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Gina Lopez Warned About Denuded Watersheds. Now, We're Paying the Price

Watersheds are the first line of defense against floods.
IMAGE WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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Many people saw the late Gina Lopez’s environmental crusade as nothing more than a fanatic obsession. When she waged a battle in the name of protecting watersheds, she was met with fierce opposition not only from mining companies but also from lawmakers and government experts from the Mines and Geosciences Bureau. 

Her argument was simple: Protect and rehabilitate watersheds. 

Critics turned her words against her, saying the “watersheds” she referred to were not legally considered such. According to the experts, an area must first be proclaimed a watershed before mining operations are barred from the site. 

In response, Lopez proclaimed: “A watershed is a watershed,” regardless if it is legally construed as such. “The law does not make a watershed a watershed,” she said.

In the end, bureaucracy won. Barely a year after her appointment, Lopez was ousted from her post after Congress rejected her as DENR’s chief in 2017. 

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In August 2019, Lopez died of cancer. But her crusade continues to haunt us. 

In September 2017, Lopez warned about how the Marikina Watershed needed immediate reforestation to protect Metro Manila from severe flooding. 

It is important that we rehabilitate this watershed because it is the first line of defense of Marikina, Quezon City, Antipolo, Pasig, Cainta, San Mateo, etc., against rainwater surging from the uplands of Luzon,” said Lopez. 

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In the following photos taken by Lopez, she shows quarrying activities during an aerial inspection over the Pasig River and the Marikina Watershed in September 2017. 

Photo by Gina Lopez.
Photo by Gina Lopez.
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Photo by Gina Lopez.

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“As long as there is quarrying there and the Marikina Watershed is denuded, the Pasig River water will be brown and it will become more and more shallow, and it will cause flooding in Metro Manila. It is imperative that the Marikina Watershed is reforested,” added Lopez. 

How We Failed to Protect the Marikina Watershed

The Marikina Watershed is part of the Sierra Madre mountain range. The watershed was declared a protected area in 1904 by virtue of Executive Order 33 issued by American civil governor of the Philippines Luke Edward Wright. He named the area Mariquina Reserve, which covered 27,980 hectares or about half the size of Metro Manila. 

Wright banned the settlement, entry, sale, or development of the land in order to “protect the watershed of the Marikina River, the source of water supply of the city of Manila.”

Through the years, this protected area shrunk in size because of land conversion. According to the DENR, presidential fiats from 1904 to 1996 turned the Marikina Watershed lands into residential, commercial, and industrial areas, contrary to the intent of the EO 33 to protect and preserve the area. The watershed has lost nearly a thousand hectares to land conversion, and parts of it are still vulnerable to illegal logging and quarrying

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According to GMA News resident meteorologist Nathaniel Cruz, the Sierra Madre was not able to absorb the rainwaters of Typhoon Ulysses, which is why Metro Manila was submerged in flood brought by the storm. Although Typhoon Ulysses was significantly weaker than Super Typhoon Rolly, Cruz said the Sierra Madre was already saturated by rainwater before Ulysses came. 

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Mario Alvaro Limos
Features Editor, Esquire Philippines
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