Garbage: the Killer of Manila

By Michael Bengwayan

MANILA, Philippines, January 30, 2001 (ENS) - Where do you put 8,000 tons of trash generated daily by this city's 12 million people? Nowhere. It piles up daily serving as breeding ground for flies, rats, mosquitos, bacteria and virus. Manila's hot, humid and polluted air is now full of the stench of trash decaying everywhere.

"Sooner rather than later, the country will face a health epidemic of uncontrolled proportions if the worsening garbage problem is not solved," said Secretary Alberto Romuladez of the nation's Department of Health.


Webcam image of Masangkay Street in Manila (Photo courtesy Hot Bits Cafe, Manila)
There are no dumpsites for the millions of tons of trash that now litter all streets, business establishments, residential front and back yards and commercial shops in the city.

On January 15, 150 garbage dump trucks from the Metro Manila Development Authority tried to dump their loads at the San Mateo landfill, a dumpsite closed by the government last year, but were met by 6,000 residents opposed to the dumping.

Truncheon wielding policemen and water canons were used to mow down people who blocked the trucks' entry. Shots were fired on the truck drivers who escaped unhurt.

Most of the trucks were able to dump their loads with policemen guiding the way. But people near San Mateo vowed never to allow any truck to dump trash into their community again. They are seeking a temporary restraining order from the Supreme Court, saying San Mateo is part of a watershed that provides water to the locality.

The Payatas dumpsite, site of a tragic trash landslide triggered by rains and killed 215 and forever buried 760 other scavengers, is closed.

The government's only option is to ferry millions of tons of garbage to Semirara island, 600 kilometers (372 miles) in the Visayas, but that has met stiff resistance from the islanders who have successfully prevented 15 barges from Manila from unloading their dirty cargo.


Secretary of Health Dr. Alberto G. Romualdez, Jr. (Photo courtesy government of the Philippines)
"I will be forced to request for a declaration of state of emergency or calamity in the next few days if the situation worsens," Romualdez said. "We would have a health emergency that would start in Manila and may spread nationwide if we don't attend to the garbage problem immediately."

Romualdez pointed out garbage lying two to three days would allow microorganisms, flies and rats to multiply that would eventually start the spread of diseases such as Hepatitis A, gastroenteritis, e-coli, cholera, dysentery, and typhoid.

"We are watching sentinel hospitals. This early, we are already issuing advisories to households. We want them to maintain personal hygiene, wash their hands before meals, and dispose their garbage properly. We told them to make sure their trash cans are covered."

Manila's trash problem is laced with politics and graft. First, plans for a multi-million dollar incinerator plant project were trashed because politicians and environmentalists successfully pushed a clean air act through the Philippine Congress, despite assurances from the incinerator developing companies that state of the art incinerating techniques would not add to air pollution. The act was passed as a law and took effect last year.

There has never been a serious plan to launch a massive waste management campaign among Manila residents to minimize and recycle waste because some local politicians prefer dumping garbage somewhere else.


Garbage pollutes the streams flowing through the Payatas area.
These politicians control garbage disposal contracts with local governments. They own the hundreds of trucks that load and unload the garbage to the dumpsites in Payatas and San Mateo.

Their people at the dumpsites make money by putting a fee on any scavenger who enters the landfills to seek recyclable items.

While there are no ready dumpsites to accommodate the millions of tons of garbage that has accumulated in Manila for the last two months, Department of Environment and Natural resources (DENR) secretary Antonio Cerilles says there are at least 352 potential sanitary landfill sites in the country which the government is considering to solve the current garbage crisis. He did not identify them.

But he cautioned local governments that the opening of any new dumpsite must conform with engineering and environmental regulations.

Cerilles said any temporary garbage disposal sites to be established by Metro Manila local governments should at least be open controlled dumps that strictly conform with the Technical Guidelines for Municipal Waste Disposal prepared by the Presidential Task Force on Waste Management.

Greenpeace officials criticized government plans to continue solving its waste problem by opening dumpsites. "There seems to be a misplaced sense of urgency in relocating waste from Metro Manila, which led to glossing over the myriad public health and environmental issues associated with landfills, said Francis de la Cruz of the Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

"Far from being temporary, the toxic potential of landfills may persist long after those facilities are useful," he pointed out.

Waste management among many millions of Manila's residents is rare. There is no law that provides for information and education on waste segregation, waste reduction, waste re-use and waste recycling.

Dr. Wenceslao Trijuna, a Manila waste management consultant, says the people themselves must be part of the solution. "Even as people are frustrated and angered by the government's inability to solve the waste crisis, they have to come into grips that part of the problem are themselves. It is not a pretty thing to say, but all over the city, even before the garbage problem worsened, there is a widespread problem of improper waste disposal, even in creeks, rivers and canals. Many Manila residents are so apathetic."