Roque defends Manila Bay 'white sand' project

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 9) — Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque has defended the government's initiative to overlay "white sand" in Manila Bay, a move criticized by groups and officials alike.

"As a Manila resident, I'm happy na magkakaroon po tayo ng beautification of Manila Bay kasi kaming mga taga-Maynila ay kinakailangan naman magkaroon din ng access, no, sa magandang beach sa mga panahon na hindi naman po pwedeng lumabas ng Metro Manila," Roque said in a virtual press briefing on Monday.

[Translation: As a Manila resident, I'm happy the beautification of Manila Bay is happening because we Manila residents also need access to nice beaches while we aren't allowed to leave Metro Manila.]

Environmental groups have slammed the Department of Environment and Natural Resources' project, which involves overlaying "white sand" or crushed dolomite boulders in Manila Bay as part of its rehabilitation program, saying it is entirely for "aesthetic" purposes.

Roque, however, argued that the initiative is not solely about Manila Bay's beautification.

"Itong ginawa po nila, ito po ay tinatawag na beach enhancement. So di lang po ito pagpapaganda," he said. "Itong beach enhancement pong ito ay para po maiwasan ang soil erosion at para makatulong din po sa flood control."

[Translation: What they did is called beach enhancement, so it doesn't just involve beautification. It also aims to prevent soil erosion and help in flood control.]

The Department of Health likewise expressed concern over crushed dolomite possibly causing adverse health effects such as eye irritation, respiratory problems upon inhalation, and gastrointestinal illnesses upon ingestion.

Criticism over usage of rehab project funds

Meanwhile, some officials noted the hundreds of millions of pesos reportedly allocated to the project could have been used for other matters instead.

DENR Undersecretary Benny Antiporda earlier said the Manila Bay rehabilitation project has a ₱389-million funding, which wasn't spent on the dolomite rocks alone.

Vice President Leni Robredo called the move "insensitive," adding the budget could have fed tens of thousands of poor families facing hunger amid the pandemic. Meanwhile, in a separate briefing on Monday, Education Secretary Leonor Briones said the funding could have been used instead in purchasing gadgets for students and teachers shifting to distance learning.

However, the Palace spokesperson reminded that the project's funding was approved way before the coronavirus health crisis happened, as it was part of the 2020 national budget approved last year.

"Hindi naman po natin inasahang na magkakaroon ng COVID-19, no," Roque explained. "So alam niyo naman ang rule sa budget, no, 'pag yan po ay nasa line item, yan lamang po ang pwedeng paggamitan nung pondo."

[Translation: We never expected (the) COVID-19 (pandemic) would happen. And we all know budget rules — how it's stated as a line item is the only way the allocated fund can be used.]