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Pollution endangers Chico River rafting
by Estanislao Albano

The owners of the Chico River Quest, Inc. (CRQI), the lone whitewater rafting outfitter in the Chico River, admit the setting is no longer what it used to be. More than that, they accept that if the causes remain unchecked, the situation will deteriorate further.

Natividad Sugguiyao who, along with other relatives, founded the CRQI in 2002 points to the decline in the water level along with the abrupt rise and fall thereof as the most worrisome reality impacting on the white water rafting activity in the Chico River.

“When we started in 1996, the water level would allow rafting from June to December but now, we could only make runs intermittently for a total of four months in a year. While before the water would hold for sometime even without rain, now the water would recede immediately after the rain. Back then, during heavy rains, the water would gradually rise but now a downpour could trigger flash floods,” Sugguiyao said.

Because of the erratic climate, the rafting season could no longer be well determined, he added.

Sugguiyao noted that before, the water would become murky only when the river is swollen. Now, little rain would give the water a chocolate hue, which she said, indicates deterioration in the watershed of the river.

“There is no more clear water in the Chico,” Sugguiyao laments.

May Buslig, CRQI manager and chief guide, agrees that the alarming recession of the water level and erratic behavior of the water is a serious problem. She said  this is primarily due to the unabated destruction of the watershed upstream starting from Mt. Data in Bauko, Mountain Province where the headwaters of the river is located.

“People should plant more trees along the river and its tributaries. That’s not only for rafting because Chico is the River of Life. We need it for irrigation and other uses,” Buslig said.
Buslig is not the first to call for the planting of trees to sustain the Chico River’s life-sustaining ability.

On top of its regular reforestation programs, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources  is about to implement the billion peso-worth Chico River watershed rehabilitation project funded by the Asian Development Bank.

It will take years before the project will impact on the Chico River but at least something is being done in that direction. However, it might be wise to keep the hopes at minimum levels because going by the track record of the DENR in reforestation, the huge fund may end up in the drain like hundreds of millions for Cordillera regreening through the years, did.

Sugguiyao and Buslig also cite pollution as another threat to the main tourism attraction of Kalinga, especially of Tabuk City where the runs are now confined.

Sugguiyao rues the sad practice of communities along the river of dumping their solid and liquid waste into the Chico River which she says give rise to “environmental and health issues.”

Fortunately, according to Sugguiyao, none of their clients have commented on the floating plastics in eddies and likewise the mini garbage dumps and sewerage channels flowing into the river.

“Perhaps they are too absorbed by the exciting experience to notice,” Sugguiyao said.

Thanks to the Writ of Kalikasan case filed by the Kalinga Anti-Pollution Action Group (Kapag) against the municipality of Bontoc, Mountain Province, et. al., the CRQI does not have to reckon with the municipal dumpsite at the outskirts of Bontoc. Kapag is an environmental watchdog committed to the protection of the Chico River and the Tabuk Valley from pollution.

The people of Kalinga protested the continued usage of the dumpsite which has been operated by Bontoc for decades because it is located on a mountainside overlooking the Chico River with some of the thrash reaching the banks of the river and getting swept away when the water swells. For more than a decade, local government units of Tinglayan and Kalinga exhausted all diplomatic means to get Bontoc to close the dump, to no avail.

In 2012, the local goverment of Kalinga decided that the time for diplomacy was over with the Kapag eventually taking the legal cudgels against Bontoc.

The Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Kapag leading to the permanent closure of the Caluttit Dumpsite in 2013.

Sadly, other communities along the river are oblivious of the developments in Bontoc as they generally continue to treat the river irresponsibly.

For the barangays along the 21-kilometer rafting stretch in Tabuk City, the solution may be in the offing as the city government is about to invoke a provision of Republic Act 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act that barangay governments will handle the disposal of biodegradables, reusable, and recyclable wastes with just the residuals and special wastes collected by the city government.

While the system is being installed, the City Environment and Natural Resources Office could arrange for the hauling of the solid wastes of barangays along the rafting route on schedule.

A pollution issue which did not crop up during the interviews with Sugguiyao and Buslig is the incident last January when water in the river was discolored for some days, evoking memories of the mine tailings-laden irrigation water in the early 1980s when the Batong Buhay Gold Mines, Inc. (BBGMI) in Balatoc was in operation.

Residents of Naneng, Tabuk City associated the alleged death of 14 carabaos in the barangay to the phenomenon while the residents of Barangay Malin-awa, also of Tabuk City, who first sounded the alarm on the discoloration, claimed that a fishkill occurred during the period.

It was established that the polluted water emanated from the Pasil River, a tributary of the Chico River.

Unsatisfied by the explanation of personnel of the local government of Pasil that the discoloration of the water was due to debris dumped into the river in a road project in the town, the Pasil LGU requested the Environmental Management Bureau to conduct water analysis.

The results of the laboratory tests are being awaited.

What is already known as early as 2011, is the presence of mercury traces in the river, presumed to be caused by small-scale mining operations in some areas in Pasil as well as the possible overflow of the tailings dam of the defunct BBGMI.

While chemical pollution may not have an immediate impact on the rafting activity in the city considering that the effects are not yet conspicuous especially to people who do not stay in the locality for long, in the long run, if unattended, the contamination may intrude into the consciousness of rafters through dead fish or even larger animals which may be sighted in the river. Or through accounts of the presence of toxic chemicals in the river in mainstream media and social networking sites.

At least four proposed run-off hydro power projects are also threatening the eco-tourism attraction as they alter the natural flow of the river. 

Sugguiyao said one of the projects, if pursued, would cut off the Gonogon portion, which is unfortunate because not only does it shorten the run but will eliminate one of the best rapids in the rafting stretch. 

“The contour of the river will change. The only possible sports activity then would be boating,” Sugguiyao said.

She added depletion of their trained guides has also been an operational headache.

“The activity being seasonal, our guides cannot sustain their families from their earnings from rafting alone. So through the years they have been leaving us to seek better paying jobs,” Sugguiyao said.

There are also threats, which are beyond the control of humans.

Sugguiyao speaks of the sudden alteration of the course of the river. She cited as samples the merging of the two waterways in the Gonogon area and the emergence of a third watercourse near Dalimuno.

“These changes could make the affected portion of the river prone to accidents because of the rockier environment. The water is not also enough to carry the raft in some instances,” Sugguiyao added.

The erratic climate in the country can also impact on the rafting business citing the cancellation of the shooting of an episode of Survivor-Australia in 2010.

Sugguiyao recalled it was already all systems go when Typhoon Juan developed and eventually laid to waste all the preparations.

“The rain dumped by the typhoon made the river dangerous for rafting. The crew wanted to go despite the state of the river but we refused for safety reasons,” Sugguiyao said.

In the case of the threats where human action can avail, clearly, a concerted, effective, and sustained effort to save the Chico River must now be mounted. Hesitation or failure of the undertaking for one reason or the other means the days for the exciting rafting runs on the river are numbered. This would be indeed sad as the river is acknowledged as a world-class rafting destination and has been attracting extreme sports enthusiasts from here and abroad for years now.

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