Philippine Airlines planes parked on the tarmac at Manila's existing international airport. A new airport is under construction in Bulacan province north of the Philippine capital. Photo: AFP / Ted Aljibe

A new airport under construction in a key wetland habitat just north of the Philippine capital is an environmental and social disaster in the making, unless action is taken now. 

The 2,500-hectare complex in Bulacan province just north of Manila threatens to destroy a large chunk of the area’s mudflats and mangrove forests, as well as its biodiversity and the livelihoods and homes of local fishing communities. 

The site, one of the largest wetlands in Manila Bay, is vital for people, climate and nature. Its coastal mangrove forests store huge amounts of carbon – up to five times as much as other types of forests – and protect local communities from high tides and storm surges. Mangroves also act as a nursery and foraging ground, sustaining the fisheries on which local people depend. 

The area is also internationally recognized as a home and critical stopover for threatened species and endangered migratory waterbirds, a function that is on a collision course with the new airport. Every year, more than 50 million waterbirds, including 32 globally threatened species, travel through the Philippines by the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, one of the world’s biggest migratory-bird flight paths.  

And yet the project, led by San Miguel Aerocity Inc, has ignored calls from experts and environmental and citizen advocates for sustainable development in the vulnerable area.  

Threatening people, climate and nature 

As it stands, the ambitious project is a disaster waiting to happen. Mangroves and tidal mudflats have been and will be lost along with associated fisheries. The area is already subsiding and the coastline eroding, which will only be exacerbated if fine sediment is dredged and disposed offshore, causing coastal flooding.  

Of grave concern is that, according to Wetlands International’s independent analysis, the development of the new airport is based on an unsatisfactory environmental and social impact assessment that fails to meet international standards. This includes the Equator Principles and International Finance Cooperation’s performance standard geared to improve development outcomes of large-scale projects.

Preparatory work for the construction of the airport, including the dredging of an access channel, has started without proper impact assessment and consultation.  

The airport design also fails to align with the Manila Bay Sustainable Development Management Plan proposed by the National Economic and Development Authority, experts from the Philippines and abroad, and representatives from civil society. The management plan, which envisages a sustainable and resilient Manila Bay, includes much-needed measures to restore natural habitats that boost fisheries, store carbon, and reduce risk to flooding.   

Current design and construction plans for the airport also run counter to commitments made by the Philippine government under international climate, biodiversity, sustainable development and disaster risk reduction conventions. 

This doesn’t have to be the case, and the good news is there is still time to correct course. 

Sustainable future possible for airport 

A sustainable airport development that benefits society at large is possible in the Manila area and would set a world-class example. The science and technical know-how for creating stable coastlines through the Building with Nature approach – involving a unique integration of mangrove forest and intertidal mudflat restoration, sound engineering, and sustainable use of land and coastal waters – is well established. Applying this approach will be beneficial to people, climate and nature.  

To make this happen, we at Wetlands International call on San Miguel Aerocity Inc, regulators, contractors, and investors to comply with international environmental and social standards to identify and mitigate impacts and to address any residual impacts through an ambitious biodiversity offsetting plan. We also need to see a transparent and public dialogue and stakeholder consultation.  

Concretely, the destruction of vulnerable and critical bird habitats needs to be avoided, and dredged fine sediment needs to be used to restore habitats and counterbalance erosion rather than dumped offshore. Our analysis further recommends an adjustment of a few hundred meters to the proposed site location in Bulacan to avoid or minimize most of the negative environmental and social impacts on its coastline and wetlands.  

Residual impacts can be offset by implementing nature restoration interventions in line with the Manila Bay Sustainable Development Management Plan. Last, safeguards need to be put in place to secure the long-term protection of the mangroves and mudflats to avoid a future relapse.

This way, a net positive societal impact can be achieved. This is all feasible, if the will is there.  

Indeed, the Philippines now has an opportunity to set the bar and show the world how to establish a world-class, large-scale infrastructure project that builds with and celebrates nature, rather than development at nature’s expense. 

Jane Madgwick

Jane Madgwick is CEO of Wetlands International.