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Political will key to saving Baguio’ last ecological frontiers
Harley Palangchao

THREATENED WATERSHED -- Government personnel install signage at the boundaries of Busol Watershed and Forest Reservation in a bid to discourage further encroachment of the reservation. Ineffective leadership and urban migration remain threats in the preservation of the city’s last ecological frontiers. -- Ompong Tan

The Busol Watershed and Forest Reservation, the way people have been encroaching upon it over the past decades due to urba n migration and scarcity of lands for human settlement in Baguio, needs strong political will to protect and preserve one of Baguio’s last ecological frontiers.

At present, the 336-hectare watershed for Baguio and nearby La Trinidad, Benguet, is being fenced by the Baguio Water District with an aim to secure the critical watershed from unabated construction of houses and buildings and expansion of commercial farms in both sides of two localities.

When Busol was declared as a watershed and forest reservation by virtue of Presidential Proclamation 15 in 1922, the authority to enforce regulations within the watershed has been delegated to the local chief executives of Baguio (and La Trinidad) and their respective local police units.

The administrative jurisdiction for the purpose of conserving and protecting water and timber and natural resources is under the care of the Baguio Water District and the Bureau of Forestry of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

The delegation of the protection and preservation of Busol to local offices and local government units of Baguio and La Trinidad makes it an interesting subject of studies how the LGUs can effectively protect a critical watershed like Busol.

Busol Fencing Project

To protect Busol Watershed from further encroachment, BWD under General Manager Salvador Royeca and its partners such as the Baguio Regreening Movement initiated the fencing project that costs more than P30 million.

Fencing the entire 336-hectare watershed requires 975 spans.

“As of now, the fencing project is more than 12 percent complete. We hope to complete it the soonest possible time given the support we get from our partners,” Royeca told Midland Courier in an interview earlier this month.

The DENR has pledged P16M for the project while the city government of Baguio will donate P10M with the Fil-Am Golf Foundation pledging another P5M. The Benguet Electric Cooperative already deposited its P1M donation while another P400,000 was collected from various donors.

The project will fence 112 hectares of the Baguio side of Busol while the remaining fences will cover the 224 hectares at the La Trinidad side.

Fencing could have commenced in 2002 despite lack of funds but the same was halted by a temporary restraining order and eventually by an injunction issued by the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples after ancestral land claimants petitioned against the project.

The Court of Appeals has sustained the NCIP order, which stopped the project for more than a decade until the Supreme Court reversed the decision of CA in February 2013.

The High Tribunal struck down the appellate court’s decision, maintaining that the occupants’ ancestral land claim was not expressly recognized by Proclamation 15, which should have justified the issuances made by the NCIP. The court said Proclamation 15 “does not appear to be a definitive recognition of private respondents’ ancestral land claim.”

Source of clean water for 50,000 people

With the court clearing some legal obstacles, Royeca shared the view that strong political will is expected from whoever wins the elective posts in Baguio and La Trinidad to preserve and protect Busol and other watersheds that are crucial to human survival.

Royeca said that Busol contributes 20 percent of the current total production of BWD at 43,684 cubic meters per day. Bulk of the water supply of the district are drawn from its 57 deep wells scattered around the city.

At present, Busol supplies Aurora Hill, Trancoville, Lucban, Mines View, Pacdal, Baguio Country Club, and its environs. The watershed supplies potable water to 8,000 households benefiting 50,000 of the more than 400,000 people in Baguio.

Also found within the Busol Watershed are the Amsing, Idisan, and Lamut spring sources that yield a combined monthly average output of 15,000 cubic meters.

But due to pollution and the high risk of contamination brought about by informal settlement and continuous farming activities in the area, these three spring sources formerly managed and protected by the BWD have long been abandoned.

While BWD has the sole franchise for Baguio, its 57 deep wells are outnumbered,  with more than 1,000 private wells that have since proliferated over the years. BWD’s other water sources include five springs and 65 pumping stations.

Royeca said the water supply drawn from the watershed greatly complements the volume of water extracted from the deep wells and lessens the gap between actual water supply from the water demand of Baguio.

Private deep wells outnumber BWD wells

At present, the gap between actual daily production to actual demand is pegged at more than 18,000 cubic meters. BWD supplies only 43,684 cubic meters a day against the daily water demand of  61,727 cubic meters. Demand increases up to 80,000 cubic meters a day during peak season.

BWD projected an increase of production at an average of 1,000 cubic meters per annum from 2016 to 2022 while the demand for water is twice the annual increase in production. By 2022, BWD could produce 50,224 cubic meters but the projected daily demand is almost 78,000 cubic meters or a gap of 28,000 cubic meters.

While BWD relies heavily on deep wells, this method of extracting water may no longer viable in the long run due to tight competition with private wells.

In an inspection conducted by BWD from April to July 2014, it was discovered that 152 out of 225 establishments had their own deep wells.

There’s a danger in too much extraction of water, as this will create a vacuum underground.

This concern was raised by former councilor Edilberto Tenefrancia in 2010 when he warned of a disaster waiting to happen if the water utility firm will rely heavily on extraction of water from underground. He said too much extraction would create a vacuum, which means emptied underground aquifers can be compressed, causing surface subsidence – a problem familiar in Bangkok, Thailand; Mexico City, Mexico; and Venice, Italy.

BWD also reported a declining pumping water level due to depleting recharge areas of water sources caused by proliferation of private deep wells and urban development.

“Almost 70 percent of Baguio’s land area of 57.51 square kilometers is already developed and only 30 percent have old grown pine trees, production pine stands, and brush lands,” BWD said in a recent presentation on the water supply situation in the city.

The protection and preservation of the green patches in Baguio and other parts of the region like Busol Watershed is crucial for human survival, especially when the time comes when the demand for safe water is more crucial than the demand for space for commercial establishment or human settlement.

Children as guardians of Busol

Children, mostly elementary pupils, are also taking the lead in preserving the watershed by walking the talk in keeping a balanced ecology. Instead of learning about the environment inside the classroom, they go directly where the water cycle can be best understood, among which is the Busol Watershed.

Thanks to the “Eco-Walk Program,” conceived by some veteran Baguio journalists – among them Ramon Dacawi, Peppot Ilagan, Willy Cacdac, Eliral Refuerzo, Art Tibaldo, March Fianza, and Nathan Alcantara – who moved beyond reportage and embarked on advocacy journalism for love of the city. The program allows children to lead in environmental conservation, which has inspired leaders and adults to support the program and heighten community commitment to environmental concerns.

This child-oriented environment learning project is keeping the hope that critical forests can be saved, and more communities and local government units are now inspired to replicate the program.

The program started and continues at the Busol Watershed where children enjoy the camaraderie while planting trees and internalizing the values that will help preserve the remaining patches of forest in this mountain resort.

A walk through the forest has several things going to make it doable and sustainable. Children naturally love the outdoors, a respite from classroom doldrums, and thus it does not need big funding to get the children out for a walk to the forest. And as they do so, they learn about the responsibility of preserving the forest not just for the present but also for future generations.

A year after its inception, Eco-Walk received the 1993 Gawad Oscar Florendo national award from the Public Relations Organization of the Philippines. In 1996, it received the Galing Pook national award as one of the country’s most innovative and effective local government programs. The award was handled by the Asian Institute of Management and the Local Government Academy of the Department of the Interior and Local Government and is supported by the Ford Foundation.

A decade later, Eco-Walk received its greatest recognition so far from the United Nations through the Global 500 Roll of Honour Award for Environmental Achievement during the International World Earth Day celebration in Shenzhen, China in 2002. This came a year after the program won for Dacawi, as program director, the 2001 Lingkod Bayan award from the Civil Service Commission.

Informal settlers increasing; Farms expanding

Despite the efforts of the government and the children, the importance of safeguarding the watersheds does not seem to be given weight as more illegal activities are being reported within Busol and other forest reservations in Baguio and nearby La Trinidad. The biggest threats to Busol are commercial farm expansion and encroachment for residential and commercial buildings.

There’s more. In spite of the disturbing sounds of chainsaw within the watershed, reports from concerned residents to authorities about the illegal activities apparently fall on deaf ears, as no apprehension were reported by authorities recently.

In the early ‘90s, Christopher Edward Roddan, who made a thesis on basis for community participation in the management of Busol watershed for his master of science degree in the University of Victoria, British Columbia, revealed the increasing number of structures that encroached upon the watershed in Baguio and La Trinidad.

Roddan said that in the 1976 survey of the DENR, there were 40 houses and 226 houses built in the Baguio and La Trinidad, respectively. The 266 houses that year increased to 518 when the same agency conducted a survey in 1992. Then in 1993, the houses within Busol slightly decreased to 438, according to the survey of BWD.

Eight years later, the structures within Busol’s La Trinidad side increased to 375 while Baguio had 377. In 2006, the structures in Baguio increased to 643 while those in La Trinidad soared to 532.

In 2010, only the Baguio side was surveyed, which revealed an increasing trend of informal settlers who built 863 structures within the watershed.

Community participation to save Busol

To stop further encroachment of Busol, the BRM recently offered the possibility of suggesting to the concerned offices such as the BWD and the city government of Baguio of having a “co-existence agreement,” which was drafted by offices and groups with stakes at Busol.

Among other terms, the agreement provided that the existing settlers must not extend their structures and should get permits from concerned agencies. They should also help guard the watershed against new encroachers, and that new structures put up will be demolished.

Roddan, in his thesis, recommended community participation, including current informal settlers, in the protection and preservation of Busol.

Community participation, he suggested, must start with a comprehensive, open access, user-friendly information base on all aspects of the Busol Watershed and the people who live there and the stakeholders (public and private) in the watershed.

He also hinted on the need for a comprehensive training program for DENR and BWD field staff members and officials on the techniques of community organizing and participatory planning.

If things work as proposed, then Busol can be preserved for the next generation while striking a balance between protecting our environment, and pursuing sustainable development. This can only be realized if there’s strong political will to implement the plans, projects, and programs toward protecting one of Baguio’s last ecological frontiers.
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