Environment and Natural Disasters

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For decades the Philippine environment has been under assault from a fast-growing population and practices that have degraded the country’s air, land, and water. Despite laws requiring trees to be replanted, forests were clear cut and denuded areas abandoned, damaging watersheds and silting farmland and estuaries. Coral reefs were destroyed by dynamite blasting and the use of cyanide to stun tropical fish. Mangroves and their fish spawning shallow waters were converted to prawn ponds. Over half the country’s population lives in urban areas, where the air is often polluted and a “silent-killer,” and solid waste management and sanitation are highly inadequate. The percentage of the total population living in cities in the Philippines has long been higher than in other Asian countries (see Figure 157).

Figure 157: Proportion of urban population, selected Asian countries, 1950-2050FFigure 157View original figure here

Fortunately, there has been growing recognition of the problems such bad habits have created and an increasing desire to introduce sound environmental practices. More coastal communities understand that preservation of marine natural resources is critical for tourism and fishing. The costs of polluted air in terms of death, disability, and medical care have become better understood. Logging continues, but at much reduced levels, as less forest remains, and enforcement of restrictions on illegal logging have increased. Several landmark laws have been passed: the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. These laws are, however, under-funded and poorly implemented.

Environmental degradation harms the nation’s investment climate when it results in unhealthy living conditions, which deter foreign residents and visitors. The most adverse effects may be on tourism, when marine and mountain environments are degraded, making tourist destinations unattractive and sometimes unhealthy. Financial and economic cost of pollution is estimated at about US$ 8.6 billion annually.

Table 65: Estimated cost of air and water pollution in the Philippines

•   Solid Waste

Metro Manila faces a solid waste crisis and is running out of disposal capacity.200 Under the Solid Waste Management Act (RA 9003), barangays are responsible for collecting and separating biodegradable, compostable, and reusable materials, while the municipality collects non-recyclable and special materials. Sanitary landfills must be built to contain the future solid waste of the metropolis. Once in place and better waste management is achieved at the barangay level, the current sites can be closed. Because of leachate leaking hazardous chemicals into ground water and streams, the current dumps will still need to be cleaned.

Under the 1999 Clean Air Act (RA 8749), all incineration is banned to prevent air pollution. However, the law ignored modern incineration technologies, which are non-polluting and can produce energy and construction materials as by-products. Aside from an imminent solid waste crisis, medical and chemical wastes are not properly disposed of or need to be shipped abroad. Metro Manila generates many tons of medical waste daily, but the law forced medical incinerators to close without providing an alternative.

A Supreme Court ruling in January 2002 (GR 147465) affirmed that not all incineration is banned. The decision reads “Section 20 [of the Clean Air Act] does not absolutely prohibit incineration as a mode of waste disposal; rather only those burning processes which emit poisonous and toxic fumes are banned.”

Despite the Supreme Court ruling, uncertainty remains, and incineration is not taking place. Environmental groups still claim that all incineration is banned to prevent air pollution. To avoid a solid waste crisis, the DENR should establish clear rules and standards that would allow modern incineration technologies. There is also a need to amend the Act to allow modern incinerators that meet clean air emission standards.

•   Air quality

Despite passage of the strict Clean Air Act, many vehicles, especially trucks, buses, jeepneys, and two-stroke motorcycles, spewing noxious fumes still ply Metro Manila’s streets due to weak enforcement of pollution standards and corruption of mid-level officials. Licensed private emission stations have operated for more than a decade, but smoke-belching vehicles with up-to-date stickers on their license plates that “passed” the emission test remain on city streets. National and local government should demonstrate greater political will to reduce air pollution in the megalopolis and lessen this serious public health hazard.

Bangkok, Beijing, Dhaka, New Delhi, and Seoul, cities where natural gas is now widely used for many public transit vehicles, are good examples for the Philippines to learn from. A Natural Gas Vehicle Program for Public Transport, started in 2004 under EO 290, allowed bus companies to import and operate 200 buses fueled by Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). However, the program has not been successful, reportedly due to technical difficulties accessing the CNG from the country’s only natural gas field.

Many taxis in Metro Manila are converting from gasoline to Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) fuel in order to save fuel costs. Since 2006, over half of the more than 30,000 taxis in Metro Manila have converted to LPG.

Much firmer enforcement by local authorities is essential to rid the streets of the principal causes of air pollution. Polluting two-stroke engines should be replaced by 4-stroke, as has happened elsewhere.

Overall, these various efforts are reportedly preventing Manila air from getting dirtier but have not been sufficient to improve it to healthy levels. The DENR reports the quality of air may have slightly improved. According to the Total Suspended Air Particulates Air Quality survey released by the DENR in 2009, the air quality of the metropolis in 2008 averaged 138 micrograms of pollutants per normal cubic meter, far above the 90 micrograms target set by the DENR. The air quality of the metropolis improved from 160 micrograms in 2004 to 132 micrograms in 2007. Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA) continues to have the dirtiest measured air in the country with 282 micrograms, over twice the Metro Manila average. Tests conducted by the DENR in the first quarter of 2010, however, showed an increase of suspended particles in the air to 190 micrograms per normal cubic meter.

•   Water Infrastructure

In July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution declaring access to clean water and sanitation a basic human right. Whether an urban or a rural resident, every Filipino would like to have ready access to clean, inexpensive water, but does not. There are also problems involving the disposal of wastewater and a need to better educate the public about the growing problem of sewage pollution, which can have grave effects on health.

The Philippines faces two major challenges in improving water resources: supply and quality. In large urban areas such as Metro Manila, adequate supply in the future is an issue in the absence of large expenditures on infrastructure. In remote rural areas, distribution is poor. Years of deforestation have reduced watersheds. Over-population is shrinking aquifers. Some are threatened with salt-water intrusion.

Another problem is declining water quality due to sewage pollution in many rivers and coastal areas. Except for some areas of Metro Manila, only a few (Bacolod, Baguio, Cebu, Davao, Vigan and Zamboanga) out of more than 100 cities and 1,600 municipalities have sewage systems. In addition to the runoff of raw sewage into clean water resources, open pit dumpsites used for solid waste throughout the country create leachate (concentrated organic and inorganic pollutants) that seeps into groundwater, rivers, and lakes. As a result, water in some bays and coastal areas is becoming unsuitable for swimming, tourism, and fish spawning.

The Clean Water Act (RA 9275), signed in 2004, is a beginning to solving sewage pollution. The law: (i) requires designation of multi-sectoral Water Quality Management Areas (WQMA) to monitor and upgrade local water resources; (ii) mandates preparation of a national sewage and septage program and requires interconnection of all existing sewage lines; (iii) requires implementation of a wastewater charge system for all industries located in WQMAs that discharge wastewater and a financial liability mechanism under which new factories and infrastructure will put up an environmental guarantee fund, insurance, or bond; and (iv) provides investment incentives for compliance in the form of fiscal and non-fiscal incentives under the Investment Code for projects involving wastewater treatment and water pollution control.

The most important public utility privatization undertaken in the Philippines was that of MWSS in early 1997, with technical assistance from the International Finance Corporation. The privatization resulted in two concessions and was internationally recognized as a major accomplishment. After 13 years of operations, the two concessionaires – Manila Water Company (a Filipino-UK-Japan joint venture) and Maynilad Water Services (initially a Filipino-French joint venture and now Filipino-Hong Kong) have demonstrated the effectiveness of the PPP model.

One of the Millenium Development Goal (MDG) targets by 2015 is to reduce by half the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. To meet this MDG target, the Philippines must raise water access to over 92% by 2015 (that is reducing the “waterless” by at least half between 1990 and 2015). The Philippine data were based on the National Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS) and Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) of UNICEF. Given the data of the WHO and UNICEF, the country is on track of surpassing that goal as it is already at 91% as of 2008 (see Figure 158).

Figure 158: Proportion of population with access to safe drinking water sourcesFigure 158View original figure here

Figure 159: Proportion of population with access to sanitary toiletFigure 159View original figure here

However, anecdotal evidence suggests these figures are overestimated. At present, there are still about 400 municipalities (out of more than 1,600) that remain “waterless” (defined as less than 50% of the population has access to potable water).201 Moreover, a World Bank expert on water and sanitation has expressed concern that high urbanization and underinvestment in water and sanitation in urban slum areas means the Philippines may not meet this MDG target. As many of these urban residents are informal settlers, local government is usually reluctant to provide such infrastructure.202

•   Deforestation

The extensive deforestation of the country over a century has been the largest contributor to the contemporary degraded environment. Improved protection of watersheds, rivers, and estuaries is essential, as are programs of reforestation and developing sustainable upland agriculture practices.

Figures 160 shows the decline of Philippine forest cover from 90% of the country’s total land area in 1934 to around 20% in 2007.203 Figure 161 shows that the rate of deforestation in the Philippines from 1990 to 2007 was significantly higher than in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. That rate, 3% between 1990 and 2000, declined to 2% since 2000. The Philippines must work harder to reduce it further and reverse the decline as the present forest cover is critically low. In Vietnam the reforestation rate has been 2% over the past two decades.

Figure 160: Philippine forest cover, 1930-2010, mil has, % total land areaFigure 160View original figure here

Figure 161: Deforestation rates, selected countries, 1990-2010Figure 161View original figure here

Disaster Prevention

Philippine urban areas have developed with very little planning to mitigate the effects of flooding, landslides, earthquakes, and other potential disasters, despite the frequency of these events in the country. During the dry season, fires are common in slum areas of cities.

Storms and floods are the major types of disasters in the Philippines, both in terms of frequency and the number of people affected (see Figures 162 and 163). Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, while more dramatic, are infrequent

“In the wake… of Haiti and Chile, earthquake experts have been scanning the globe or other high risk areas and most agree that the likelihood of a major earthquake in Mnaila is high.”

—PSA report, August 2010

Metro Manila has grown rapidly but has not experienced a serious earthquake since 1968, when the Ruby Tower apartment building collapsed killing 268 sleeping residents during an intensity 7.3 earthquake. In 1990 an earthquake of intensity 7.8 struck north of Manila and killed 1,621 persons in Cabanatuan and Baguio. A recent study assessed the probability of extensive damage to the capital in the event of a major earthquake on the scale of those in recent years in Sichuan, China (intensity 8.0 killed at least 68,000 persons) or Haiti (intensity 7.0 killed an estimated 230,000 persons).204

Figure 162 shows the frequency of natural disasters for the current and three previous decades. The frequency of natural disasters has doubled over 40 years to an average of 15 each year. During the same period, the number of persons affected by natural disasters has more than doubled to some 50 million (see Figure 163). Damage from natural disasters has averaged around US$ 300 million a year (see Figure 164).

Figure 162: Total frequency of natural disasters, Philippines, per decade, 1970-2014Figure 162View original figure here

Figure 163: Number of people affected by natural disasters, Philippines, in Mn,per decade, 1970-2014Figure 163View original figure here

Figure 164: Estimated damage of natural disasters, Philippines, in US$ Bn,per decade, 1970-2014Figure 164View original figure here

Urbanization has reduced the drainage and storage capacity of creeks, rivers, and lakes to hold water, as they become clogged with garbage and mud, making inhabited areas nearby more vulnerable to flooding. Typhoon Ondoy (Ketsana) in September 2009 documented a record-high amount of rainfall in 24 hours of 18 inches (in Quezon City). The storm killed 464 persons and caused damages estimated at US$ 237 million.

It is necessary not only to make buildings safer, earthquake-resistant, flood-proof, fireproof, but also to improve roads, open spaces, and parks that can prevent the spread of fire, while at the same time raise government and citizen preparedness for disasters in order to minimize the potential loss and damage to life and property

—Architect Jun Palafox, urban planner, MAP Statement, February 2, 2010

•   Global Warming

As a relatively small developing economy, energy consumption in the Philippines is a minor contributor to global warming. Its level of CO2 emissions per capita, after doubling over the period 1986 to 1996, has been stable in the subsequent decade and is the lowest of the ASEAN-6 (see Figures 165 and 166). However, continuing deforestation in the country is adding to global warming.

As the world’s second largest archipelago with a total coastline of 36,289 kilometers, the country’s shores and estuaries will be subject to inundation as seas rise. As throughout Southeast Asia, much of the population lives near river mouths, since marine travel was prevalent for millennia, and modern land and air travel are less than a century old. As the sea rises, flooding of these littoral communities will increase and force their inhabitants to relocate to higher ground, which could reduce available land for agriculture.

Figure 165: Philippines’ CO2 emission from energy consumption, 1980-2012Figure 165View original figure here

Figure 166: Per capita emission from energy consumption, 2011, in MT,selected countriesFigure 166View original figure here

Headline Recommendations

  1. Implement policies prescribed by the Solid Waste Management Act, Clean Air
    Act, and Clean Water Act. Deal effectively with the solid waste challenge. Reduce air and water pollution. Clean rivers. Improve access to water and sanitation. Establish clear rules and standards that would allow modern incineration technologies. Amend the Clean Air Act to allow non-polluting clean incineration.
  2. Benefit tourism, agriculture and fisheries by ending deforestation, beginning reforestation, and rebuilding damaged coral reefs.
  3. Emphasize disaster prevention as well as disaster relief. Reduce flooding by improving drainage, zoning, and infrastructure. Make cities safer against earthquakes. Plan effectively for the impact of climate change/global warming.

Recommendations: (14)

A. Environment: Solid Waste. Implement the Solid Waste Management Act (RA 9003). Build sanitary landfills to contain the future solid waste of the metropolis and clean up existing dumpsites. Improve garbage collection and recycling. Establish clear rules and standards that would allow modern incineration technologies. Amend the Clean Air Act to allow non-polluting clean incineration. (Medium-term action by DENR, MMDA, LGUs, and private sector)

B. Environment: Air. Implement the Clean Air Act (RA 8749). Clean Manila’s air faster by removing all vehicles that fail to meet pollution standards. Crack down on corrupt emission stations. Replace 2-stroke with 4-stroke engines. Convert jeepneys and buses from diesel to natural gas. (Medium-term action by DENR, DOTC, and DTI)

C. Environment: Water. Implement the Clean Water Act (RA 9275) to increase sewage systems and water treatment plants in all cities and municipalities in order to reduce water pollution. (Long-term action DENR, DPWH, LGUs, and private sector)

D. Environment: Rivers. Replicate the KapitBisig Para sa Ilog Pasig (KBPIP) project to clean and restore the Pasig River for other polluted waterways. (Medium-term action private sector)

E. Environment: Water. Increase access to water and sanitation facilities for more Filipinos, in “waterless” municipalities and for residents of slums in urban areas. (Long-term action DENR, DPWH, LGUs, and private sector)

F. Environment: Reforestation. Reduce the rate of deforestation to zero. Protect remaining forests effectively and increase reforestation of damaged watersheds. (Long-term action DENR, LGUs, and private sector)

G. Environment: Reefs. Continue to fight illegal fishing methods that destroy reefs. Expand reef restoration programs and education of coastal communities. (Immediate action DENR, LGUs and private sector)

H. Environment: Plastic Bags. Educate the public to use reusable non-plastic bags and consider laws to reduce the widespread use of plastic that pollutes the marine environment and clogs waterways. (Immediate action DENR, Congress, LGUs, and private sector)

I. Disasters: Prevention. Incorporate disaster prevention, not just disaster reaction, into planning, development, and education. (Medium-term action NEDA, LGUs, and private sector)

J. Disasters: Typhoon Warning Systems. Install Doppler radars, capable of predicting rainfall, with coverage of Luzon and Visayas. Improve alert systems when typhoons are approaching and when full dams need to spill water. (Immediate action PAGASA, DOST, DILG, LGUs, and private sector)

K. Disasters: Flood. Seek to create flood-proof cities by undertaking extensive flood-control measures, improving drainage, building dikes and water retention facilities, and planting trees. (Medium-term action DENR, DPWH, DILG, LGUs, and private sector)

L. Disasters: Earthquakes. Develop and implement a program to make cities safer against major earthquakes. Make gas, electric, and water supply facilities more secure and make codes for building construction stricter following best practices to more advanced countries. Audit buildings and infrastructure for safety. (Medium-term action DENR, DILG, LGUs, and private sector)

M. Disasters: Hazard Maps. Prepare and publish Hazard Maps for earthquakes, flooding, volcanic eruption, tsunami, fire, and rising water levels due to climate change and other hazards. (Medium-term action concerned agencies)

N. Global Warming. Implement the planning, educational and other tasks of the Philippine Climate Change Commission (PCCC) created in 2010 by the Philippine Climate Change Act (RA 9729) especially making the country better prepared to deal with natural disasters. (Medium-term action OP and concerned agencies)


  1. Asian Development Bank (ADB), The Garbage Book: Solid Waste Management in Metro Manila. ADB, 2004.[Top]
  2. The President’s Priority Program on Water (P3W) launched in 2005 to address the potable water needs of then 432 municipalities identified as “waterless,” was marred by technical, administrative, and bureaucratic problems resulting in little improvement in the welfare of target areas. Insertions of municipalities not included in the established target list was made possible by influential political figures and constant changes in the leadership of the National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC), which is the lead agency, are only some of the concerns the program encountered. The program was given PhP 5 billion by the National Government to finance water projects between 2005 and 2010.[Top]
  3. Article by Michelle Remo, Philippine Daily Inquirer, April 28, 2010[Top]
  4. “Forest” is a minimum area of land of 0.05-1.0 hectares with tree crown cover of more than 10-30 per cent with trees with the potential to reach a minimum height of 2-5 metres at maturity in situ. (FAO, 2006)[Top]
  5. Metro Manila Earthquake Vunerability Assessment, Pacific Strategies and Assessments, August 2010[Top]