Life of The Lake: Reviving Taal
￼The view of Taal Lake and the eponymous volcano jutting out from its surface is undeniably stunning from a distance.
The postcard-worthy scene is as clichéd as it is iconic; a token of Philippine tourism and perhaps a photograph to take home after a visit to Tagaytay. But one morning, in the Batangas side of that beloved sight, we found ourselves ankle-deep in sludge, hesitantly wading through murky waters. As our toes dug deeper into the silt, the faint echoes of terms like “fish kills” and “waste management” rang deep in our heads. The dramatic view from afar notwithstanding, Taal Lake is a far cry from what it once was. Seen from an angle, the entire body of water spreads out ahead in a calm blue stretch. Looking down on it from straight up, however, reveals only an unsettling opaqueness. There is a heaviness to its surface, pronounced by the overgrowth of water hyacinths, like a green blanket clinging to its shores. In recent decades, the proliferation of fish cages and the unchecked disposal of waste from households, piggeries, and other livestock farms along its coasts and its tributaries upstream have severely tainted the water of the country’s third largest lake, pushing it to a point which it struggles to recover from.
￼The TVPL is a gem that is struggling to retain its luster after decades of wear. More so than ever, it fully warrants its status as a protected area.
ONE MORNING IN DECEMBER 2011, Ipat Luna, an environmental lawyer, and a trustee and founding member of PUSOD Inc., looked out from the newly built Taal Lake Conservation Center (TLCC) and noticed a strange phenomenon over the surface of the lake. A brown hue tinted the water, something she initially mistook for the usual signs of a sulfur upwelling; a relatively common occurrence. She borrowed a raft from a local fisherman to study the event up close and quickly discovered that it was something far grislier—about a hectare’s worth of piggery waste from the farms upstream, illegally disposed down Lipute River and spilling in front of the center’s shores. And while this is horrifying in itself, it is worth keeping in mind that this waste, and all the other types of waste dumped into the water, will continue to exist in the 240 square kilometer basin for approximately 20 more years before it will manage to find its way out to sea via the lake’s single drainage, the Pansipit River.
It will take two years for the first ten meters of the surface to be completely replaced with new water. Chemical waste, agricultural runoff, fish feed, people who depend on the lake for a variety of reasons interact with these pollutants on a daily basis and they’ll continue to do so for decades to come. Unsurprisingly, there is an increase in the occurrence of diarrhea amongst residents living along the lake, E Coli levels in certain areas are way past acceptable standards, and according to Ipat, there are no water treatment plants in the area. It’s this gargantuan disconnect between the tourist destination that is Taal Lake and Taal Volcano, the TVPL’s status as a protected landscape, and how its own residents find themselves within that framework, all playing out in the most tragic of ways.
– Excerpt from In Murky Waters in GRID Issue 14
BY THE NUMBERS:
￼The Taal Lake basin’s designation as a protected landscape is an acknowledgement of the area’s importance to the country’s biodiversity.
“They’re already hard-up to begin with and they have to be the ones relied on to protect the [it],” she says. “The only way we could save the lake is if they take pride in it.”
Ipat dreams of a future where being a resident of a protected area will be considered a badge of honor, a source of pride to wear on their sleeve or an invisible membership card. But as it was before, it’s an incredibly tall order to be the guardian of your own land when survival is often the main priority. The concept is likely to sound like a mere abstraction and so PUSOD has taken it upon themselves to create more tangible means to compel residents to take an active part in the area’s preservation.
At the heart of their ecotourism push is the Taal Lake Conservation Center which serves as part knowledge hub and part weekend getaway. The space is set up to welcome guests and is in fact listed on AirBNB, but it’s also where the TVPL houses all of their research materials and where community events like budgeting seminars and boat-building workshops are often held. PUSOD rebuilt the center to be completely off the grid and operable after a natural disaster. It relies solely on solar energy and rain catchments, without any dependence on electricity. The center itself is a wide open space made of concrete and bamboo, with a modest loft holding beds for 15 people, while the grounds overlooking the lake are spacious enough for camping trips and bonfires.
From there, they can hire a boat to take them to Volcano Island. Thankfully, five years after that morning in December 2011, and a more aggressive implementation of the laws protecting the TVPL, the water has finally been found to be clean enough for recreational use. As part of their push to reintroduce people to the lake, the center encourages a variety of watersports like SUP, sailing, and kayaking. Members of the women’s cooperative, headed by Ka Betty owner of catering service Mataas Na Kahoy, prepares local delicacies for the ecotourism program. The TLCC shop cells honey from the honeybee co-op nearby as well as t-shirts designed by the youth in the barangay.
“In the five years that we’ve been here, we’ve proven what we really are as an organization. We don’t stop at conservation and protection. We’re really looking at how this can lead down to economic activities for local communities,” says Executive Director of PUSOD TLCC, Ann Hazel Javier.
People have become more aware of the bigger role they play and residents have, for the most part, are learning to become more mindful of creating a better environment. It hasn’t been easy and plenty remain resistant, but if people can feel proud of the fact that their side of the lake is getting cleaner and cleaner by the years, then this is an indication that things are on a little bit of an upswing. Given the area’s history, that’s a minor victory in itself.
See Taal in a different light in our latest documentary, #GlobeOfGood: Pusod-Taal. Get to know the work being done to preserve and protect the freshwater lake ecosystem, and the people behind it. Special thanks to the Corporate Social Responsibility Department of GLOBE Telecom, Inc. #WonderfulPH