The four sites in front of Bacuit Bay in El Nido with elevated fecal coliform levels.

El Nido’s main water body, the picturesque Bacuit Bay that surrounds the tourist town’s coastal shoreline, remains contaminated with high levels of fecal coliform. This is despite drastic government crackdowns that began prior to the pandemic to enforce environmental and sanitation compliance by local establishments, including households.

According to an interagency report obtained by Palawan News early this week, fecal coliform contamination around the bay, a major cause for concern flagged as early as 2015, remains unabated. This type of water pollution has been attributed to the random discharge of septic waste, mostly human and animal feces, into the bay.

An ultimatum issued by former President Rodrigo Duterte in 2018, when he described the bay as a “cesspool,” prompted the national and local governments to undertake stringent measures to enforce compliance with national zoning and easement regulations. Continuing monitoring of the bay’s water quality, however, has shown little improvement.

In the past few months, there have been more reports of both residents and visitors getting diarrhea, which worries local officials.

Coliform tests
In the wake of Boracay’s closure in 2018 due to similar issues, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) enforced a 6-month rehabilitation period in El Nido, effectively shutting down its main tourism economy with the aim of bringing down pollution levels around the bay. At that time, tests had shown contaminants in most parts of the bay exceeding the allowable most probable number (MPN) per 100 milliliters (ml).

This image, taken in September 2009, depicts a canal that drains wastewater directly into Bacuit Bay.

However, according to the report that Palawan News obtained, water testing carried out in July 2022 continued to show high levels of fecal coliform in established observation points around the bay.

One of the monitoring points, Station 4-Caalan in Brgy. Masagana, located across the public cemetery, showed bacterial contamination at 170,000 MPN per 100 ml. Elevated levels were also recorded at Station 1-Cabigsing on the right side of the pier at 350 MPN, Station 2-front of Marina del Nido at 3,500 MPN, and Station 3-front of Lally and Abet at 3,500 MPN.

This is even an improved situation, according to a letter sent by the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development Staff (PCSDS) to Mayor Edna Gacot-Lim on July 29, 2022. In January 2019, during the administration of then-mayor Nieves Rosento and a month after the implementation of the DENR-ordered rehab, the seawater covering five sites was observed to be “highly turbid [and] yellowish in color.”

The assessment was from Sitio Cabigsing on the left side of the pier area to Sitio Caalan in front of the cemetery. Samples were also collected from the canal near Cabugao that discharges used domestic water to the sea.

The fecal coliform at the time ranges from 1,700 MPN to 170,000 MPN, “all in exceedance” of the Class SB standard, or tourist zones and recreational water, regularly used by the public for bathing, swimming, and others. The total coliform concentration was also very high, ranging from 2,800 MPN on the right side of the pier to 430,000 MPN in front of the marina.

The wastewater from the outfall, or discharge canal, then had a total fecal concentration of 2.1 million MPN and 1.6 million MPN, which was considered “extremely high and alarming.”

High coliform levels have also contaminated the Corong-Corong beaches and the small lagoon, according to the report. In several locations, oil sheen and solid wastes have also been documented.

Increasing diarrhea cases
A report from the regional office of the DOH in MIMAROPA showed that in 2022, 567 individuals had suffered from diarrhea in El Nido.

Incidences were “perhaps underreported,” according to a source who works in the health community in the town because the number was already high toward the middle of last year.

“Underreported na siguro yan kasi di ba, parang mataas na ang cases March to April—hindi lang turista, kundi mga babies ang nagkakasakit na rin? Ang mga apektado, mostly bata at may edad na,” she claimed.

The intergovernmental report says that between March 3 and April 25, 2022, 381 people got diarrhea. Of those, 243 were tourists and the rest were locals. Vomiting, abdominal pain, cough, dizziness, weakness, loss of consciousness, loose bowel movements, and fever were observed in children as young as one month old and adults as old as 75 during the period.

Yet, the DOH MIMAROPA, through medical officer IV Dr. Christy Andaya, pointed out in June 2022 that the cases are already declining and refuted rumors that an outbreak was already underway in El Nido.

“Sa ngayon ay controlled naman po ito at hindi na rin ganoon karami ang nare-report pero kailangan na mag-ingat pa rin,” Andaya said then.

DOH MIMAROPA Engineer III Nillet Fidel also claimed that they evaluated the water samples sent to them by service providers and found them to be safe. The specific cause, on the other hand, is a different situation, with residents, in particular, ignoring good hygiene.

“Ang nasubmit po sa amin from the service providers in their locality as a result ng water sample test ay pasado naman sila sa drinking water,” Fidel said.

“Kung specific cause po ay hindi pa natin masasagot kasi kahit safe ang water at galing sa approved source but then ang mga users natin ay nane-neglect po nila ang proper hygiene or even in containers for drinking water [kaya] pwede pa rin siya maging cause ng contamination,” she added.

On February 10 this year, Fonz Sy, a Filipino from Texas, posted on social media about her family’s awful encounter with “food poisoning” after dining at a small restaurant in El Nido.

The patient was her 10-year-old cousin, who was brought to a city hospital on February 9 due to vomiting and other symptoms related to diarrhea before their flight to Manila.

Then came Claire and Peter, social media vloggers and influencers, who took to TikTok a couple of days after Sy’s post, to share their “most chaotic story time.” Peter became ill with diarrhea in El Nido and required medical attention.

Claire described how he began vomiting and had diarrhea at 12 a.m. on February 11, and how she was asked to pay for a roll of toilet paper in a hospital infested with insects. Their video story went viral not because they complained about a hospital full of bugs and pricey toilet paper, but because some internet users reported experiencing diarrhea in the town.

Paradise at risk.

These are only two of the numerous incidents recently recorded as El Nido continues to be troubled by contaminated water, which can have a significant impact on its tourist numbers.

Of the 15 water refilling stations assessed by the DOH MIMAROPA between August 2-5, 2022, one that is located in Sitio Calintang, Brgy. Bucana, failed water quality testing due to coliform presence.

Only four of 33 hotels where samples were collected have clean water coming out of their bar and kitchen faucets—Nacpan Beach, Lagun Hotel, Milan Grace Inn, and Reef Strand Resort. The 29 accommodations that tested positive for coliforms include popular beach resorts where celebrities and other famous people stay.

All three water providers of the town—Sibaltan Water System and San Fernando Water System managed by the municipal government’s economic enterprise office, and Manila Water Philippine Ventures, Inc. (MWPVI) in Lio Estate in Brgy. Villa Libertad—are contaminated.

However, the MWPVI management disputed that Lio Estates’ water sources are polluted. The company claimed in a message that potability testing is performed on a monthly basis.

“All monthly test results showed that potable water sources passed acceptable parameters on physical and biological content based on Philippine National Standards for Drinking Water (PNSDW),” it said.

Visitor experience to reach 1.2M arrivals
Maribel Buñi, chief of the Provincial Tourism Promotions and Development Office (PTPDO), said there is a need to fix the situation as it could affect El Nido’s tourism economy, especially since it is selling experiences.

It may also impair Palawan’s goal of 1.2 million tourist arrivals this year, as El Nido contributes a larger proportion than other destinations in the province.

“Aren’t we anxious of the mga Tiktok videos, etc. Alam naman po natin na ang word of mouth at ang media ay talagang multiplier, so in that case sa kanilang masamang experience with El Nido ay nagmumultiply na din yun. Ang sabi nga natin, we sell experience,” she said.

In the event that they have a negative experience, there is a good chance that they would not return to Palawan and may even advise others not to visit the island.

Other than diarrhea affecting tourists, El Nido is plagued by complaints on the delivery of products and services.

“Kung bad yung experience sa Palawan magmumultiply baka hindi namin makamit natin yung 1.2 million tourists at the end of the year. So, kaisa naman kami ng lokal na pamahalaan. I think merong task force for this purpose para ma address itong mga issue na ito,” she said. “Alam naman natin na reflective ang bayan ng El Nido sa buong lalawigan ng Palawan, at ayaw naman natin na hindi na sila pupunta.”

When asked if there is any possibility of imposing a carrying capacity not only at selected tour destinations but also in the town as a whole, Buñi responded that while it is feasible, it would require extensive research.

Currently, only specific areas in El Nido have carrying capacities, such as the big and small lagoons.

“Maganda rin po talagang tingnan ang carrying capacity of the whole town,” she said.

El Nido also has a problem with tourists complaining about the quality of the products and services that they receive, in addition to diarrhea that has been hitting visitors. The report indicated that the number of complaints climbed from 96 in 2019 to 138 in 2022; however, it did not include any specific details regarding the reasons.

No closure
Even with these results, it was not suggested that El Nido be closed to tourists as a solution to the problem.

At the regular Arampangan meeting with the local media on February 28, Governor Victorino Dennis Socrates said that there was no recommendation to temporarily close the town to do rehabilitation work. He said that none of the involved government entities wanted it because they already know how to solve the issue at hand.

“Ang napagkasunduan, hindi dapat na isara at doon din napag-alaman na may kanya-kanyang solutions din naman yung mga ahensyang nasasangkot, kamukha ng provincial government, yung STP (sewage treatment plant) ay malaking bagay sa way forward ng El Nido para maibsan ang high levels of coliform contamination,” he added.

The state-of-the-art El Nido Sewage and Solid Waste Treatment Plant (ENSSWTP), which is the first in the country to turn biodegradable trash into power, is seen as a long-term solution to the tourist town’s water pollution and waste disposal problems.

The state-of-the-art El Nido Sewage and Solid Waste Treatment Plant (ENSSWTP). | Photo by Palawan Provincial Information Office

But after the facility’s operation began in 2021, few households or commercial establishments were interested in getting connected, apparently due to it being too costly.

Based on the approved ordinance, connection is divided into two categories: Commercial A (10 rooms above), which requires establishments to pay a monthly fee of P490 per room; Commercial B (10 rooms below), which requires establishments to pay a monthly fee of P390 per room; and “per square meter” establishments (small restaurants, bars, banks) for an estimated P2,500 per month.

For residential, the fixed rate is P298 per month.

“Dati kasi naitala dahil nga doon sa hindi pagkasundo sa presyo, at mabuti na lamang nakumbinse yung munisipyo ng El Nido sa pamamagitan ni Mayor Edna Gacot-Lim, salamat sa kanya na-isubsidize yung cost. Kailangan kasing maningil sapagkat ito ay financed by loan, may binabayarang pagkakautang both yung munisipyo ng El Nido at yung provincial government sa joint venture na ito na magpapatayo at mag-ooperate ng sewage treatment plant. So way forward is mayroong solutions, mayroon pang ibang steps na nakalista sa action plan na ginawa,” said Socrates.

Engr. John Gil Ynzon, officer-in-charge of the Palawan Provincial Economic Enterprise Development Office (PEEDO), explained that the sewage treatment plant’s connection fees are 70 percent less expensive than those of other similar facilities nationwide.

Connection to the ENSSWTP of residential, commercial, and institutional establishments, he explained, is mandatory under Municipal Ordinance of 001, Series of 2022. Wastewater treatment is also a requirement under Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) Memorandum Circular No. 2019-62.

“We already connected the biggest establishments sa bayan ng El Nido wherein that is 20% of the total coverage, and as of the moment, may additional po tayong applicant na 111 establishments—magkakaroon na po tayo ng total na 40% covered natin approximately, and meron din tayong mga establishment na nag-manifest and na- affidavit of undertaking para ituwid nila at ayusin ang mga proper lodging disposals nila and septic tanks, at ma-connect na natin sa ENSSWTP,” Ynzon said.

“Nakapag collect na tayo ng 400 cubic meters of wastewater. Instead of directly flowing po sa ating ocean, directly na natin itong natri-treat at one of the byproduct nito is yung filtered water na siya as Class SB at napapakinabangan na po natin siya for plantation and pagcollect ng mga fire trucks natin para magamit nila at the same time sa vegetation,” he added.

Ynzon said once all establishments are already connected to the treatment plant, it will be possible to minimize the amount of groundwater contamination. He said their sewage and other effluents should be treated before being released into the canals or bodies of water.

“Male-lessen natin yong contamination ng groundwater once connected na talaga lahat ng establishments sa ENSSWTP natin,” Ynzon emphasized. “The only way lang na nakikita natin is setting into motion talaga itong ENSSWTP natin. Ito yong natatanging solusyon para makorek yong presence ng coliform and E.coli sa ating groundwater, specifically dyan sa four main barangays ng El Nido.”

According to the PCSD, because of the fecal coliform problem in Bacuit Bay and El Nido groundwaters, establishments must achieve water quality criteria or risk having their Strategic Environmental Plan (SEP) clearances revoked.

It is also possible that it will stop issuing SEP clearances to new businesses unless they demonstrate that they are in compliance with the law.

El Nido vows to address water problem
El Nido Mayor Edna Gacot-Lim has already signed an order to set up a task force that will work on fixing up waterways.

The municipal government also allocated a budget of P10 million for restoration efforts.

It required that all businesses collect water samples to guarantee that what they’re using is safe. Violators, especially those who operate unlawfully without a business permit, may risk closure.

Lim requested stakeholders’ cooperation, including their attendance in meetings and consultations.

“Huwag nating balewalain ang ating rehabilitasyon, sama-sama tayo, tulong-tulong tayo,” she said. (with reports from R. Rodriguez and Darrius Jeremiah Miguel)