tackling overpopulation or land shortage.

While not all reclamation projects are avoidable—such as building ports—Baure stresses that the scope of these projects in Manila Bay is concerningly large. They will not only threaten the lives of marine species but also the livelihoods of fishing communities. “We always have to ask ourselves, ‘development for whom?’ because people don’t oppose development. People actually want to experience development, but then development should be inclusive,” Baure insists.

Instead of reclaiming an already polluted body of water, the government should completely devote itself to fully restoring the health of Manila Bay. This is no simple feat, requiring all assets to target point sources of pollution. Baure mentions that cleanup drives and planting new mangroves are important. 

Bonifacio, on the other hand, suggests holding companies accountable. The National Solid Waste Management Commission is one of the many companies that he has been keen on prosecuting due to their failure to disclose a list of non-environmentally acceptable products and packaging since 2002. “We need to tackle the problem at its root,”
concludes Bonifacio. 

With the issues spiraling down, it is only a matter of time before we ask if the solutions we propose can completely rehabilitate Manila Bay or if will this be a battle where we face defeat.

This article was published in The LaSallian‘s Vanguard 2024 special. To read more, visit

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