In 2020 when the country and rest of the world were feeling the full force the Covid-19 pandemic that led to closing of borders, Baguio City had the rare chance of switching back to its old immaculate state, able to take a breather from the hustle and bustle brought about by the city’s unique appeal that have been making people come in droves for decades.
It was also during this period of temporary isolation – one that gave the city a time to rejuvenate and its residents to enjoy the city for themselves – when the city was reacquainted with the “inconvenient truth” that Baguio has long breached its carrying capacity due to overpopulation and overdevelopment. The truth was so inconvenient that even when discussions about Baguio showing the signs of urban decay led to alarming realizations – fewer trees, fewer open spaces, overcrowding, dwindling water supply, warmer climate, outrageous vehicular traffic, major polluter of rivers – nothing concrete had actually taken off or sustained to substantially reverse the decline of the city’s environment.
The current administration is now drumming up awareness among residents, concerned agencies, and other stakeholders on the urgent need to take things seriously and do something. In the strongest sense, the city government recently pronounced through its rationalized agenda for the city that it is determined to make the initial steps towards long-term solutions to stop Baguio’s decay.
2019 NEDA carrying capacity study
The city government is focusing on the results of a 2019 study commissioned by the National Economic Development Authority, which confirmed the worsening state of Baguio due to uncontrolled population, and which forecasted if nothing is done now, the city’s environmental decay will become irreversible by 2043, making Baguio “no longer livable.”
Among its priorities is making an audit and preserving what is left of its resources and exploring all possibilities and adopt suitable and workable solutions.
Will there be water for the future Baguio?
The City Planning and Development Office said among the inconvenient truths, the NEDA study identified the alarming state of the city’s water sources necessary in having convenient and quality life, but which have been stressed too much due to artificial population brought by tourism and economic activities, contamination due to unmanaged human activities, and watersheds encroached by informal settlers and claimants.
Due to unstable water supply and demand intensified by depleting sources, the Baguio Water District predicts the city may have to import water from outside sources, which will make water supply service in Baguio expensive in the future, if the city’s water table continues to deplete and its population continues to grow due to commercialization and unregulated tourist influx.
The BWD, however, assured it will not allow such situation where residents will have no water to use, saying there are ways and remedies to avoid that from happening.
But will residents be willing or can they afford to pay higher water rates in the future? Can Baguio City turn the tide and make it through 2043 and beyond as a livable community with enough water source?
Experts say it would take the whole “Baguio village” – political will, cooperation of residents, and innovations and even out-of-the-box solutions – to stop water supply and the city’s critical resources from becoming scarce.
Projection: Bulk water supply
While the magnitude 7.0 earthquake last July 27 that hit Northern Luzon did not cause major damage in the city, it affected BWD’s eight facilities and deepwells, making water turbid and damaging two of its distribution lines. Engr. Salvador Royeca, BWD general manager, said its emergency response and crisis management teams conducted rapid assessment and restored the supply in affected areas by 1 a.m. of July 28.
He said the immediate res-ponse is part of BWD’s water safety plan required as basis of action for any eventuality to ensure continuous water supply.
For now, Royeca said Baguio residents can still be assured of water flowing from the pipelines. However, the threat of not having enough water supply for a city that thrives on tourism and economic activities continues to linger, given the continuous growth of transient population that shares resources with local residents.
The city’s main water provider currently has a capacity of supplying 47,865 cubic meters per day for 2022, more than enough for the 42,087 cubic meters daily demand and for its 46,000 connections. The rest depend on water deliveries.
But in the future, Royeca said the city may be compelled to heavily depend on bulk water supply. When this happens, Baguio has to pay the price.
He said further increase in demand for water will stress the sources. “Kung tataas pa ang rate ng population natin at kapag tumaas na talaga ang demand because of commercialization, kukulangin na talaga ang sources natin, kahit na ‘yung sa underground source.”
In fact, BWD is already buying part of what it is using to supply its clients from other private water service firms. Royeca said BWD buys 20,000 cubic meters, at most, at P35 per cubic meter, which he said is quite expensive but the utility company is subsidizing it.
BWD currently has three ongoing bulk water contracts and has various companies offering its services. Royeca said BWD would entertain more as long as the prices are cheaper.
At the moment, BWD implements a rationing system or delivering water by schedule, at least two times a week.
“We do not want the current rationing system to become worse. So far we are able to maintain it, but with the way development is going and more projects intended for tourism, we may have to adjust,” he said.
Doubling targets to meet water supply demand
The challenge in planning ahead to assure sufficient water supply for an urban area like Baguio with volatile population is it cannot forecast demand.
“It is possible to forecast demand based on the city’s population growth, but we cannot forecast tourists and visitors, which generate artificial demand, so it would depend on influx. If tourist arrivals swell, we cannot do anything (but try to meet the requirement), and that’s the challenge,” Royeca said.
He said the BWD is doubling its targets by stepping up groundwater exploration and drilling activities. It has just completed drillings at East Bayan Park and Malvar and Valenzuela areas and another is ongoing in Camp 7 and Kadaclan.
It also has expansion augmentation programs where it brings sources from one point to other points that are critical areas.
Aside from the Sto. Tomas rain catch basin, which normally comes handy during summer, the BWD is also working double time with support from the city and national government in putting up, rehabilitating, and replacing existing reservoirs and water tanks in strategic areas, all intended as reserve or back-up water supply.
The Busol rainwater harvesting facility is also now operational, while the Camp Allen tank is undergoing rehabilitation and a tank at the Camp 8 pumping station is ongoing construction, among others.
Mayor Benjamin Magalong said as early as 2002, the city’s demand for water has exceeded the supply. The standard, which is 18.5 cubic meters of water per person, is now only 14.5 cubic meters per person or even lesser.
He also pointed out Baguio’s watersheds are becoming a critical issue. The Busol watershed, a forest reservation by virtue of a proclamation and the city’s biggest watershed, is supposed to cover 82 hectares, but it is now down to 45 hectares as most of its portions remain occupied by informal settlers, even after the watershed was fenced.
The Buyog watershed at Quirino Hill started at 19 hectares, but only seven hectares of it are forested.
Magalong reminded that Baguio has become the main polluter of two of its four tributaries, with coliform (e-coli bacteria) levels in Balili and Bued Rivers that flow to La Trinidad, Benguet and Kennon Road reaching quadrillions and trillions, respectively, worse than that of Pasig River in Metro Manila.
As admittedly bulk of the sewage from structures in the city flows to the rivers, Magalong said the city is exploring ways to fix the sewage treatment plant, which has already been operating beyond its 8,500 cubic meters per day capacity.
“It’s now handling 10,016 cubic meters per day capacity. In fact it can only process five percent of the total wastewater that we are generating in the city, which is 33,000 cubic meters per day. Can you just imagine why our rivers are polluted? Because residents live near the rivers, with septic tanks directly discharging into the rivers,” Magalong said.
The BWD has identified unmanaged water as one of the threats to the city’s water sources.
Royeca said there should be proper wastewater management as these might contaminate underground water sources.
He said efforts to maintain the city’s water sources are also threatened by the proliferation of private deep wells, depleting forest cover, and growing agricultural activities in the mountains, with the latter becoming a source of illegal connections and the use of pesticides and other chemicals are a possible cause of surface water contamination.
Innovations, out-of-the-box solutions for water management
City Planning and Deve-lopment Officer, Arch. Donna Tabangin, who is part of the team that conducted the 2019 NEDA carrying capacity study and tasked to lead reforms to address the city’s concerns on urban decay, said the city is factoring in all possible solutions, which range from simple to out-of-the-box, for water management.
Tabangin said residents need to learn using water sparingly and rainwater harvesting. She said while there is a reservoir at Sto. Tomas, all buildings in the city should have a rainwater harvesting facility.
“Basta may roof ka, dapat may reservoir ka because we can save water flowing from roofs. We are the rainiest city in the country yet we don’t save rainwater. In fact, ang dami na-ting nasasayang. Lahat dapat ng buildings in the city, whether residential or commercial, should have a rainwater harvesting system,” Tabangin said, pointing out this is provided in the city’s Environment Code, and it would help driving home the point if more ordinances strengthening Baguio’s desire to collect rainwater will be crafted.
“Or probably it’s just a matter of drumming it up. If people understand and they do something about it, even small solutions would help already. Kailangan lang ng konting push,” she said.
Another option being explored is recycling sanitary water into drinkable water, which is already being done in other countries experiencing water scarcity.
While buying bulk water remains an option, Tabangin said when underground water is depleted, there might be no other way to go but to recycle.
Tabangin said the city go-vernment is not just relying on one solution, and rainwater harvesting and using water sparingly are easy solutions that could be done, and if it need be, its strict implementation can be made mandatory.
Residents, tourists competing for water
Another identified solution that is work in progress is the management of tourist and visitor influx in the city.
The Baguio Visita online portal, which was initiated by the City Tourism Office before the Covid-19 pandemic, was put to test during the pandemic as a way of regulating visitors through online registration as an entry requirement when the city slowly reopened its borders to non-residents.
“This is for us to track the number of visitors coming to the city. We need to manage it by number which we can accommodate so they would not come all at once, like lahat aakyat during Christmas, Holy Week, or Panagbenga, dahil hindi talaga natin kakayanin,” Tabangin said.
She said this would allow the city to allocate use of water. Through the Visita platform, the number of visitors can be monitored and regulated by spreading out their visit in parks, for example, or limiting their number once a site has reached its carrying capacity, thus preventing resources from being overwhelmed.
“At times the number of visitors is unbelievable. It doubles, and even more than the resident population, and they are included in resource use. The problem is we plan for the resident population, but we forgot there’s a bigger number of visitor population.”
Sharing water and other resources and generated wastes are among the things transients leave with residents to contend with, so instead of being satisfied with the benefits of tourism, locals have to compete for and make do with what’s left of their resources.
“Talagang nahuhugot na lahat ng resources natin. That is why visitors are also one of the sources of urban decay. It has become resident population versus resources and visitor population,” Tabangin said.
Innovation, synergy between government, academe
Tabangin said a test of a good quality of life is everyone should have water every day from water services, and in the case of Baguio, the last time this happened as far as she can remember is back in the ‘70s.
“What happens now is twice a week. That’s another sign, but one which we choose not to take notice, or we have gotten used to it. We are fine having a water tank but we do not realize this is already a sign of urban decay,” she said.
However, Tabangin said this concern and all issues the city is facing right now are curable, but sometimes the cure might have to be extraordinary or one that does not necessarily follow the rule of the thumb in terms of planning.
“The world is different now and traditional solutions might no longer work. Innovation and creativity is something we should harness already. Sometimes solutions is not with us, maybe it’s with the private sector. The academe for one might have solutions that are just waiting to be explored. They do researches and have recommendations that might be helpful. For us to solve urban decay, the government should have good synergy with academe,” she said.
Sustainable tourism, revisiting laws, political will
For BWD, Royeca suggests for the city to work on making tourism sustainable, as it cannot be denied the city needs this industry being one of its main economic drivers.
He said managing the tourism industry is a challenging task, since it has become too centralized in the city and tourists are coming almost on a year-round basis now or no longer seasonal, so consequently, resources will be depleted.
He said it is time to revisit the BLISTT or Baguio, La Trinidad, Itogon, Sablan, Tuba, and Tublay concept of spreading out economic activities and use of resources so that people are not concentrated in one place.
“We have become too commercialized and so we have become a hub. If we spread out, it would be (a good option),” Royeca said.
He also observed there seems to be failure in enforcing laws governing watersheds and its protection so it has to be revisited.
Because of too much population, the city’s watersheds have been compromised. Watersheds, the BWD reminded, should not be inhabited by humans, but over the years they have settled inside the reservation and became part of the political system.
He said the proliferation of informal setters within watersheds is happening not only in Baguio but also in other areas with watersheds based on discussions by the Philippine Association of Water Districts, of which BWD is a member, since some laws, such as the Indi- genous Peoples Rights Act implemented by the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, are overlapping.
“There is a need to review or amend governing laws if we really want to protect the watersheds,” he said.
BWD also cites the move of the city government to make an inventory of watersheds through geo-tagging but the next actions should be clear and decisive.
“Tama naman itong ginagawa ngayon, but after the inventory, what’s next? This has been done before and it’s a good initial step, but the encroachment still expanded,” Royeca said, adding if the city really wants to stop this, there is a need for a strong political will and for laws to prevail.
He also suggested barangay officials should take an active role in protecting watersheds since they are supposed to know what’s going in their jurisdictions and report if they monitor attempts to encroach on watersheds.
He added the civil society should also be actively involved in making the public aware of this issue, saying if it is explained and understood, there will be change in mindset and everybody will be involved in helping save a critical water resource.
Assurances and caveats
During the Environment Summit in Baguio early this month, Magalong assured the city government is developing ways and strategies to mitigate these urban challenges, but it needs the entire city, especially its youth, to work in raising awareness about urban decay and preserving the city’s environment and resources.
“The challenge is not just to reverse urban decay, but to root out the causes and implement solutions…we are doing something about it, don’t you worry. We are fast-tracking our measures to address all of these. Right now we are exploring what would be our best strategy for population management vis-à-vis the plan to become a liva-ble city,” he said.
He added the city government is creating a movement of good governance, because it is “the only way we will be able to cure the ills of the city and probably, while being ambitious and audacious, we will also be able to change the country.”
While it is difficult to say until when Baguio will have enough supply, Royeca has assured BWD will not allow such scenario to happen.
He said they also could only anticipate for the city’s water requirements to increase, as it cannot discount the fact that tourism and other crowd-drawing activities are Baguio’s lifeblood. But this should all the more be a reason for the city to learn to manage and balance the need to protect its income source and natural resources.
“We will do everything to extract water. Hindi naman tayo mawawalan ng tubig dahil may mga paraan, but the cost will become an issue. Water service will become expensive. It might be fine to those who can afford, but what about the ordinary people? Can we handle a higher cost of living? Are we willing to pay for convenience or suffer more?”