"It’s an emergency. There’s a real crisis with our watersheds," Mr Marlo D Mendoza warned the press after accepting an Asian Water Management Excellence Award on behalf of Bantay Kalikasan, the environmental arm of the Philippines’ ABS-CBN Foundation. "In a few more years, those provinces now developing quickly will want to use the water supplies that are going to Manila. We don’t want to wait until people start fighting over access to water. We need to be forward-looking, to try to inform the public, including decision-makers, about the necessary steps to be taken [to avoid this]."

Bantay Kalikasan, a media-based group supported by a multi-sectoral network of government agencies, private organisations and NGOs, is responding to the crisis with action. Rather than continuing to open up new watersheds, Bantay Kalikasan argues that old watersheds should be rehabilitated. So in 1999 they launched the "Save the La Mesa Watershed Project", which aims to rehabilitate, develop and protect the 2,700 hectare La Mesa watershed. The watershed contains a 600-hectare reservoir supplying some 10 million Manila residents, and is the last forest left within the metropolitan Manila area. Around 45 per cent of it is denuded.

How are they going to undertake such a massive project?

"Our strength is to be able to capitalise and facilitate environmental initiatives by leveraging our media resources," explained Mr Mendoza. ABS-CBN, a broadcasting foundation, gives Bantay Kalikasan three minutes of prime TV airtime, worth US$15,000, every day. Bantay Kalikasan links with advertising and other companies and organisations, which sponsor environmental messages, which are then broadcast. "Because we’re an environmental program, companies known to be pollutants are automatically screened out," he added. The Asian Development Bank has also provided grants for particular outputs.

Using the airtime, the group has brought the watershed issue into the homes of thousands of viewers. "Our challenge is to teach the Filipino public that forest care – or the non-care of it – affects the water supply, the air they breathe and therefore their very own lives."

Dr Philippe Bergeron, director of award-sponsors RIET, was clearly very impressed by the NGO’s strategy. "It’s very, very clever. It’s the first and only arrangement in the region, and in my view, it’s the sort of thing that should be duplicated everywhere," he said. "They have been very innovative."

The publicity campaigns are matched by projects on the ground. For the La Mesa, this involves planting trees in the degraded area. It costs approximately US$80 to reforest a single hectare – or about US$2.50 per tree. More than 6,000 volunteer tree planters have participated since May 1999, and hundreds of individuals, schools and companies have adopted hectares or trees. The survival rate of trees is over 90 per cent. "We have more than 300 hectares planted already, and our target is 1,200 hectares to be planted in four years. And we put up a guarantee – whatever happens to that hectare for the next three years, we are obliged to replant it."

Of course, forests are not only important in terms of water resource management, and this is another message the group is attempting to publicise. Trees help control soil erosion and flooding by controlling the siltation of reservoirs and river systems, they provide sanctuary for wildlife, and help clean the air. According to Mr Mendoza, it takes ten mature trees to deal with the carbon dioxide from a single car. "So if you have a car, you should contribute ten trees," he said.

Forests also provide recreation areas. Once reforestation is complete, the group plans to turn 30 to 50 hectares of the area into a park. "There are no parks in metro Manila. We want to create a pristine environment where people can spend their leisure time," said Mr Mendoza. Furthermore, the park will be a way for the project to become self-funding – and to expand to the other 400-plus critical watersheds across the country. An entry fee will be charged, and visitors will be able to access an information and nature centre, and exhibition area.

Essentially, Bantay Kalikasan, which employs 25 full-time staff, sees itself as being a coordinating body overseeing loose coalitions formed for various issues. "The groups are already there in the Philippines," said Mr Mendoza. "Our job is to tap them, harness them, and like a puzzle get the different groups together. Once we’re able to analyse the problem, we’re able to come up with a very good plan and strategy."

Bantay Kalikasan was born in 1998 as a result of the deteriorating environment in the Philippines generally, but in particular due to mounting frustration over a ten-year campaign to get the government to pass a clean air act. "We found out that there needs to be a facilitator, or a leader, to direct the actions to be taken," said Mr Mendoza. "As a media organisation, you can do that." The new group’s efforts led to the act being passed within six months. Following that success, the group has taken up other environmental issues, including watershed conservation.

According to Mr Mendoza, problems with watershed conservation stem from the fact that watershed management, development and protection have been isolated from water distribution – that is, water utility companies are not responsible for the care of watersheds. "Whoever sells the water should be charged a watershed management fee, to be put in a fund to put back into conserving the forests." Water companies are in fact among Bantay Kalikasan’s biggest donors – but institutionalising payment is their ultimate goal. "If it’s institutionalised, they’re forced to do it."

Mr Mendoza is both a licensed forester and an environmentalist. After being involved in various other foundation programs, he was called on to assist with Bantay Kalikasan due to his environmental background. The major challenge for the group so far has been learning skills for dealing with the media and advertisers, and carrying out marketing and awareness building. "But we have had many experts to help us," he said.

For Bantay Kalikasan, winning this particular award is very important in assisting it establish credibility. "We have to show that we are a leader," said Mr Mendoza. "Winning will help us to raise funds, and partner with equally credible institutions. It will also help build our morale, and motivate staff."

/ Current Affairs