White beach for mental health


“With this week’s storm washing out the ‘white sand’ (or a more amusing version is that black sand is washing in), it is becoming clear that calling out the government agencies involved in funding/contracting the project is not about being ‘killjoy’ or ‘dilawan’.” – Dave Albao

A controversial statement by Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque defending the Manila Bay “rehabilitation” using crushed dolomite was that we cannot measure enough the benefits of a white beach on the people’s mental health amidst the pandemic.

In a wider sense, what Roque most probably meant was that the natural world does play a vital role for our wellbeing. There is a growing amount of research within fields such as environmental psychology and ecotherapy, on how connecting with nature can reduce stress, anxiety and depression. This “therapy” can take the form of a hike into a forest, breathing fresh(er) air around trees in a city park, and yes, sunbathing on a beach with white, soft sand.

A cautionary note, however, that mental health professionals are around us to be consulted for proper diagnosis and treatment; it will be irresponsible to say that disorders can be managed or cured just by watching a sunset or getting on a bike.

But there is already an abundance of hard evidence showing hormonal and somatic (like heart rate and brain waves) indicators that when we are immersed in “nature”, outdoors or around green/blue spaces, our bodies (and minds) feel and even function better, compared to us being stuck in a room and not seeing the sky.

So Roque made sense. “Dagat na dagat” is an expression for beach-lovers complaining they are going insane because they have not been able to travel to their favorite summer vacation destinations. There have been local news stories of people breaking quarantine protocols just to swim at the beach or a river.

But what Roque et. al. missed to recognize is that dumping dolomite is an artificial and superficial rehabilitation of nature. With this week’s storm washing out the “white sand” (or a more amusing version is that black sand is washing in), it is becoming clear that calling out the government agencies involved in funding/contracting the project is not about being “killjoy” or “dilawan”. To have a clean city beach, solid waste and wastewater from the rivers/tributaries pouring out to it will need to be managed and reduced from the source. Strengthened enforcement and compliance on existing environmental laws would do wonders for Manila Bay. A beautiful beach cannot be made by covering what is beneath – it is kept beautiful by systemic changes such as proper waste management. And also not just by holding regular beach cleanups.

True rehabilitation – and conservation – of the precious ecosystems sustaining us also need investments. The ecosystem services the natural world provides are not just to improve our mental health. Clean air, clean water, and clean soil will become what’s most valuable, especially at a time when we are forced to prioritize our access to essential goods.

Even to stop more outbreaks of zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19, stopping illegal wildlife trade needs to be a priority too. What we are learning from this point in our species’ history is that we need nature for our survival. Working towards authentic ecological sustainability is not only a romantic cause for us to have beautiful things to look at. Nature does not only heal us; it is its complex interconnectedness that makes our very lives possible.

As citizens, we will need to advocate for more open/green public spaces in our cities, for our protected areas (such as North Negros Natural Park) remain protected as watersheds and the lungs of our island. Economic growth is not exclusive to infrastructure development – it can revolve around thriving natural habitats, around sectors such as renewable energy and sustainable agriculture.

Unless of course there are bigger (multi-million) incentives with projects like an ephemeral white beach or forest-clearing road contracts. For sure, the corruption associated with government-contracted infrastructure projects will need to be investigated and not immediately believed – otherwise all the doubt and naysaying will go on costing us our precious mental health. NWI