- A recent report finds that more than half of the Philippines watersheds are unprotected, despite the vital role they play in supporting water supplies, ecosystems and mitigation against climate change.
- “The current watershed policy and governance framework does not respond to the realities and needs of our people and our environment,” one activist says.
- According to an independent scientist, the Philippines is ahead of most of its neighbors when it comes to recognizing the importance of watersheds, but “too many legal instruments” and lack of “coordination and enforcement” lead to inadequate protection in practice.
The Philippines’ watersheds are essential for regulating the country’s water supply and quality, supporting ecosystems and mitigating floods and droughts. However, a recent study finds that more than half of these vital basins are susceptible to environmental risks such as large-scale mining and infrastructure development, leading activists to call on the government to implement stronger measures for protection and rehabilitation.
A recent report by the Philippine-based Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center (LRC) reveals that out of the 14.2 million hectares (35 million acres) of critical watersheds, 7.7 million hectares (19 million acres), or 54%, are unprotected.
According to the nonprofit think tank, the lack of formal protection exacerbates the existing challenges facing the country’s watersheds, including conflicts over land and water use, inaccessibility, deteriorating water quality, ecosystem degradation and heightened climate vulnerabilities.
Loopholes in watershed governance and policy
According to the LRC, the Philippines’ current watershed policy fails to address the real needs of both the environment and its people, as loopholes enable harmful activities and displace Indigenous communities in favor of influential economic and political interests.
Areas with mining, quarrying, power, construction and manufacturing industries are likely to experience significant water depletion, given that these sectors collectively consume nearly 70% of the country’s water resources, the report noted.
“The current watershed policy and governance framework does not respond to the realities and needs of our people and our environment,” said Leon Dulce, campaigns support and linkages coordinator of LRC, who presented the report’s findings in a public forum.
“Backdoor policy provisions still allow harmful activities within watersheds. Indigenous peoples and local communities’ welfare are being displaced by big businesses and other powerful economic and political interests,” Dulce added.
These policy provisions include exemptions for environmentally harmful projects with vested rights granted prior to protective watershed designations. As an example, the report referenced the case of Masungi Georeserve on Luzon Island, where its status as part of the Upper Marikina River Basin Protected Landscape did not prevent encroachments by mining agreements and illegal resorts and land developments.
Watershed management scientist Rex Cruz said that advocates for infrastructure development within watersheds often assert that such activities can be carried out without causing harm, without conducting full assessments into potential environmental impacts.
“It is important to build infrastructure, but it doesn’t mean that we can just do it anywhere without expecting it to harm the watershed,” Cruz, who is not part of the study, told Mongabay in a phone interview. “To protect the watershed, one approach is to be cautious in our development pursuits and consider the economic and social development consequences, ensuring we understand how the watershed and ecosystem services will actually respond to development activities.”
The watersheds identified in the study as lacking specific legislation for their protection are not entirely devoid of legal safeguards, as there are existing national laws related to forestry, protected areas and local governance, along with relevant government entities, said Delia Catacutan, principal scientist’ at the Center for International Forestry Research & World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF).
“The watersheds … [have] some degree of protection based on different laws and policies that tend to overlap, and that’s when the confusion and the problems come in,” Catacutan said in a video interview with Mongabay. The challenge, she added, lies in the absence of effective leadership, coordination and enforcement of these legal mechanisms.
Catacutan said it’s a common problem in the region, as no country has a specific, dedicated law defining watersheds and establishing a corresponding national entity responsible for their legal protection and coordinating actions among national and local governments. “Many countries have not even defined their watersheds,” the scientist added. “The language of watershed is much more used and common in the Philippines than in other countries, except Thailand, in Southeast Asia.”
The Philippines is “not lagging behind” behind its neighbors, Catacutan said, but is “far better” in watershed protection due to its national river basin control office, local watershed management councils, critical watershed identification and support from overlapping national policies and agencies. “We’re all facing the same problem of having too many legal instruments to protect our watershed, yet they are not protected properly because of the lack of coordination and enforcement of these different legal instruments.”
The study recommends policy changes, including stronger integration of watershed management councils into local planning processes and the enactment of national laws to enhance forest landscape protections. Additionally, it suggests that local governments use their authority under the Local Government Code to declare watershed reserves as no-go zones for mining and harmful projects.
Public investment in watershed management
Cruz emphasized that more than protecting the remaining forest, intensifying restoration efforts is paramount in the fight against climate change. “We’re still losing a significant amount of forest, so it’s really necessary for our forest restoration efforts to become more vigorous, and that’s where we’re not doing enough,” said Cruz, a professor emeritus at University of the Philippines Los Baños.
He said the government’s flagship National Greening Program needs improvement, particularly in the production of quality planting materials and engaging a wider array of stakeholders, including the private sector as a potential funding source for forest restoration.
The scientist said restoration should be coupled with public investments in alternative livelihood opportunities to alleviate pressure from communities dependent on natural and forest resources. This, he said, could include sustainable agriculture and timber and fruit tree plantation development that both reduce threats and contribute to carbon sequestration.
Meanwhile, the LRC noted that the 2023 Philippine budget allocated 676.6 billion pesos ($12 billion) for watershed-related public funding, encompassing ecosystem protection, water regulation, sufficiency and flood control, yet the detailed breakdown of these budgets remains unavailable to the public.
“Knowing how exactly these funds will be spent and by which agencies would enable a better understanding and analysis of what watershed management expenditures are prioritized and whether these translate to effective management of watersheds,” the group said in the report.