Air, waste and water pollution are becoming major environmental challenges in the Philippines as the country undergoes rapid development, industrialization and urbanization.
In accordance with the World Health Organization's guidelines, the air quality in the Philippines is considered moderately unsafe , and the 2020 air quality average was recorded as more than 2 times higher than the WHO’s recommended value . A Greenpeace Southeast Asia and CREA report launched in 2020, stated that air pollution from fossil fuels - primarily coal, oil, and gas – causes an estimated 27,000 premature deaths per year in the Philippines, and amounts to economic losses of 1.9% of GDP annually .
Pollution is becoming a serious concern for the country’s water bodies . For instance, in 1990, the government declared the Pasig River, the most important river system in Metro Manila, biologically dead due to rapid industrialization and urbanization within the area. The Pasig River is classified by the DENR as Class C, which is primarily intended for fishery, recreation and supply for manufacturing processes. According to water quality monitoring in 2009 , the condition of the Pasig River continues to worsen, and data obtained indicated that the target water quality for Class C waters had not been achieved since 2003 .
In addition, a recent study  estimated that more than 1000 rivers account for 80% of global riverine plastic emissions into the ocean, and of the 1656 rivers in the study, the Pasig River in the Philippines was found to be the most polluting river . This poses a serious threat to the Laguna de Bay (the largest freshwater lake in the country) and Manila Bay (the country’s main port of maritime trade and travel), since it serves as a two-way connector between these two water bodies .
Laguna de Bay, with its fishing and aquaculture industries supplying more than 40% of the capital’s fish and its waters becoming ever more important for agriculture, industry and domestic supply, is one of the Philippines most vital natural assets . However, Laguna de Bay is permanently subject to nutrient-driven eutrophication and pollution, and experiences harmful algal blooms periodically, with numerous reports of fish die-offs and serious socio-economic implications , .
Solid waste management remains a major challenge in the Philippines especially in urban areas like Metro Manila . According to a 2017 UNEP report, total annual Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) generation in the Philippines is 14.66 million tonnes , making it the fourth largest generator of solid waste among country-members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) . Similarly, the World Bank estimated that 14.6 million tonnes of MSW was generated in the Philippines in 2016. By 2019, this MSW generation grew to 15.8 million tonnes, and by 2030, the World Bank forecasts MSW generation to reach 20.0 million tonnes in the Philippines, a 37% growth compared to 2016 .
Nationwide, about 40 to 85% of the solid waste generated is collected while in Metro Manila it is 85%. The poorer areas of cities, municipalities, and rural barangays are typically unserved or under-served. Uncollected waste ends up mostly in rivers, esteros and other water bodies, thus, polluting major water bodies and clogging the drainage systems, which results to flooding during heavy rains. Open dumping remains the general practice of waste disposal in the country as controlled dumpsites and sanitary landfills are very limited. As of 2016, there were still 403 open dumpsites compared to 108 controlled dumpsites in operation . People who live near or within dumpsites are vulnerable to various diseases .
Additionally, the Philippines is considered as one of the world’s top generators of plastic waste and contributors to plastic pollution in the oceans , with an estimated 0.75 million metric tonnes of mismanaged plastic entering the ocean every year . The challenges posed by increasing levels of plastic pollution have only increased with the COVID-19 pandemic boosting the consumption of single-use plastic products. From the Philippines perspective, plastic waste is a recognised national crisis .
Contributors to poor air quality in the Philippines include the apparel and timber industry, petroleum refining, vehicle emissions, and waste burning . According to the DENR in 2016, 80% of the country’s air pollution came from motor vehicles while 20% came from stationary sources, such as factories and open burning .
Household air pollution in the Philippines is largely a result of the burning of solid fuels (biomass or coal) for cooking. In 2013, 54% of the population were primarily using solid fuels for cooking (71% of the rural population vs 34% of the urban). In 2012, an estimated 32% of 187,300 deaths from ischaemic heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (18 years+) and acute lower respiratory infections (under 5 years) were attributable to household air pollution in the Philippines .
The water quality in the country’s waterbodies has been deteriorating due to rapid population growth, urbanization, and industrialization, especially in densely populated urban areas. The main sources of water pollution in the Philippines include the unregulated discharge of domestic and industrial wastewater and agricultural runoff , .
Improper wastes disposal, inefficient wastes collection and lack of disposal facilities are among the dominant concerns in the country’s solid waste management. Solid wastes are generated from residential, commercial, industrial and institutional sources. Between 2008 and 2013, residential wastes accounted for more than half (57%) of the total solid waste. Waste from commercial sources, which includes commercial establishments and public/private markets, accounted for 27%. Waste from institutional sources such as government offices, educational and medical institutions accounted for about 12% while the remaining 4% was waste coming from the industrial or manufacturing sector , . Mismanagement of plastic waste is closely correlated with growth of municipal solid waste (MSW) in the Philippines .
Key policies and governance approach
Pollution was one of the first environmental problems that was formally recognized by the country’s legal system. In 1964, Republic Act 3931 (RA 3931) was passed which institutionalized the creation of the National Water and Air Pollution Control Commission. This was later upgraded into a cabinet-level office, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). In the late 1990s, wastewater treatment and clean air standards were further institutionalized with the DENR being the primary agency tasked with overseeing pollution-related concerns. The current 1987 Philippine Constitution explicitly states in Article II, Section 15 that “The State shall protect and promote the right to health of the people and instil health consciousness among them”.
Acknowledging the constitutional rights of Filipinos to a clean environment, numerous policies and laws have been developed and are being implemented and enforced, including the Clean Air Act (RA 8749), Clean Water Act (RA 9275), and Ecological Solid Waste Management Act (RA 9003), among others.
The Philippine Clean Air Act of 1999 provides for a holistic national program for air pollution management focused on pollution prevention rather than control. It identifies three sources of air emission, which are mobile, stationary, and area sources, and prescribes a general set of guidelines to limit pollution and corresponding air quality standards that must be met. The Environmental Management Bureau is primarily responsible for the implementation and enforcement of the Clean Air Act, and Local Government Units (LGUs) have the responsibility of managing and maintaining the air quality at the local level .
The Philippine Clean Water Act of 2004 aims to protect the country’s water bodies from pollution from land-based sources (industries and commercial establishments, agriculture and community/household activities). It provides for a comprehensive and integrated strategy to prevent and minimize pollution through a multi-sectoral and participatory approach involving all the stakeholders. The DENR is the primary government agency responsible for the implementation and enforcement of this Act, with the support of other government organizations, LGUs, non-government organizations and the private sector .
The Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000 provides the necessary policy framework, institutional mechanisms, and mandate to the LGUs to achieve 25% waste reduction through establishing integrated solid waste management plans based on 3Rs (reduce, reuse and recycling) . Following the Act, several strategies and roadmaps have been developed to improve waste management in the country including, the National Solid Waste Management Strategy 2012-2016, the Philippine Development Plan (PDP) 2017-2022, Philippine Action Plan for Sustainable Consumption and Production (PAP4SCP), and the National Plan of Action for the Reduction of Marine Litter (NPoA-ML) .
Successes and remaining challenges
The Philippines has put in place a number of policies and programmes to address pollution, however barriers exist in their implementation. Key barriers to achieving the country’s goals on environment and health were identified in the country’s National Environmental Health Action Plan 2017-2022, including the weak enforcement of existing policies/regulations, absence of relevant technical guidelines and standards, lack of relevant data/information and weak data management systems, and a lack of an integrated and collaborative mechanism for capability building. Among the priority concerns are the lack of competent regulators and implementers at the Local Government Unit (LGU) level . For instance, there are low levels of compliance to RA 9003 among some LGUs .
LGUs are challenged by limited capacity, limited resources, low public awareness of the human and environmental costs of pollution, and a lack of determination among local leaders in implementing the law , .
Goals and Ambitions
NEDA has published the Philippine Development Plan (PDP) 2017-2022 that targets a national waste diversion rate (3 Rs) of 80% by 2022, which will primarily be done through the enforcement of compliance to RA9003 .
DENR, through the NPoA-ML, aims to achieve zero waste in Philippine waters by 2040 .
Improving the implementation of existing laws and mandates can be done by:
- Enhancing institutions and support systems,
- Cooperation between private and public sectors, and
- By having an informed, active and empowered citizenry through communication, education and public awareness raising.
 International Association for Medical Assistance for Travellers (IAMAT). [Online]. Available: https://www.iamat.org/country/philippines/risk/air-pollution.
 IQAir (2021). Air quality in Philippines [Online]. Available at: https://www.iqair.com/philippines.
 Andrews, Gabriella (2018) "Resolving the Water Pollution Crisis in the Philippines: the Implications of Water Pollution on Public Health and the Economy," Pepperdine Policy Review: Vol. 10, Article 2. Available at: https://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/ppr/vol10/iss1/2.
 Gorme, J.B., Maniquiz, M.C., Song, P. and Kim, L.H., 2010. The water quality of the Pasig River in the City of Manila, Philippines: Current status, management and future recovery. Environmental Engineering Research, 15(3), pp.173-179. https://doi.org/10.4491/eer.2010.15.3.173.
 Meijer, L.J., van Emmerik, T., van der Ent, R., Schmidt, C. and Lebreton, L., 2021. More than 1000 rivers account for 80% of global riverine plastic emissions into the ocean. Science Advances, 7(18), p.eaaz5803. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaz5803.
 UNEP (2018). [Online]. Available: https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/paralysed-growth-lake-under-siege.
 Caballero, I. and Navarro, G., 2021. Monitoring cyanoHABs and water quality in Laguna Lake (Philippines) with Sentinel-2 satellites during the 2020 Pacific typhoon season. Science of The Total Environment, 788, p.147700. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.147700.
 UNEP (2017). [Online]. Available: https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/battling-pollution-philippines-largest-lake.
 Samantha Bagayas, Rappler (2020). [Online]. Available: https://www.rappler.com/environment/philippines-local-governments-juggle-covid-19-response-garbage-problem/.
 World Bank Group. 2021. Market Study for the Philippines : Plastics Circularity Opportunities and Barriers. East Asia and Pacific Region Marine Plastics Series;. World Bank, Washington, DC. © World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/35295 License: CC BY 3.0 IGO.
 Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News, Philippines (2020). [Online]. Available: https://earthjournalism.net/stories/beyond-lockdown-can-the-philippines-sustain-low-air-pollution-levels.
 Jalilov, S.M., (2018). Value of clean water resources: Estimating the water quality improvement in Metro Manila, Philippines. Resources, 7(1), p.1. https://doi.org/10.3390/resources7010001.
 WEPA (2013). [Online]. Available: http://www.wepa-db.net/policies/state/philippines/overview.htm.
 Enviliance ASIA (2021). [Online]. Available: https://enviliance.com/regions/southeast-asia/ph/ph-air.
 Environmental Management Bureau (2021). [Online]. Available: https://r12.emb.gov.ph/ra-9275-the-philippine-clean-water-act/.
 The Manila Times (2021). [Online]. Available: https://www.manilatimes.net/2021/11/16/public-square/denr-adopts-national-plan-of-action-for-the-reduction-of-marine-litter/1822322.