Boracay Water Quality
We all want to ensure we are safe when swimming, particularly in Boracay where there are concerns about water quality. In this section of the website we bring together useful information and reports on the Algae sitiation and water quality issues on Boracay .
Boracay Environmental Restoration, Water Quality, and Sustainable Energy: Current Situation and Future Prospects
August 20 2007
Boracay is one of the Philippines major tourist attractions. Degradation of water quality, caused by sewage from uncontrolled development, is taking a heavy toll on the health of Boracay’s coral reefs, fisheries, residents, and tourists. The situation will only get worse unless action is taken promptly to reverse it. Denial or concealment of the problems will only delay, or even worse, completely prevent action that could dramatically improve the quality of life for everyone on the island. This report briefly reviews the current situation and offers effective recommendations for corrective action that could be taken by the Boracay community, local, provincial, and national governments, if they act promptly and in a unified way. It is better to face and resolve environmental and social problems before they become overwhelming, allowing the problems to be solved more effectively, sooner, and at lower total cost.
Although the powder white sand beaches of Boracay are the Philippines’ major tourism attraction, development has proceeded without effective planning or controls. As a result, there are far more hotels and dive shops than can be sustained. Due to many being barely financially viable, an atmosphere of competition, rather than cooperation, prevails. There is an uncontrolled influx of people from other islands who come to Boracay, desperate for income, with the illusion that there is money to be earned. This has resulted in a plague of vendors, largely competing with one another in providing services for which there are only few buyers, and slum housing conditions for most residents. Unfortunately, the reality is that most are barely scraping by. The rapid overpopulation has ruined the once peaceful atmosphere, and resulted in serious sewage pollution.
This report is based largely on the author’s personal observations of the impacts of water quality on the marine environment, and experience with such problems at similar locations around the world. Local residents have provided a great deal of information without which this report could not have been written. Because the focus is on environmental impacts of water borne wastes, there is little or no discussion of the solid waste, transportation, power, or road infrastructure problems that clearly plague Boracay; except where they contribute to marine impacts. The problems and solutions are dealt with in conceptual terms rather than quantitative ones. I have not attempted to tabulate information on such highly relevant factors such as population, population growth, the number of tourists, the significance of Boracay to national foreign exchange earnings, amount of energy used, amount of sewage produced, the fraction of it that is treated, public health issues such as the number and increase in water-borne gastro-intestinal diseases, skin infections, ear infections, dengue, respiratory illness, etc.
Important work on these issues is currently underway by the local, provincial, and national governments, the Philippine Tourism Authority, the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources, the Department of Health, and other agencies. The purpose of this report is to support and strengthen their efforts with a focus on the marine environmental impacts of all the infrastructural issues, with an eye to assisting their efforts at seeking national and international funds to resolve all of these problems as quickly as possible.
WATER QUALITY PROBLEMS: NUTRIENTS
By 1997 the Department of the Environment (DOE) was reporting contamination of the waters in front of White Beach by fecal coliform bacteria. They recommended that the beach be shut down for bathing as a health hazard. The DOE measurements were made early in the year when the White Beach was on the calm leeward side and when dense green algae blooms were visible in front of the beach.
The Department of Tourism (DOT), in response to the DOE recommendation that the beach be closed, and the concerns of local businesses and residents over the economic threat that this posed for tourism revenues, decided to bring in outside advice on whether water quality problems were truly present in Boracay. In order to provide a fully independent and unbiased report, the outside experts agreed to do the report for no salary, only for travel, room, and food expenses. By the time travel arrangements could be arranged, in August 1997, the winds had reversed so that White Beach was now on the windward side, and the algae blooms had disappeared from White Beach. However excessive amounts of algae species indicative of high nutrient levels were then found on the leeward side in Bulabog Bay and in deeper reefs (T. J. Goreau, M. Goreau, & J. Cervino, 1997, Water quality and coral reef health at Boracay, Isla Verde, El Nido, and Balicasag, Philippines, Report to Philippines Department of Tourism,
The 1997 DOT water quality study examined reef coral health and algae abundance all around Boracay. Water samples were taken for nutrient analysis and underwater video was taken at all sites. However, the Ministry of Tourism did not pay the University of the Philippines for the water quality chemical analyses as had been previously agreed, so the samples were never analyzed. Nevertheless, based on the abundance of indicator algae species with high nutrient preferences, it was clear that septic tank effluents had leached into the groundwater, causing very high nutrient concentrations to flow into the sea. The effects were most apparent on the leeward side of the island, and were least apparent on the windward side, due to the strong dilution by waves and low light levels due to turbidity. The most obvious pollution impacts switch from one side of the island to the other twice a year as the winds change direction.
The Goreau et al. (1997) report concluded that if nothing were done to control nutrient inputs from land into the coastal zone, Boracay reefs down-current of tourist areas would likely be killed by algae overgrowth, as has happened in many tourist areas all over the world (T. J. Goreau & K. Thacker, 1994, Coral Reefs, sewage, and water quality standards, Proceedings 3d Caribbean Water and Wastewater Association Conference, Water and Wastewater needs for the Caribbean: 21st Century, Kingston, Jamaica, 3:98-116,
WATER QUALITY STANDARDS
Coral reefs are the most nutrient sensitive ecosystem of all, because any nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage, fertilizers, or agricultural wastes are fertilizers. It is important to note that even sewage effluents that are treated to levels that kill all harmful bacteria and viruses, usually still have very high concentrations of nutrients. These nutrients stimulate massive growth of weedy algae that overgrows and kills corals (T. J. Goreau, 2003, Waste Nutrients: Impacts on coastal coral reefs and fisheries, and abatement via land recycling, 28p., United Nations Expert Meeting on Waste Management in Small Island Developing Countries, Havana, Cuba,
Because coral reefs are the most sensitive of all marine ecosystems to nutrients, they become smothered and killed by algae at nutrient levels that are so low that no other ecosystem would be affected. Therefore maintaining their health, and the economic and environmental services they provide, requires the strongest controls on land-based sources of nutrients of any ecosystem (T. Goreau, 2003). However in those very few places where waste effluent water quality standards exist, they are based on human health, not coral reef health. It is important to note that humans can safely drink water with nutrient levels around a thousand times higher than coral reefs can tolerate. By the time people start to get sick from the seawater, the reefs are largely dead. Any area hoping to maintain healthy coral reefs must enforce coral reef-specific water quality standards (Goreau, 2003). At present only one country in the world has coral reef specific water quality standards, the Turks and Caicos Islands (T. Goreau, 2006, Turks and Caicos coral reef assessment, and restoration and management strategy, Department of Environment and Coastal Resources, Turks and Caicos Islands, in press in Revista Biologia Tropical, Proceedings of the 50th Anniversary Conference of the Association of Marine Laboratories of the Caribbean).
PREVENTING COASTAL POLLUTION
The 1997 Goreau et al. report recommended that all the waste nutrients be recycled on land, where they could be used as fertilizer for plants. The plants on Boracay clearly appeared to be nutrient starved from their pale leaves and sparse branching. By recycling nitrogen and phosphorus on land, nutrients would be prevented from entering the sea, where they would undoubtedly kill the reef. The report recommended that nutrient removal be accomplished by treating all sewage to secondary level, and by using effluent waters for irrigation of ornamental vegetation, lawns, golf courses, or forested areas and wetlands. This method had been successfully and quickly used to clean up a polluted bay in Jamaica (Goreau, 2003).
Instead of acting according to these recommendations, the DOT banned the 1997 report by ordering that it could not be circulated. Soon afterwards a very expensive sewage collection scheme was started with a large loan from Japan. The highly paid consultants contacted me extensively for free advice. However they refused to design a sewer system to collect all the sewage of local residents as well as the hotels, treat the sewage to a level adequate to remove the nutrients, or to recycle waste nutrients on land as I urged them. They thought this would cost more than dumping the sewage into the ocean. They claimed that the currents would dilute the nutrients to harmless levels for free. Subsequent events show that dilution has failed to work. In effect they chose not to solve the environmental problems of Boracay but to solve their own financial problem of maximizing their profits from the funds available.
CURRENT PUBLIC HEALTH PROBLEMS
The sewage outfall in Bulabog Bay is in only 20 feet of water, which is far too shallow. The sewage wastewater, being less dense than seawater, floats right up to the surface, where it is spread wherever the winds, waves, and currents carries it. When the winds are onshore, as they are around half the year, the noticeably foul-smelling water is pushed directly onto the beach. When the winds are not onshore, the sewage is spread wherever the currents carry them. This is often along the coast of the island, as can be seen by the distribution of algae in shallow water.
The result is that now Bulabog Bay has very green water caused by the constant blooms of algae. These include both large algae on the bottom and planktonic microscopic algae floating in the water that can’t be seen with the naked eye, but which are so abundant that they color the water green. The corals are largely dead, and are coated by a dense mat of greenish brown algae. The abundance of algae has provoked the growth of exceptionally dense populations of long spined black sea urchins, which graze the algae down every day only for it to grow right back. Since the bay is used for water sports for half the year when the winds and waves are too strong on the other side, many tourists fall into the water are painfully impaled on the sharp sea urchin spines.
What they can’t see is far worse for human health. The high level of bacteria in the sewage-filled water causes epidemics of ear infections, skin infections, septic infections of cuts, and severe stomach problems for swimmers, boaters, kite boarders, and parachute gliders who fall into the water. Both ecosystem health and the health of locals and tourists have been severely compromised by poor water quality. The effects are seen even further: the reefs of Crocodile Island, one of the best diving areas in Boracay, have dead coral covered by green mats of filamentous weedy algae that are indicators of high nutrients. These are the same algae that bloom on White Beach in the calm season, as the result of discharge to the sea of groundwater loaded with nutrients from the septic tanks of all the inland population that is not hooked up to the sewage system.
For all practical purposes the sewage system has been an expensive waste of money that has not solved the problem but simply concentrated parts of the pollution with devastating impacts on Bulabog Bay. Large amounts of sewage from the areas not collected by the sewage system, which is probably most of the sewage produced on the island, simply fester in the ground water, and flows into the sea through the beach sand. The problem has been made worse because piped water from the mainland is discharged it into the ground. As a result more water flows into the ground than the rain water supply, and this causes the groundwater table to rise to within inches of the surface. With every rain it overflows.
The impacts of the sewage that is not intercepted by the sewage system can be seen in the seasonal algae blooms along White Beach, and by the thin green brown film of microscopic algae and bacteria on the formerly white sand that is exposed at every low tide. These blooms are constantly fed by the ground water springs that trickle through the beach. The groundwater under Boracay is severely polluted with sewage due to the fact that the central lowlands of the island have become a vast slum, where almost all of the sewage goes straight into the ground. Much of the local population uses groundwater wells for washing, cooking, and even for drinking water, causing high rates of water-borne stomach illness, contributing to high rates of infant sickness and mortality.
It is important to note that measurements of fecal coliform bacteria have very little value as indicators of sewage pollution. They are widely measured because the test is simple and cheap. However fecal coliform bacteria are rapidly killed in warm salt water especially when it is sunny. They are basically measurable only when pieces of human excrement are taken up in the small water samples. As a result most measurements find little coliforms unless they are taken directly in the sewage plume. If any fecal coliform are measured at all, there is a severe pollution problem. But it must be realized that there can be serious pollution even when no fecal coliforms are measured, because the samples may have been too small, or not directly in the sewage plume. Averaging values from many locations, as is often done in monitoring survey reports, can make it appear that the waters are clean, when in fact some of them are severely polluted. The best ecological measure of sewage pollution is the abundance of algae that are indicators of high nutrients, green water instead of blue water, and by public health problems from bacterial infections of ears, nose throat, and cuts. Having tourists get sick on their vacation or honeymoon is guarantee of no repeat business. In fact, at the time I am writing this I am suffering from a bad ear infection from diving and snorkeling in Boracay, and my daughter has a severe stomach infection from something she ate or drank there. We will be back because we are committed to our task, but if we were tourists we would not.
After every rain, stinking green pools form, lined with mats of green algae and bacteria. This will not go away until ALL of the island’s sewage, that is the sewage produced by local residents as well as by tourists, is treated to a level that removes the nutrients. The present sewage system collects only a small fraction of the total sewage, and is inadequate to deal with the current load, much less the rapid future increases caused by uncontrolled building and population growth. The system treats the sewage to an inadequate level, and discharges the nutrients into shallow coastal waters instead of recycling them on land. The current street drainage project, aimed at flushing the smelly muddy pools through which most of the population must walk, will only worsen the coastal environmental problems by not cleaning the water at the source.
The majority of the sewage produced on the island is by the local residents, and most of it simply flows into the ground. In the higher limestone rock areas of the north and south sewage flows down through cracks and caves deep into the ground. The nutrients cannot be taken up by the trees because the ground water table is too deep for roots to reach. In the shallow limestone sand areas along the beaches and the central part of the island, sands that should be well aerated have become stagnant and lacking in oxygen because they are overloaded with rotting sewage organic matter. Due to the lack of oxygen, efficient decomposition is prevented. At low tide a greenish fringe is seen on the sand due to the high growth of microscopic and of large algae and of bacteria caused by the sewage-rich groundwater.
The same is seen in all inland ponds and wetlands, which are choked with dense green microscopic algae and bacteria, and in every puddle whenever the groundwater table is raised by rain. Poor drainage, compaction of sand, and interruption of rainwater infiltration by overbuilding, all make these conditions worse. The result is that the groundwater stinks with the rotting egg smell of hydrogen sulfide, which you can constantly smell in all the inland low lying areas and along Bulabog Beach. This odor is so pervasive that people assume it is normal, but in fact it is sign of severe pollution, which can aggravate respiratory problems caused by air pollution from motor vehicle engines.
The algae that bloom along White Beach in the calm season, bright green species of Chaetomorpha, Ulva, and Enteromorpha, are such strong indicators of very high nutrient pollution that they are typically found right around sewage outfalls. Along White Beach they bloom every calm season, but die back in the rough season because waves dilute nutrients to lower levels and wash away the algae and the suspended sediments reduce the light levels. Although the problem appears to have gone away, the impacts will quickly become visible again in the next calm season.
These blooms are not new, since long term residents claim that they used to take place seasonally as long as 25 years ago, when there was little development on Boracay. At that time the major sources of nutrients were from groundwater discharges from the wetlands, but as sewage inputs built up, the blooms became larger and longer lasting. Now that all the hotels and houses along White Beach are required to be hooked up to the sewage system (except those who are denied connection because the system is over-loaded), their nutrients flow to the other side of the island instead of flowing onto the White Beach side. However, the algae blooms along White Beach have not gone away. The seasonal blooms are due to the uncontrolled explosion of population growth in the interior of the island, whose sewage is not connected to the sewage system. Septic tank discharges maintain very high nutrient levels in the groundwater, which are flowing into the sea at every low tide.
It is interesting to note that there is a widespread, but quite false, local misconception that these green algae blooms “turn into sand”. That is completely incorrect, these are soft weedy species that produce no sand at all. The sand is largely produced by a completely different group of algae, Halimeda, and other algae species that make small limestone grains that become beach sand when they die. These algae live further from the shore, but these “good” algae, which build the beach, are intolerant of high nutrients because they are overgrown and killed by the “bad” algae, whenever the worthless weed algae species are over-fertilized by sewage.
CORAL BLEACHING AND GLOBAL WARMING
Coral bleaching is a further problem. When coral is severely stressed it turns pale, or bleached. If the stress continues, the corals will die, but if the stress goes away in time the corals may recover. In 1998 record high water temperatures killed many of the corals in Boracay, devastating the reefs on the western side, where the water was calm and got hotter than the other side. The dead coral rubble on the bottom shows that there used to be large amounts of branching staghorn corals in shallow water. These branching provide the best fish habitat and shore protection, but only very few live branching corals are now seen. I have tabulated all of the NOAA satellite monthly average sea surface temperature data for Boracay from 1982 through 2003 and they show that global warming is affecting the area, with over 1 degree C increase in temperature over the last 20 years, which will get far worse in the future. There has been little recovery of the reef since 1998, which can be seen by comparing the current situation with the videos of the corals that I took all around Boracay in 1997.
In areas affected by sewage nutrients the dead corals are covered by algae, and there has been very little or no recovery because baby corals cannot settle and grow, since they require clean limestone surfaces. Areas to the northwest of the island have clean surfaces, and there has been some new coral settlement there in the last 5 years (judging from the size of the corals) but the rate of recovery has been very slow. It is clear that the current rate of recovery would take many decades to reach a level similar to that before 1998, but this could only happen if no more high temperature events or typhoons were to take to place, which would prevent or reverse recovery.
At time of writing mild bleaching is underway around Boracay. The waters are very hot all around Luzon as far as Taiwan and Okinawa, where strong bleaching is now underway. At present the waters in the Visayas Sea, although warmer than normal, are not yet hot enough for severe bleaching, but they could become so in weeks if the weather is hot and if typhoons do not cool the water down.
In addition some coral-eating crown of thorns starfish (Acanthaster) were seen, and there are plague levels of two species of coral eating snails, Drupella and Coralliophila. Drupella is probably the major coral killer in Boracay at this time. When I pointed them out to local divers they were not aware of them, even though they are extremely abundant. These coral killers should be removed, but it will take a large community effort of trained individuals to do so. In one village in Bali, Indonesia, where I pointed out similar problems in their reef, about 20 local youth from fishermen’s families were trained as Reef Gardeners. In six months they removed around 6,000 crown of thorns and over 100,000 Drupella from the reefs, as well as maintaining coral garden restoration projects. A similar Reef Gardener Program is needed in Boracay, targeting young people from local families who are spearing and netting the last remaining fish in Boracay, making diving unattractive for the vast majority of divers who simply want to see many beautiful fish.
A further problem is the fairly high frequency of coral diseases seen around Boracay, especially in shallow water. Much more research is needed to identify the pathogens that cause these diseases, but some coral diseases are known to be linked to bacteria from sewage. More fundamental research work is needed on the causes and spread of these diseases before any policy steps to reduce them can be proposed.
In addition, the reefs were in the past heavily bombed and poisoned with cyanide by fishermen, as part of the general destructive fishing practices that have destroyed every reef in the Visayas Sea. A 2006 survey of the region could find that “not a single hectare remained undamaged” in what were previously some of the richest coral reefs in the world (Visayas Sea Squadron & Law of the Sea Foundation, 2006),
The severe decline in corals has removed most of the habitat for juvenile fish, which, coupled with severe overfishing (spearfishing and netting in “protected” areas is visible every day) have resulted in almost no fish at all to be seen, even though they are the major attraction for snorkelers and divers. Therefore, while there are some thirtyfive dive shops in Boracay, Boracay is regarded by experienced divers as a place for first-time divers only, and experienced divers avoid Boracay because there is so little to see. Naturally, local dive shops hype the “pristine wonders of the reef” but this is tourism public relations rather than reality, with the exception of a handful of unique sites like Crocodile Island and Laguna de Boracay. The collapse of the fisheries and ecotourism value of the reef will continue unless the amount of healthy coral is increased, and fishing activities and gear are regulated.
Boracay also suffers from increasing beach erosion. While there has always been a seasonal pattern of beach growth and erosion, long-term residents say the beach has never been so small. Old trees can be seen collapsing into the sea, and a sand cliff caused by erosion is visible in many places. Seawalls have also sped up erosion of the sand in front of them wherever they are built directly next to the beach. The sand is washing away because there is less and less coral to protect it from wave erosion, while typhoon intensity and frequency are increasing, and global sea level is rising. The beach erosion to be seen along most of White Beach and Bulabog will get far worse in coming decades unless the reefs that protect them are restored on a large scale.
SUMMARY OF PROBLEMS
In brief, uncontrolled over-development has set Boracay on an unsustainable downward spiral with regard to environmental and human health. This will force it to specialize in two markets: a dwindling one of those who remember Boracay as it used to be and return out of habit, and a large, but low-end, market of first time visitors who are thrilled to be any place warm with a white beach. High-end tourism will be increasingly concentrated in the northern end of the island where the water is clearer because it is up-current from the main sources of sewage pollution from Boracay and Caticlan. High-end tourism, seeking genuine natural beauty, un-crowded conditions, and freedom from non-stop soliciting by vendors for products they don’t need, will seek greener pastures.
No progress in halting the chaotic anarchy of over-development will happen until the entire community stops hiding from the real problems. The community needs to stand in a unified way in order to face and deal with infrastructure problems that are posing a serious threat to the livelihoods of everyone that lives on Boracay. Without will and leadership to establish and enforce meaningful management, the reputation of Boracay will suffer, causing high-end tourism to leave. The focus will become on the very bottom end, of those simply seeking cheap booze and bar girls and not bothered by wading through contaminated sludge to get to them.
Reversing the situation, by converting Boracay into a sustainable and beautiful “green” island that specializes in the rapidly growing ecotourism market, will require a frank assessment of the problems Boracay now faces. Awareness of the problems, along with determination and willingness to work together in a unified way to solve them, are crucial. These problems are not insoluble, but the longer it takes to act, the harder they will be to resolve.
1. Reef restoration
Restoring the corals is one necessary key to improving the quality of Boracay’s tourism, fisheries, and beaches. Natural restoration is practically nonexistent in many places. In the best sites natural restoration is far too slow to compete with accelerating global warming, global sea level rise, coral eating pests, coral diseases, and increasing land based sources of pollution. Even if all anchor damage and overfishing were stopped, only active and large-scale coral growing efforts can bring the reefs and fish back and restore the ecological, environmental, and economic services the healthy reefs once provided.
Several efforts have been made at reef restoration in recent years, including concrete domes, shipwrecks, and other objects, in order to provide attractions for divers. However these are largely regarded by local dive shops as a expensive disappointments because there are fairly few corals or fish on them. One reason for this is that conventional artificial reefs, while they create hard surfaces on which coral can grow and around which fish can shelter, do not increase the growth rate of corals or their survival from high temperatures. When it gets too hot all the corals on them will bleach and die. In addition baby corals prefer to grow on limestone rock surfaces such as natural reefs, and avoid exotic materials like steel, concrete, or rubber.
Only one method of coral reef restoration, the Biorock method, greatly increases coral growth rate (3-5 times faster than normal), increases coral survival from high temperatures (16-50 times higher than surrounding reefs), and increases rates of baby coral settlement (hundreds to thousands of times greater). Biorock coral reefs rapidly build up large fish populations, especially juvenile fish. The Biorock method uses completely safe low voltage direct current from batteries, chargers, solar panels, windmills, or ocean and tidal current turbines, to grow solid limestone structures of any size or shape in the sea, on which corals bloom, and around which fish swarm. This method allows reefs to be kept alive where they would otherwise die from environmental stress. It also permits reefs to be grown back in a few years where no natural recovery is taking place. In addition it can be used to grow reefs directly in front of severely eroding beaches to protect them from wave erosion, and has allowed beaches to grow tens of meters in a few years (T. Goreau, W. Hilbertz, & A Azeez Hakeem, 2004, Maldives shorelines: growing a beach,
http://globalcoral.org/MALDIVES%20SHORELINES.%20GROWING%20A%20BEACH.htm). Photographic documentation, articles, and reports on Biorock projects in around 20 countries in Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, the Pacific, and the Caribbean can be found at www.globalcoral.org.
At present the only Biorock projects in the Philippines are located in the Sagay Marine Reserve of Negros Occidental. The first pilot projects in Boracay have been permitted by local government, and the first one has been constructed by the Global Coral Reef Alliance (GCRA), Linking Individuals to Nature Conservation (LINC), Biorock Philippines, local residents, and participating dive shops at Iligiligan Bay. The first projects will be small and of varied sizes and purposes, however it is hoped to greatly expand these projects and build new and large ones in front of beaches, hotels, and dive shops next year once their results are clearly visible. Due to strong winds and waves on the western side of the island at present, all the possible project locations on that side, including hotels along White Beach, new hotels at the northern and southern ends of the island, Balinghai, and Angol cannot be done until the winds reverse early next year. Various sites around the island have already been assessed. Restoration plans have been designed and can be installed when the weather conditions are suitable.
Due to the variations in water depth and bottom type at each site, a range of very different projects are proposed. At the northern and southern beaches of the island, where the water is deeper, larger and taller structures such as domes up to 10 feet tall can be built which will anchor themselves on top of limestone bedrock. Along White Beach, where there is primarily sand with corals and algae growing on isolated rocks, and the water is shallower, lower structures up to 5 feet high can be built on which corals will grow. There are now very few fish to be seen at any of these sites, but Biorock reefs will greatly increase their numbers and create snorkeling attractions. At Balinghai and Angol, where coral comes very close to shore and where the water is even shallower, Biorock reefs would need to be no more than a foot or so high, in order to prevent their being exposed at low tide. Due to still having corals growing in shallow water, these areas are the major juvenile fish nursery habitat in Boracay. The low Biorock structures would greatly increase fish, and help restock surrounding reefs, while providing shallow snorkel trails for inexperienced snorkelers during periods of calm weather. Since almost all the corals at these sites are rounded head corals, a special priority will be to restore branching corals, which provide superior habitat for juvenile fish.
Due to the need to protect the fragile corals from inexperienced swimmers who will stand on, grab, and break, corals, snorkelers must wear flotation jackets, be confined to marked snorkel trails, and be accompanied by trained guides. A fee should be charged for use of these areas and the funds specifically earmarked to cover the maintenance costs, training, and salaries of the guides. Those paying the fees should be made to buy a tag that they must wear to identify them. Similarly, only licensed and trained snorkel guides with official badges should be allowed to accompany them. All reef restoration sites should be designated and marked with buoys for swimmers only. They should also be designated as no fishing zones, and no boat traffic should be permitted in them, but boat moorings should be constructed nearby to end anchor damage to corals.
At this time only sites on the eastern side of the island have conditions suitable for construction. Biorock structures need to be within 100-200 meters of a power supply, so sites in Bulabog Bay cannot be considered because the distance to deeper water is too far for transmission of DC current (although in the future AC/DC converters or solar power buoys can be used). In addition, the wide shallow area that is exposed in the intertidal is covered by nuisance weedy algae, and has huge flocks of sea urchins, and the poor water quality caused by the sewage outfall is hazardous to swimmers. Projects in Bulabog Bay should only be considered after the sewage outfall is properly treated and the water quality improves. This can be done as outlined in further sections of this report.
The only practical site for a pilot reef restoration project at this time is at the northern end of Iligiligan Bay. The central part of the Bay is largely covered by slimy mats of cyanobacteria, indicating serious pollution by phosphorous. As there is only fairly modest development along the shoreline, this contamination is likely to be carried by currents into the bay from the Bulabog sewage outfall. In contrast, the northern end of the bay is dominated by “good” algae with limestone skeletons, whose remains are building up the beach sand. Iligiligan Bay was once an incredibly spectacular coral garden completely covered by branching and plate corals. Now these corals are almost entirely dead, yet the few surviving branching and plate corals make up the vast majority of these once common corals seen anywhere around Boracay.
The quality of the water, and the coral habitat, dramatically improves going from the beach towards the small offshore islands. Near the shore, the live coral cover is low, but it steadily increases away from shore, reaching values of up to 80% near the islands. However, the corals were seen to be undergoing bleaching caused by high temperatures. This area also had high incidence of coral diseases. Several coral-eating starfish were found and killed. The worst problem of all is a huge plague of coral-eating Drupella snails, the worst infestation I have ever seen anywhere. Vast swarms of hundreds of thousands of them are killing the remaining branching staghorn corals and eating huge plate corals up to 4 meters or more across. Because this site formerly had spectacular snorkeling, the highest density and diversity of fish seen anywhere in Boracay, and still has many staghorn and plate corals, this area urgently needs to be protected, managed, restored. The pests that are killing the reef need to be actively removed.
The location has already been designated a no-fishing and no anchoring zone, and is protected by the local fishing community which is eager to see it managed properly. This site was chosen for the first coral reef restoration and management project in Boracay, whose installation has already been done. If the cables and equipment are protected from damage, especially from anchors, the results will soon be visible. This pilot project will be followed by more next year on the other side of the island, when the calm period returns on that side.
2. Fisheries and water sports management
Fisheries and water sports are very poorly regulated because existing zoning is not effectively enforced. Tourists die every year after being hit by speeding jet skis and boats in designated swimming area. Spearfishing and netting take place every day in areas that are marked as protected no-take zones. Moorings placed by dive shops at dive sites are regularly stolen, forcing them to anchor and damage more corals. Boracay cannot function safely as a water sports center without effectively enforced zoning of water sports and fishing. Swimming and snorkeling sites must be clearly demarcated and marked as no boating areas. Fishing activities should not be permitted in swimming, snorkeling, and diving zones. Resources are required to strictly enforce these regulations, or they will be treated as a joke, willfully violated without sanction, and simply breed contempt for all laws in general. The seriousness of the situation is revealed not only by the number of unnecessary tourist deaths every year, and by the fact that the Coast Guard is forced to carry guns because they are regularly shot at by armed fishermen violating the protected no fishing zones.
3. Coral Gardeners
As part of management efforts, a Coral Gardeners Program should be set up to train youths from the indigenous fishing communities on Boracay to become divers, reef protectors, and reef restorers. The only existing Coral Gardener program is the Pemuteran Reef Gardener’s Program in Bali, Indonesia, set up by the Yayasan Karang Lestari, the Pemuteran Village Government, and the Global Coral Reef Alliance. Youths from poor fishing families in Bali were trained as divers and taught English so they could become tourist guides. The Reef Gardeners maintain more than half a kilometer of Biorock coral reefs growing in the Pemuteran Village Marine Protected Area, plant corals, and are restoring coral reefs on offshore banks used by fishermen. They have removed hundreds of thousands of coral-eating snails and starfish from their reefs. Boracay Coral Gardeners should also be trained to maintain the restoration sites, learn basic marine biology, clean the reefs of pests and trash, and grow corals and fish. The focus should be on local youths, not on dive masters from abroad, from Manila, or other islands, in order to spread the economic benefit of ecotourism more broadly, and to inculcate a culture of nurturing and protecting natural resources in those who would otherwise be forced by poverty to destroy them. The entire community should be educated by their example to restore their natural resources for future economic benefit. At the same time, a children’s environmental education program should show local children to learn the difference between healthy and sick coral reefs and to see the local reef restoration projects. Such a program could be similar to that recently set up in the Sagay Marine Reserve, Negros Occidental by Marina Goreau of GCRA, the Museo Sang Bata Sa Negros, and the Snorkel Bob Foundation.
4. Sewage cleanup
The most serious environmental and human health problems that severely detract from Boracay’s attraction for high-end ecotourism are directly caused by the flow of inadequately treated sewage into ground, surface, and coastal waters. In order to solve the contamination problem, ALL of the island’s sewage, both from residents and visitors, must be treated to a level that prevents nitrogen and phosphorus nutrient release into the ground and sea. This can be readily accomplished with a mixture of new and old technologies if the will to do so prevails. Serious and comprehensive programs to reduce pollution will find ready funding available from international sources such as the Asian Development Bank, the Global Environmental Facility of the World Bank, and the European Union. Because of Boracay’s importance in the nation’s foreign exchange earnings, Boracay is very likely to be eligible for such funding.
Coral reefs are the most nutrient-sensitive ecosystems, so all land-based sources of nitrogen and phosphorus should be recycled on land. At present the sewage is not treated sufficiently to remove more than a very small fraction of the nutrients. Consequently sewage discharged from the outfall has nutrient levels that are thousands of times too high for healthy coral reefs. This promotes intensive growth of algae, can be seen along most of the shallow waters of eastern Boracay. Limestone soils, like those on Boracay, are severely nutrient deficient, so recycling of nutrients will also make the land much more productive. Therefore efficient methods should be implemented to convert the waste nutrients in sewage into fertilizer and clean water that can be used for irrigation, toilet flushing. Effluent waters can be produced that can be readily processed and purified to be of drinking quality. Due the crowded nature of the flat land on Boracay, methods are needed that use little space. Fortunately a range of such suitable techniques are available that are not now being applied. These techniques are described below in order of increasing complexity.
A. Waste water gardens. Sewage effluents that have undergone standard (“secondary”) treatment (filtering, settlement, and removal of sludge) may be “clean” from the point of view of human health, but still contain nutrients hundreds or thousands of times too high for coral reefs. Therefore sewage effluents should NOT be discharged into the coastal zone, but be passed through wastewater gardens designed so that plants can absorb the nutrients, using them as fertilizers to grow faster. This “biological tertiary treatment” can remove almost all the nutrients in the wastewater effluents, and produce lush and beautiful gardens full of beautiful flowers or other useful plants. The wastewater gardens must be managed properly so that the plants are taking up the maximum amount of nutrients. If they are simply left to look lush and beautiful, the plants will grow until they have absorbed all the nutrients they can use. Once the plants have all they need, and can take up no more, the excess nutrients then pass right through. Therefore these wastewater gardens need to be regularly cut back so the plants are growing as fast as they possibly can. Since the Boracay sewage system is overloaded with sewage and isunable to treat it all properly (especially when road runoff flows into drains leading into the manhole covers during the rainy season) such biological tertiary treatment is crucial. Wastewater gardens can be designed to be small and efficient, need not take up much area, and can be a tourist attraction because of the birdlife they attract. They are often designed so the sewage trickles through lined underground gravel beds, preventing contamination of groundwater and surface waters, while producing great masses of useful plants from the fertilizer. I recommended this to the consultants who designed the Boracay sewage system, but they refused to consider my recommendations. One of the best designers of such systems, with whom I have worked in projects in the Caribbean and elsewhere for nearly 20 years, and who has designed systems worldwide to recycle and purify water on scales from individual households to entire large cities, is Bill Wilson, who is based in California and can be reached at: email@example.com
B. Composting toilets. Even if the sewage system operated with complete tertiary treatment to remove all nutrients, the fact that the majority of the resident population is not hooked up to the sewer system means that most of the pollution continues to contaminate ground and surface waters, so the environmental and human health problems remain only partly reduced. As long as population growth remains uncontrolled, this contamination will continue to increase. There is a critical need for a low cost solution to clean up the wastes of the majority of Boracay residents who are too poor, or too remote, to ever have sewage system connections. The most cost-effective and minimal area solution is composting toilets, which can be cheaply built to produce sterile and odorless compost that is great fertillizer for gardens. The Composting Toilet Book is one of several books with many composting toilet designs with a broad range of costs (including very low), written by Dave Del Porto and Carol Steinfeld, who specialize in training programs to show people how to build them. These are most effective if there is funding to allow those who learn to build them to use do so on the scale needed to solve the problem. To prevent water borne infectious diseases affecting poor people who lack adequate sanitation, as well as the larger community who gets sick from polluted water or food, funding should be sought from public health funding agencies such as the World Health Organization and national and local government sources for universal implementation of composting toilets in all un-sewered communities on Boracay. Carol Steinfeld is based in Massachusetts and can be reached at: CarolStein@aol.com
C. Electrocoagulation. This technology can be used to treat sewage or many other wastewaters in a small area at great cost savings over conventional sewage treatment methods. Electrocoagulation produces much cleaner effluent water. It passes the sewage through electrical discharges, which directly precipitate out all the solids and almost all of the dissolved minerals and bacteria. This method is not only much more efficient than the conventional settling or chemical treatments that use costly and polluting chemicals, it can be done in a tiny fraction of the area. The resulting water is of high quality for irrigation and can be readily treated to provide safe drinking water, while the precipitated solids contain almost all of the organic carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus, and can be used as fertilizer. Jim Smallwood, a top expert in the process, can be contacted for much more information on technical details and costs of retrofitting the method to existing sewer plants. He is based in California and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.orgFunding is available for implementing electrocoagualation wastewater cleanup projects.
D. Magnegas. This is a similar process to electrocoagulation, but uses much higher electrical current discharges to the sewage. Magnegas has all of the benefits of electrocoagulation, but in addition makes hydrogen and oxygen fuel that can be burned in vehicles, and generators, producing much less pollution than petroleum fuels. Magnegas can be used directly in bi-fuel car engines that can burn compressed natural gas as well as petroleum, when a special tank is added. Although it might not be possible to convert two-stroke motorcycle engines easily to it, small vehicles like golf carts could easily be converted. Originally the process, which can treat the sewage of a four hundred room hotel in an area about 10 feet by 20 feet, used a chemical precipitation to clear the carbon particles and nutrients from the effluent solution, but at my suggestion to the inventor, Dr. Ruggero Santilli, this will be improved by using electrocoagulation units. While the Magnegas process requires much higher electricity than electrocoagulation, this is compensated for by the fuel produced, which can be produced cheaper than petroleum. Since it is clean burning, it avoids air pollution that causes so much respiratory disease in the Philippines. The need for higher electrical currents can be provided by untapped ocean current energy (see next section). Magnegas and electrocoagulation equipment can be fitted directly to sewage plant effluents, removing the need for sludge drying ponds, and can be built smaller to treat individual hotels or neighborhoods not linked to central sewage systems. The first Magnegas machines are being brought to the Philippines later this year to help clean up the severely polluted Pasig River in Manila. Matching grant funding is available for implementing Magnegas projects. I can provide information on the technology given to me by the inventor, Dr. Ruggero Santilli in Florida, by the President of Magnegas, Bo Linton, at a meeting I organized on new technologies for small island developing states at the last United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development. Magnegas has a Philippines representative, Bob Montecastro, who is ready to come to Boracay to provide much more information on the potential applications of this technology here. Bob Montecastro and Bo Linton can be reached respectively at: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
5. Tidal and wind energy
Electrical power in Boracay is extremely expensive (31.53 Pesos per Kilowatt-hour, or about 10-20 times higher than typical costs in the United States), unreliable, and produced from dirty and polluting bunker oil. Nevertheless Boracay has vast, clean, and untapped energy at hand in the form of the tidal currents that sweep through the channel between Boracay and Panay. Wherever currents are more than a 2 meters per second, significant amounts of energy can be made. The Gorlov Vertical Axis Helical Turbine (GHT) is highly efficient and stable, turns in the same direction no matter which way the current flows and does not have to be oriented into the flow, unlike a propeller type turbine. A single one meter diameter turbine produces a Kilowatt of power in a 2 meter per second current, 8 kilowatts in a 4 meter per second current, and 64 kilowatts in a 8 meter per second current. Arrays of GHTs mounted from moored barges in the Boracay-Panay Channel could probably provide most of Boracay’s energy needs in an environmentally clean and cost competitive manner. Last year I built a GHT in Negros with a team of Filipino students at MIT and Sagay City to power coral reef restoration projects. The MIT Club of the Philippines is very eager to support pilot projects to tap tidal energy, which is certainly the Philippines’ major renewable energy resource. The Philippines has many locations capable of providing much of the nation’s energy needs in a clean way that would save the foreign exchange earnings from tourism flowing abroad to import dirty fossil fuels. One of the top companies developing tidal power, Natural Currents L.L.C., is now developing the Red Hawk-1 prototype tidal turbine for 20 kW of power generation from a 3.2 by 1.2 meter turbine. They should be invited to assess the tidal energy resources of Boracay and develop projects to tap them. The President of Natural Currents, Roger Bason, can be reached at:
In addition Boracay has good wind energy resources that could be tapped on top of the hills. The Philippines’ top designer and builder of wind turbines, Gene Antiquena, who lives in Iloilo, built a wind turbine in Negros last year to power reef restoration projects, He knows Boracay well since before there was any tourism here. He should be invited to assess the wind energy potential and develop programs to tap them. He can be reached at:
6. Integrated development planning
Integrated Development Master Plans have been repeatedly set up to manage sustainable economic growth of Boracay in a way that protects the natural beauty that once existed, and which tourists come to see, but they have all been ignored. It is clear that the numbers of hotels, dive shops, small shops, street vendors, etc. are far more than the market can bear, so that most of them must struggle to survive. The uncontrolled building and population influx has caused severe contamination of the groundwater and coastal waters in ways that threaten the health of every resident and visitor.
If the community shows the will to call for a moratorium on new developments until the sewage, road, drainage, water supply, and power infrastructure can be upgraded to deal with current and future problems, and the marine and land environment restored to their original beauty, Boracay can almost certainly seek funds from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to develop, implement, and enforce a sustainable management plan. This would allow Boracay to market itself as a real, not a fake, ecotourism destination. Such approaches would be welcomed by ADB because of the economic importance of Boracay as one of the country’s top foreign exchange earners, and the opportunity to improve their economic value by moving to a higher quality tourism product. I met recently with the ADB office in Washington and learned that while previously the vast bulk of their funding formerly went directly to central governments, they now recognize that local governments are often more attuned to problems and more effective at implementing their solutions, and they are now increasingly funding local government managed efforts. Lee-Ann Ford of the Global Coral Reef Alliance and President of the non-profit organization Linking Individuals to Nature Conservation, (who is responsible for arranging all of our current efforts in assisting reef restoration and environmental management in Boracay) and her team would be able to assist the Boracay local government prepare such a proposal for funding. A coalition of local governments, provincial governments, national government, the private sector, community groups, and non-profit organizations should be built to develop such a plan and build community support for it.
I thank Lee-Ann Ford for her hard work with the Boracay community to arrange the work that has gone into this report. I also thank all the kind residents and community groups and associations of Boracay who have contributed to this work, both by direct contributions to the costs of travel and materials, in kind contributions such as food, room, diving, boats, etc., and in providing information. This work has been a communal effort involving almost all sectors of the community, including the Boracay Foundation, the Boracay Windsports Association, Boracay Scuba, Victory Divers, Red Coral Divers, Hey Jude, Blue Mango Inn, Tonglen Resort, the local government, the associations representing diving, water sports, boat and snorkel activities, hotels, local businesses, fishermen, and community groups, and many local businesses and individuals. Those contributing to the information mentioned are so many in number that they can’t all be listed here, not only because the list would be very long, because to do so might risk inadvertently forgetting some of those who have helped, but also because in some cases the information provided was confidential. I thank all of them even if they are not mentioned by name. Obviously the author is responsible for the interpretation, and any possible errors or facts taken out of context.
Thomas J. Goreau, PhD
President, Global Coral Reef Alliance