This is not just about Manila Bay. It’s about what is represented by that tiny, expensive dumped-with-dolomite parcel of Manila Bay’s 190-kilometer shoreline: band-aid solutions to glaring national issues that beg for systemic change and well-thought out interventions. 

Amid the rising number of covid-19 patients and massive corruption in our health system, heated debates erupted on social media over the augmentation with dolomite of a stretch of shore on Manila Bay. This move of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources drew flak from environmentalists and other good governance advocates who scored it for being unsustainable, ineffective, and inappropriate. Others defended the action (mostly in comments under social media links to news), arguing that the layer of quarried material is better than plastic or that Singapore and Dubai used the same method of beautification.

But the controversy is not just about the dolomite. It is also about the self-contradictory, one-step-forward-two-step-backwards style of governance that we have tolerated, especially in the face of two of the most pressing threats to human survival — the climate crisis and the coronavirus pandemic.  

Officials tell us to plant trees but the government is decimating forests in Sierra Madre for projects like the Kaliwa Dam when conservation is better than rehabilitation.

They tell us to “plant, plant, plant” for food security but the government is helping us to convert prime agricultural lands into subdivisions and airports.

Thousands of lives and livelihoods are vulnerable to climate change but more coal power plants are being built to meet demand for electricity even though our potential for generating solar energy is high.

We have been in a community quarantine for months to flatten the curve yet guidelines as basic as social distancing are compromised for completely unscientific reasons. 

People are losing jobs and going hungry yet the government has no coherent plan for economic recovery except eyeing mining as the solution when it has previously contributed little to the economy.

For the sake of flattening the curve, our health workers are sacrificed, underpaid, and overworked. 

There are so many contradictions in Philippine governance, they affect our wellbeing. The resources to address the root problems are available yet the current administration resorts to the same impotent responses. 

The “White sanding” of a tiny fraction of Manila Bay is a perfect metaphor for incompetent governance because it is a convenient but not holistic solution. It is a contradiction in itself: a 500-square-meter patch of land is “white-sanded” using dolomite mined from Alcoy, Cebu, destroying the ecosystem there when Manila Bay’s sand is not white. 

What is it with our obsession with white? Why do our decision-makers bypass difficult but necessary steps to achieve our goals in favor of topical ones? We need people-centred urban planning, energy-efficient transportation, pollution control such as effective sewage treatment in Metro Manila and the conservation of irreplaceable forest ecosystems.

The state of Manila Bay, the quality of its waters and the surrounding urban situation is a result of decades-long neglect but it is not a reason to oversimplify things to “ayaw-nyo-ng-white-sand-eh-di-basura-na-lang” ill logic. Now is the opportune moment to remedy the result of bad past decisions. As with this pandemic, the filth of Manila Bay is the climax of decades-long neglect of public health, transportation, urban planning and anti-corruption efforts. Gutting ecosystems and sacrificing health workers are avoidable or can be minimized if people are prioritized over profit and partiality.  

We may have had a long history of bad governance and failures in voter education such that people elect into office politicians who dance “budots” or who consider children as mere collateral in a so-called war on drugs. Frustration can be exhausting but resignation is worse. The only way we can get out of this mess is to keep moving, keep asking for better service from our leaders in exchange for the taxes we pay.

But most importantly, we need to keep conversations going, not just with those who share our views but with those who have given up. Eventually, our cause and views will be understood. I bet that is how the leaders we look up to learned, by speaking and listening.

Let’s pin our hopes on our own efforts and eagerness for our voice to turn things around. Hope can be found in the community of progressive young people and of adults who listen. True, we are few but we  can make up with our persistence and sensible optimism.

“White-sanding” is not a real word. But “white-sand” governance is real. Let’s not give up so that like the crushed dolomite, bad governance won’t last forever.