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Saving the Balili River: Count me in
by Aurea Marie Sandoval

The Cordillera Administrative Region is host to major rivers supplying different areas of the region as well as lowland communities. One of these rivers is the Balili River which has its headwaters in Baguio City through the Sagudin River. From here, the river flows downstream to La Trinidad, Sablan, and Tublay, Benguet.

It is considered the major river system of La Trinidad, spanning about 23.81 kilometers from the Sagudin River to Sab-lan, excluding its different tributaries. It has been an important water source for residents of Baguio City and La Trinidad, serving domestic, agricultural, and economic purposes. It was once a fishing area especially in the ‘70s and ‘80s; a source of irrigation; drinking area for animals; and a place for swimming.

The river had been classified as a Class A river under Department of Environment Natural Resources water standards. Increasing human population, housing, and commercial establishments and the lack of supervision by the local government units contributed to the river’s alarming state of pollution to a point that some parts of the river have been considered biologically dead. Monthly monitoring activities of the biophysico-chemical status of the river by the Environmental Management Bureau of the DENR have shown very high levels of Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD), indicating high pollution levels.

Pollution, siltation, and constricted waterways due to encroachments on the river easements and erosions have resulted in poor water quality, loss of biodiversity, flooding and a negative impact on the environmental and socio-economic situation of the affected municipalities. The Sagudin River and other water tributaries located in Baguio City and La Trinidad, all of which drain into the Balili River and which carry solid and liquid wastes, have worsened the problem.

Efforts to rehabilitate and protect the Balili River date back to the late 1980s but up to now, revitalization of the river and its tributaries remains an aspiration.

The alarming state of the Balili River has caught the attention of government, non-government organizations, the academe, and other civil society groups. For a considerable period of time, these groups initiated activities in response to the aforementioned problems. However, many of these have not been sustained. Problems have remained largely because succeeding administrations failed to sustain conservation efforts. The rehabilitation efforts done by different groups are also not harmonized.

In 2011, stakeholders revisited these initiatives with the goal of harmonizing rehabilitation efforts. With Benguet State University and the DENR-EMB as the main convenors, a multi-sectoral group composed of LGUs, NGOs, the private sector, and civil society groups initiated activities to address vital issues for the river’s rehabilitation.

Multi-sectoral workshop

In 2011, the BSU and EMB came together through a series of meetings, after which a multi-sectoral workshop was conducted to address the problem on the increasing degradation of the Balili River. The workshop was conducted to update stakeholders on the status of the Balili River, present results of researches and other activities undertaken on the Balili River by various agencies, and to develop a logical framework focusing on the rehabilitation of the Balili River system.

The participants included BSU under its eco-waste management program, EMB, LGUs of Baguio City and La Trinidad, Hedcor, Benguet Electric Cooperative,  La Trinidad Water District, City Environment and Parks Management Office, Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office,  Baguio Regreening Movement, NGOs, Philippine Information Agency, Philippine Health Services and Sanitation Association (PHSSA), provincial board members, Philippine National Police, Association of Barangay Councils of La Trinidad and Baguio City, Department of Public Works and Highways, Cordillera Bamboo Development,  BSU Alumni Association, and  private individuals.

The multi-sectoral workshop included the formulation of a Balili River Rehabilitation Program vision through identification of the problems that have been causing its degradation; determination of the effects of these problems to stakeholders and to the environment; and formulation of plans and possible solutions for  rehabilitation.

Among the identified problems causing the river’s degradation are constriction of the river; erosions; siltation; destruction of flora and fauna; increasing commercial activities; pollution due to indiscriminate dumping of solid, liquid, and agricultural wastes; lack of discipline; and indifference of people.

These problems have been bringing about destruction of farmlands leading to economic displacement, poor aesthetic view, scouring of river banks, declaration of the river as unfit for habitation of aquatic organisms creating ecological imbalance and loss of biodiversity, flooding, loss of life and property, decreased hydro electric power production, compromised natural resource, poor health, and poor water quality.

Among the solutions sought to address the problems are planting more trees like bamboos and other plants along the river banks, placing permanent delineation of metes and bounds, targeting community compliance with laws on sewage disposal and solid waste management, conducting regular clean-up and monitoring to reduce pollutants along the river, removing illegal structures and stabilizing river banks and beds, conducting studies to improve the physical formation of the river,  prioritizing flood control projects by  de-silting the river, developing mitigating measures to decrease biodiversity loss, and establishing a recreational park by practicing green space management to make Balili River a potential eco-tourism area.

The workshop participants emphasized the need for leaders to review existing laws and ordinances and to have stronger political will to implement these. Continuous gathering of data was also suggested until such time that the BOD would be maintained at 5 mg/L. Emphasis was placed on the necessity of raising environmental consciousness through media, conducting massive information campaigns in schools and barangays, and strengthening values formation programs, and prioritizing advocacy campaigns to elicit behavioral change among the people.

Birth of the BRSRC

The different stakeholders who participated in the workshop continued enga-ging concerned communities to follow-up meetings and activities until an organization was deemed necessary to ensure continuity of programs and projects, to sustain the interest of stakeholders, and to put into action and reality the advocacy generated by this concern.

The Balili River System Revitalization Coalition (BRSRC) was thus born with specific tasks given to the members and a memorandum of agreement forged among the different stakeholders from Baguio City, La Trinidad, and other affected municipalities to take action and address the rehabilitation of the Balili River system.

The members of the coalition are LGUs of Baguio, La Trinidad, Sablan, and Tublay; ABCs of these three LGUs; Cepmo; EMB; BRM; Benguet Governor’s Office; city and municipal engineer offices; the regional offices of the DPWH, National Irrigation Administration, Department of Science and Technology, PNP, and PIA; Benguet General Hospital; Baguio City Health Center; offices of the municipal and provincial agriculturists; Beneco; Baguio and La Trinidad water districts; Hedcor; Smart Communications; PHSSA; Cordillera Bamboo Development; Benguet Vice Governor’s Office; some small and medium business enterprises in Baguio City and La Trinidad; individual environmental advocates; BSU; University of the Philippines-Baguio; University of the Cordilleras; Saint Louis University; University of Baguio; Pines City Colleges; and the Cordillera Regional Science High School.

Since its inception, BRSRC has been able to conduct several rehabilitation activities and programs all on voluntary basis including the sharing of resources. BSU had been designated as the secretariat chair of the coalition.

Five main Key Result Areas (KRAs) were formed to delineate the roles and functions of the coalition members.

KRA 1 is the area working on enhanced data on the Balili River. It is composed of BSU, UPB, SLU, UC, PCC, Cordillera Regional Science High School and UB, and have included EMB, DOST, municipal and provincial agriculture offices and Beneco. This area is in charge of coming up with a compendium of researches on the Balili River, conducting a survey on the level of awareness of stakeholders on the effects of the degradation of the river, conducting relevant social and biological researches to enhance existing data on the river, identify drivers of pollution and come up with possible and feasible rehabilitation strategies. So far, this KRA has been able to do majority of these and continues the monitoring and data gathering in identified stations along the river.

KRA 2 is the area dealing with improved governance. The mayors and concerned municipalities, the offices of the Governor and Vice Governor, and ABCs are responsible for activities and programs of this KRA. They are in charge of crafting and approving ordinances related to rehabilitation efforts, and of completing the details needed in the proposal made for the designation of the Balili River as a Water Quality Management Area (WQMA). Aside from this, they have been designated to solicit commitments from other agencies to help in rehabilitation efforts.

KRA 3 dwells on heightened level of awareness. The PIA heads this KRA, with members coming from the academe, EMB, Hedcor, ABC, PHHSA, BRM, PNP, Beneco and Smart Communications. They have been in charge of activities ranging from the conduct of workshops on behavioral change to barangays, development of brochures and fliers, and a video documentary on the Balili River; designation of a Balili River Learning Resource Center (which is presently stationed at BSU); and take charge in the conduct of press conferences, appearances in local radio and television stations, and come up with press releases for newspapers and magazines. A jingle, logo, and mascot-making contest, and a Balili River fun run were conducted not only to generate funds for these activities, but to drum up information on the importance of rehabilitation efforts for the river.

UC’s ICT team is also administering website for the coalition. The website has a monitoring system using SMS alerts and maps to track complaints and feedbacks in affected barangays.

The coalition has been celebrating Balili River Day every Sept. 16 since 2011 highlighted by the approval of a city ordinance declaring Sept. 16 of every year as Balili River Day.

KRA 4 is the area responsible for the reduced dumping of wastes. Headed by the ABCs of Baguio City, La Trinidad, Sablan and Tublay, this KRA mobilizes barangays in regular cleanup drives, implementation of barangay ordinances in line with Republic Act 9003 or the Solid Waste Management Act, establishment of materials recovery facilities in each barangay, and a bantay ilog to serve as a watchdog in rehabilitation initiatives being conducted.

A stream visual assessment protocol was also conducted by environmental experts to empower barangays to monitor the degree of pollution along the river. The Baguio City LGU has continuously done its part through the Salaknib ti Waig program, while La Trinidad LGU has its Adopt-an-Estero Program.

KRA 5 is the area dealing with improved vegetation and infrastructure. It is headed by the DPWH, with members coming from the LGUs, BSU-College of Forestry, NIA, BRM, PNP, Beneco, Baguio City and La Trinidad water districts, the ABCs, CorBamDev, city and municipal engineer’s offices, office of the municipal and provincial agriculturists, and the vice governor’s office.

This KRA is tasked to conduct infrastructure feasibility studies related to the rehabilitation of the river. It is also responsible for flood control mechanisms, improvement of the sewerage system that has been causing much of the pollution in the river, and the possibility of constructing a river park.

Balili River as a WQMA

Republic Act 9275 or the Clean Water Act of 2004 and DENR Administrative Order 2005-10 or the implementing rules and regulations of RA 9275 aim to protect the country’s water bodies from land-based sources of pollution. One approach identified under RA 9275 for the protection of river bodies is the designation of WQMAs.

Inspired by the different rehabilitation efforts undertaken by the BRSRC, the Balili River was endorsed by EMB on November 2012 to the DENR Secretary to be a WQMA. On Jan. 24, 2013, the DENR Secretary signed Administrative Order 2013-05 designating Balili River as a WQMA and created its governing board, chaired by the director of the EMB.

The governing board was convened thereafter and passed Resolution 01-2013 formally organizing and confirming its members and constituting itself as governing board of the Balili River WQMA.

With the designation of Balili River as a WQMA, the river can be given support for its rehabilitation. Funds from the national government can likewise be accessed primarily for the implementation of the activities and projects of the different KRAs.

One policy of the governing board is the formulation and implementation of a 10-year WQMA action plan, which would define and focus the direction on the rehabilitation and improvement of the Balili River.

The governing board acknowledges and recognizes the initiatives and activities conducted by different stakeholders for the protection and rehabilitation of the Balili River, particularly those of the BRSRC and thus designated the BRSRC as the technical working group of the WQMA.

As technical working group, the BRSRC was tasked to consolidate, enhance, and finalize rehabilitation strategies and activities by drafting a short-term (six months) and 10-year Balili WQMA action plan patterned after the output of the 2011 multi-sectoral workshop.

Upon approval of the 10-year plan by the governing board, a series of action planning and consultative meetings will be undertaken by the LGUs of Baguio City, La Trinidad, Sablan, and Tublay all of which are within the Balili River WQMA, to translate the plans into concrete actions.

As part of the plan, these LGUs have been required to draft an LGU compliance scheme to implement the action plan with assistance coming from the other members of the BRSRC.

Community effort

The revitalization of the Balili River system still has a long way to go. Intervening factors that impede rehabilitation will still be inevitable; however, with the concerted efforts of affected communities and  concerned stakeholders, rehabilitation can be realized.

Community engagement through harmonized efforts advocated by the BRSRC continues to play a major role in the implementation of the different rehabilitation plans and activities. The designation of the Balili River as a WQMA has boosted these chances for rehabilitation.

Let us therefore heed the battle cry: “Save Balili River: Count me in!” A clean, ecologically sound, and revitalized Balili River can become a reality if we sustain all of these initiatives through active and committed participation and through concerted and harmonized efforts.

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