Blue finance: The Philippines declares war on waste

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

In April Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte took a characteristically drastic step. He closed Boracay. It is an indication of the environmental threat from marine pollution. Can the private sector help clean up the seas?

Even if you have never been to the Philippines, you will have seen pictures of Boracay, the country’s flagship island resort. It is – or was – a classic postcard paradise of palms and blinding white sand, and it attracted two million tourists last year. 

That was the problem. Breakneck expansion of tourism facilities came at the expense of proper sanitation, with many places not connected to the island’s sewerage system and with water quality deteriorating dramatically in recent years. Duterte, as always, had a blunt way of putting it: he called it a “cesspool” and closed it for six months on three weeks’ notice. Now you can’t get there without navigating army-staffed checkpoints that won’t let you through unless you are there to decontaminate it. 

“What happened to Boracay is a harsh reminder of how things can go badly in the race to exploit immediate advantage,” says Nestor Espenilla Jr, governor of Bangko Sentral Ng Pilipinas, the central bank of the Philippines. Espenilla remembers seeing the island, pristine, for the first time in 1989 and is dismayed at what has happened to it. “Now it’s like being in a mall, jostling for space. It makes me sad to see Boracay that way.

“But in a way, it’s a wake-up call, a necessary thing we should do. The underlying lesson is we can’t abuse the environment or it will come back to bite you big time.” 

Not everyone thinks the closure well thought through. At least 20,000 people work on Boracay and there is some doubt that the ecosystem can recover sufficiently in six months to make much of a difference anyway. But what the closure did do, both across the thousands of islands of the Philippines and across Asia generally, was highlight the urgent task at hand in dealing with waste management.

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