Compelling public need | Philstar.com

In April last year, thre were 180 pending reclamations across the country reported by the Philippine Reclamation Authority, which were initiated either by the PRA, the local government units, the national government, or government-owned or controlled corporations.

The PRA is the lead government instrumentality which serves as the clearing house for all reclamation projects in the country.

In an interview with the Oxford Business Group, PRA chairman Alberto Agra emphasized that reclamation is not an end in itself, but a transformative and goal-oriented endeavor such that in the development stage of any land reclamation project, there must be a vision that highlights the ultimate goal which is to lift people’s quality of life, reducing poverty, generating jobs, and strengthening the collaboration between the government and the private sector.

He said that working with concerned stakeholders, they create legacy islands on water for the country’s coastal defenses, and sites for residential, commercial, and industrial enterprises to offer stable and comfortable amenities, and advance the country’s development goals.

But he stressed that moving forward, reclamation projects must follow certain minimum criteria to ensure their role as community builders, such as striving to create smart cities, including corporate social responsibility components, and establishing reliable and independent power supply systems.

Reclamation has to strike a balance between development and potential adverse environmental impact. This is the reason why the Department of Environment and Natural Resources requires proponents of reclamation projects to secure environmental clearance with the Environmental Management Bureau.

For country’s like Singapore with limited land, reclamation provided the key to building new opportunities. Through land reclamation, they were able to create space for new areas like Changi Airport, Jurong Island, and Tuas Port. And just like in Singapore, other small Southeast Asian coastal territories such as Hong Kong and Macau, it has been reported that their rate of reclamation has been an index of the rate of economic development.

Back in 1991, around 10 percent, five percent, and 33 percent of the total land surfaces of Singapore, Hong Kong, and Macau respectively comprise land reclaimed from the sea. In the past 200 years, the total land area of Singapore has increased by 25 percent, from 578 square kilometers in 1819 to 719 sqk in 2018. Reclaimed areas accounted for around 19 percent of Singapore’s total area.

Meanwhile, a 2018 report disclosed that around seven percent of Hong Kong’s total area is reclaimed land. Since its first days as a city, Hong Kong’s land reclamation turned 733 kilometers of craggy shoreline into a global metropolis, with the most notable project being the Hong Kong International Airport at Chep Lap Kok.

In the Philippines, interestingly, a lot of reclamation projects have been going on in Manila Bay, considered as one of the most important fishing grounds in the country. In a Senate hearing last November, the DENR revealed that there are around 19 ongoing reclamation projects in the bay area. A report by esquiremag.ph noted that beyond Manila Bay, the actual number of reclamation projects in coastal or municipal waters would reach 187.

In a documentary titled “Reclamation Nation,” meanwhile, it is said that there are 24 planned reclamation projects in Manila Bay that will occupy 9,000 hectares of the sea, larger than the combined size of Manila, Makati, Pasay, San Juan and Pateros.

The PRA, which has both regulatory and proprietary functions, is overseeing various reclamation projects that when completed will convert 5,667 hectares of Manila Bay coastal areas into city blocks, benefitting mainly property developers.

The agency has been under heavy criticism lately from those who say that while it has a longstanding policy of approving land reclamation projects based on the standard of public need, most of the projects it approved in the past six years can be described as vanity projects and for non-public service.

Considering the potential adverse environmental and social impacts, including human population displacement that many of these reclamation projects can cause, the PRA should make sure that only projects whose benefits outweigh the costs should be approved. Parts of the sea do not have to be reclaimed just to give way to residential and commercial buildings, retail outlets, and even casinos which can be built somewhere else.

In the past six years, the PRA received proposals for 19 reclamation projects that are now in varying stages of application or implementation.  Seven of these projects were already up for implementation as of April 2022.

In one hearing last October, Sen. Cynthia Villar who heads the Senate committee on environment, lamented that dump-and-fill projects would result in more flooding, as she lashed out at DENR officials after learning that 21 Manila Bay reclamation projects have secured environmental compliance certificates.

Worse, in the past 30 years, PRA has not been held accountable for any failure by developers to adequately deliver reclaimed lands owed to the government.

The promotion of public welfare and interest should be the primary consideration for the approval of any proposed reclamation project. These include airports, roads, seaports, logistics facilities and rail systems which show much higher economic rates of return and net present values of economic benefits compared to vanity projects.

Priority should be given to projects that will decongest the cities of Metro Manila such as relocating the international airport and seaport outside the metropolis. Only then can we justify the social and environmental impact of these reclamation projects.

Environment Secretary Ma. Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga earlier said that the Marcos administration will review the government’s policy on reclamation.

Reclamation if done correctly can be a very powerful tool to aid economic development. In Hong Kong, reclamation played a huge role in reducing overcrowding in urban areas and improving living environments.

Under its Protection of the Harbour Ordinance in fact, a presumption is made against reclamation within the Victoria Harbour and there must be a compelling and overriding public need to displace the duty of protection and preservation to rebut this presumption. A compelling and overriding public need, meanwhile, refers to the current pressing need for reclamation where there are no other reasonable alternative.

All pending reclamation projects in the Philippines must likewise establish a compelling and overriding public need before the PRA approves it and the DENR issues the required environmental clearances. Otherwise, we might see large parts of our sea being covered, marine life being buried under, people being displaced, just for the sake of having a project with a nice view of the sea.



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