The ecology of ignorance

Ignorance is bliss until the outcome of benign neglect, its twin, begins to hit us in the most unexpected way. Then we start blaming everyone for not anticipating the problem. Everyone except ourselves. Ecological problems are of this nature. We barely see our own responsibility for the mess we have collectively created.

The gigantic septic tank that Manila Bay has become is a prime example of a problem that is talked to death and yet is little understood or managed. A rhetoric of anxiety typically flourishes amid resistance to the drastic changes that are needed to meaningfully address the problem.

Every house, school, hospital, hotel, or restaurant that is built anywhere in the city is required to have its own septic tank. This is where solid waste from the toilets is deposited.  The typical tank has an opening just below the surface to let out the excess fluid that, it is hoped, is clear enough to flow unnoticed into the system of open canals and esteros that drain into our rivers and finally into the sea  The accumulated sewage is, in turn, periodically sucked into mobile tanks by cleaners that specialize in this service.

There is often no fixed schedule for when this is going to be done. The signal to contact Malabanan or any of the companies that used to offer this service often comes in the form of clogged shower drains or toilets that take forever to flush down the swirling remains of our daily meals.

But, once our respective household “depositos” are emptied and flushed clean, no one bothers to ask where the solid waste collected is dumped. We have long been under the convenient illusion that this is somehow treated or processed so as to make its final disposal sanitary and safe.

Not too long ago, some alarm was generated when a news report came out on TV showing a truck discharging its cargo of wastewater into a roadside canal just outside the middle class subdivision from where it had been collected. This triggered an investigation, but the issue was quickly forgotten after the public was assured this was the deed of some workers who were too lazy to make the trip back to the waste water treatment facility where it was supposed to be discharged. But, it made me wonder where these sewage treatment plants were located and whether what they did with the sewage was any different from what those “lazy” workers were caught doing.

When the water service for Metro Manila was privatized, sewage disposal also became the responsibility of Manila Water and Maynilad. The service is part of the monthly water bill we pay.  But every household has to ask for the service so it can be scheduled.

Years back, when I first learned about it, I called Manila Water, the water provider for UP Diliman, to check if this was true. They promptly sent a truck the following day and drained our septic tank in a fraction of the time it normally took the former sanitary service companies to do the job. This gave me the opportunity to ask what they did with the sewage and how and where it was finally discharged after treatment.

What I saw that day was a learning experience for me. It made me conscious of how we disposed of the used cooking oil from our kitchen or the black liquid drained from our motor vehicles when we change oil. The Manila Water wastewater treatment facility just outside the Diliman campus proper was a marvel to behold.  The sewage material is handled as though it were the facility’s most valuable possession. It is treated through an elaborate system of compartments until it comes out as water that is clean and safe enough to discharge into a pond where tilapia fit for human consumption is grown.

The traditional septic tanks were no longer efficient, I was told. Over time, they become the cause of underground seepage and contamination. The long-term plan is to connect every septic tank and plumbing system of every household in the city to a central sewerage system of underground pipes running almost parallel to the water lines. The sewage would then drain into a modern water treatment facility several times the size of the facility I saw.

I was skeptical. But, it’s beginning to happen in the UP Diliman campus where my family lives. Our streets have been scarred by endless diggings in the last two years. The dust and the daily drilling are annoying, but I don’t have the heart to complain. I have seen with my own eyes what a complex and expensive enterprise is being undertaken here. I have realized that it is not for me but for a future generation that it is being built.

Our house, one of the few “pioneer” homes built soon after UP moved from Manila to Quezon City, sits on a hill. Beneath the thin layer of top soil in my garden is solid adobe. The terrain is pretty much the same for the rest of the campus. I can only imagine what effort it would take to connect just one house or building or dormitory to this underground sewerage system. It’s not at all like getting a new cable or electrical connection.

I am quite certain that Manila has a functioning sewerage system. Built before the war, it would hardly be adequate for the city’s present-day population. While every building may have its own autonomous septic tank, as required by law, it would be unrealistic to expect that the buildings built after the war would be connected to a sewage treatment facility.

If we were not so blissfully ignorant, we might at least suspect that these septic tanks all pour at one point or another into that vast toilet bowl known as Manila Bay.