All about Watersheds, Mines and Better Environments

Published on by Vincent Ragay under

A clear, cool stream in Hermosa, Bataan 

The word “watershed” has been mentioned quite often in the ongoing Senate hearings for the confirmation of Sec. Gina Lopez as head of Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). What does it really mean? Should mines be allowed inside watersheds? Or should they be prohibited, as Sec. Lopez claims? We will leave the legal and technical questions to the experts and deal only with how and why the issue came about, how it affects us all and what we can do about it.

A clear and simple definition of a watershed (or water basin) would be: “The land that water flows across or through on its way to a common stream, river or lake”. Think of a lavatory or kitchen sink as a simplified and symmetrical watershed where the water drains or flows into a pipe – it is actually a basin with a hole!

Of course, a real watershed is much more complex and irregular in shape; hence, water falls on and flows into many different places and directions but ends up flowing into a major river system (creeks, streams and a main river) and into a lake or the sea.

A sink forces all water, whether coming from the faucet or from a pitcher pouring water, to flow out into a single drain pipe. No water is retained on the sink – unless a bowl is collecting water from the faucet. That is why it is called a sink!

A watershed, however, is designed to collect water more than to simply drain it. Hydrologists claim that only 10% of the rain that falls over a watershed flows out as “surface runoff” – meaning, the water that fills up streams and rivers, hence, the visible water. The remaining 90% is absorbed and hidden underground – part of it flowing slowly downhill (sometimes coming out as springs, fountains or resurgent rivers) and part staying long enough as underground water (as aquifers and underground rivers). (Frozen water – snow and glaciers – has a slightly different cycle, a sort of mirror image of that of liquid underground water, for it moves above the ground.)

So, if you dig or drill a well, the water surface is what engineers call the “water table” or the level of the underground water at any point in a watershed. The hidden water mimics the general shape of the watershed’s contour since the spaces between soil and rock materials retain the water for the following vital functions: to water plants through their roots, to carry nutrients for plants, microorganisms, insects and animals, to maintain a low temperature of the earth surface, to cause soil particles to adhere and prevent erosion (thus, preserving the landscape) and other functions.

Now that we have briefly described what a watershed is, let us look at how we relate to it and what bad things we have done to it, consciously or otherwise.

Today, the issue about irresponsible mining has somehow sidelined the fact that we all, individually, are responsible for having mistreated the environment, perhaps, even more than mines have. We have failed to fully understand our role within the greater scape we call the environment because we have focused on our personal or specific needs and not on the greater needs of the environment that sustains our lives.

Often, we only see the rain and think it is nothing but a spoiler of outings or outdoor games. At best, we thank God for blessing our farmers or watering our gardens for free. And when we see rivers, we think of them as big canals where our city wastewater runs into, carrying all the filth we have discarded out of our well-maintained homes and overly-artificial cities – meaning, the indiscriminately-thrown plastics, the uncaringly-discharged factory sludge, the increasingly-growing amount of garbage and the insufficiently-treated wastewater.

The Earth is essentially a huge watershed where the water surrounds us, penetrates us, sustains us and invigorates us. Within it are thousands of smaller watersheds where human communities (and lower life-forms) dwell. Yet, our individual lives – our own bodies — are tiny watersheds drinking in water and transpiring it through our pores and draining it out through body orifices. What we shit or piss out, the Earth receives without us thinking whether she needs or wants it. We simply eat, drink and breathe and let her take our refuse, for her to do as she likes – to process into something she can use to allow her to live as well the way she should, or into something she has to live with and suffer through and eventually die from.

Nature has to live first before we can.

Yet, we have gotten from Nature – gold, silver, jewels, food, lumber, water, etc. – without properly thinking how we can give back what she needs. Hence, we get water and give back polluted water. We get minerals and give back trash and poison. We get food and give back more poison. We get lumber and give back nothing!

We believe minerals are gifts from God and should be exploited to benefit humans – and rightly so. Hence, today, the gold we mine either rounds our neck or rings our fingers; the silicon we quarry runs our computers or seals our glass windows; the iron we smelt reinforces our homes, roads and bridges; and the copper we dig out carries power to our cities and towns. Without mining, we would have no modern civilization to speak of.

Ultimately, through the process, we have also become the watersheds of the things we mine. We eat and perspire the salt taken from salt mines. We inhale the chlorine we use to clean our homes with. We ingest the aluminum, silver and iron we process to make pots, pans and utensils. We drink the lime and trace minerals we carve out of rocks and hills. And along with these things, the hundreds of potentially-harmful elements and compounds we put into manufacturing all the conveniences that we enjoy today. And as we said, we take all of these – gases, minerals, dusts and fumes – through our mouths, noses, skin pores and drain them away through tiny holes designed to excrete our body wastes.

What we farm out and mine out become us, so to speak. For we are of the Earth; and the Earth is us.

Treasure out, treasure in! Garbage in, garbage out! We mine or extract from Nature’s bounty, manufacture and consume according to how we have perceived modern life should be – and how modern it has truly become! So modern that we have forced Nature’s ways to become artificial as well in many respects: artificial rain, artificial flavorings, GMO’s and new virus strains. Our need – no, our avarice – for more of such cheap alternatives and other fancy amenities has overrun our need to sustain the optimal and natural functions of our watersheds (including our bodies) at a pace where we can re-cycle or re-circulate – for lack of a better word – the same quality of raw materials we consumed at the start. So far, we have failed to keep up.

This means, the Laguna Lake watershed, for instance, should not only be able to provide us clean drinking water for the growing metropolitan areas surrounding it, as well as to produce edible and nutritious fish meat and other marine-based food sources; but that it should also be able to regularly get back what she needs to continue feeding us and preserving the entire watershed. And that includes, replenishing the water in the ground and the river systems, watering the farms, grasslands, forests and marshes and refreshing the atmosphere with enough oxygen and other essential gases by fully nourishing all the living organisms living within it.

What we do as consumers from the time the water falls as rain into a watershed to the time it drains into the sea determines the health of that watershed. All the activities we do – farming, mining, constructing, manufacturing, travelling, flying, driving, cooking and partying – impact on the environment in immeasurable ways.

Like our bodies, a watershed must not allow toxic substances in at any point of its boundaries – not at the head of the river where the water starts its journey, in the same way that we should not ingest poison. Neither should we introduce harmful chemicals into a watershed’s body of rivers and lakes in the form of pesticides, fertilizers and chemicals we use to operate fish ponds, just as we should not inject carcinogenic substances into our bodies or our skins. Lastly, we should never allow a watershed to pass on substances out of its boundaries (via the river mouth into the sea or into the ground), just as we should never pollute our homes and communities with waste materials the environment has no use for.

Do you realize that the food we eat and the liquids we drink (into our tiny human watersheds) return into the bigger watershed we live in? Hence, if you eat chicken that has been bombarded with harmful growth enzymes and oxidizing chemicals and remove it into our septic tanks, the wastewater from our homes flows back into and burdens the whole environment. Garbage in, garbage out to infinity! With billions of hungry people (at least half of them with insatiable appetites), it is not surprising that world governments are agog as to how to save our dying environment.

True, the minerals in our mountains may take years to be depleted through mining. However, our own bodies may have had enough of the toxins we can carry, considering how we have polluted the atmosphere and our cities. And how many systemic diseases have continually claimed thousands of lives today.

Look at Metro Manila’s landscape. The geometric skyline is the very same rugged mountains we have stripped and mined to build those skyscrapers. So are the roadway systems and the vehicles that ply them. And in the process, we have killed the creeks and rivers. Can you still get a plentiful catch from Pasig River or Manila Bay? Can our children swim there freely without catching some kind of serious infection or disease? The place is a prime example, as well as proof, that we do not qualify as good stewards of watersheds. Not even of social justice, politics and economy – not for the past four decades at least, in general.

Mining is not the only problem. Neither is elitist capitalism nor corrupt governance. These are all major contributors to the greater problem, which is our failure to comprehend how we live and where we live. We argue about proper mining practices, the legal definition of watersheds, of efficient mining regulations and of sustainable environmental management. Yet, we do not fully realize that the whole Earth is but a singular, tiny watershed among so many other waterless celestial systems, a planet so blessed with water and other resources that life can be sustained perpetually. If we only knew how! And why.

The history of our precious planet began with water. Even before there was light. The beauty, biodiversity, grandeur and wealth we see right here in our archipelago of magical 7,000 islands is a product of that event in the beginning of time, of life and of human knowledge. And, the way it appears, we are neither near that beginning nor within the middle of that history but somewhere near the end, if not the final chapters of our planet’s celestial journey. Of course, scientists and scholars will sneer at such an arrogant assumption.

But remember that the Creator rested on the seventh day. And we know we are now within the seventh millennium since Creation. If God took a rest, why not the Planet Earth? He did promise a rest for all of us. And when that happens, He will burn the elements in fervent heat. Not to recycle them but to create a far better world. Yes, God is mining all the gold He has hidden in all of us in intense heat. Only that gold – more pure and more precious than real gold — will remain in His glorious time, to be delivered up to the Holy City in the skies.

It is said that among those who will not enter that glorious city – the murderers, adulterers, idolaters and liars,– are those who destroy the Earth. Earth in the original Hebrew is adam or edom, meaning “red soil”. Did we not say we are tiny watersheds? You see, the Earth then was so rich in iron that people grew so big and strong; and gold was so plentiful it lay on the ground for the picking. God hid all of that wealth when humans fell from grace by sending a global cataclysm.

Today, many fail to realize that when we destroy our environment, we destroy our bodies; and when we destroy our bodies, we destroy the environment. We have proven that here. And so, we now think and live out of the grace of God Who gave us everything good in bountiful measures. But many of us want that bounty only for themselves and do not care for the Earth and their own bodies how they can have it.

Water, air, earth and gold. We cannot have the gold without dealing with the rest. And we cannot truly value and enjoy all of them without knowing Who gave them and why He gave them.

Do we truly know the things that have true and lasting value?

Lastly, another definition of watershed is “an event or period marking a turning point in a course of action or state of affairs”. We hope that more people will appreciate what we are going through now as a nation and as a people. Doing so might just bring about the long-awaited watershed experience we need to forge on ahead as a progressive nation and as a caring people.

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