Death Dump Polluting Manila's Drinking Water

By Michael Bengwayan

MANILA, Philippines, July 18, 2000 (ENS) - The garbage slide and fire a week ago at the Payatas garbage dump in the northern Manila suburb of Quezon City has now claimed 193 lives. At least 760 other people are still missing and presumed dead.

Today fears have been raised that the rotting mountain of trash is polluting the reservoir behind La Mesa dam - the source of drinking water for Metro Manila's 10 million residents.

The warning comes from the international environmental group Greenpeace. It said today that La Mesa reservoir now contains toxic substances due to the run-off of flood waters at the Payatas dump site caused by the recent heavy monsoon rains.

On July 11, strong rains from two typhoons caused the collapse of the enormous garbage heap where hundreds of scavengers had built their houses.

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Child in the Payatas garbage dump (Photos courtesy Fields International)
The tragedy is the worst of its kind in Philippine history. It has highlighted the inadequate solid waste management law and program which for 27 years have allowed open landfills to become hills of decomposing trash. Metro Manila generates some 10,000 tons of waste daily which it dumps at the 2.3 hectare (5.7 acre) Payatas site.

The La Mesa reservoir is located near the Payatas dump on lower ground, and Greenpeace now warns that the pollutants from the garbage slide have found their way to the waters behind La Mesa dam.

Enero Brilliantes, Greenpeace spokesman, said the pollutants eventually will poison the waters. "As of now, water at La Mesa contains metallic substances such as chromium, zinc and alloys 30 per cent beyond their safety levels. These metals cause cancer and other ailments," he said.

Brillinates said that pollutants from the Payatas are also contaminating the air. "The pollutants are transported by air. These particles carry dioxins which are can cause cancer to human beings," he said.

Greenpeace's statements prompted Secretary Alberto Romuladez of the Department of Health to issue an order for an immediate investigation of La Mesa dam's waters. "If the Greenpeace report is true, I will immediately order the public to stop drinking water that flows from La Mesa dam," he told reporters.

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Garbage pollutes the streams flowing through the Payatas area
But Maynilad, the private water service agency responsible in maintaining La Mesa dam scoffed at the Greenpeace report. "There is no truth that the waters of La Mesa dam is being contaminated by the Payatas dump site," Joel Lacsamana, Maynilad official countered.

"We were surprised by the Greenpeace report. We are doing monthly samples to ensure that the water of La Mesa dam is safe and we are constantly monitoring La Mesa dam's water resources," he explained.

Lacsamana did acknowledge that the water quality from La Mesa dam is deteriorating because of polluting substances from the dumpsite. "We have been requesting the closure of Payatas dump site long time ago because of its proximity to the dam. We made our appeals to the Metro Manila Development Authority, Department of Health and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources with little success," he said.

The government has just permanently closed Payatas and is looking for potential landfills outside of Manila to accommodate the 10,000 tons of trash generated every day.

But Greenpeace toxic waste campaign coordinator Von Hernandez recommended that government authorities to focus more on programs which promote recycling, re-use and gradual reduction of garbage instead of digging new landfills.

"To us, the long term and more cost effective solution is to divert government resources in the millions of dollars away from building toxic time bombs like landfills, incinerators and dumps," Hernandez said.

Randy David, a political scientist from the University of the Philippines says some government officials have a vested interest in turning down the idea of waste recycling. "What remains unseen over the Payatas tragedy, are the millions of pesos that pass through the hands of corrupt government officials and employees who ensure that dumpsites exist as they are," David said.

"The transactions to collect and dispose off garbage in Manila is a lucrative business and have political importance. The contract to collect garbage for the city government is huge and is bid out to private contractors who connive with public officials," he said.

The La Mesa dam and watershed, owned by the government and titled to the Metro Manila Water and Sewerage System, covers 200 hectares, 40 percent of which is bald and denuded because of land clearing by farmers.

It remains the only source of drinking water for Manila. Contamination of the reservoir will adversely affect a booming population already short of domestic water needs. About 70 percent of Metro Manila's population is served by piped water on a rotational scheduled basis. The rest depend on water from deep wells.

The Metro Manila Development Authority reported last year that as much as 20 percent of Manila's potential water supply is lost through broken pipes, illegal connections and pilferage.