The Pasig River–A road that runs through the Metro

During the pre-Spanish era, the Pasig River was the center of economic and transport activity in Maynila and Tondo. This continued well into the Spanish crown’s rule over the Philippines. 

A 2004 Urban Poor Associates case study of the Pasig River outlined that by the 1930s, pollution levels started to increase, such that by the 1960s, people bathed and washed their clothes in the river less frequently. Ferry transport also declined. By the 1970s, the river started to give off an offensive smell. Then a decade later, all fishing activities were deemed impossible. 

Thankfully, in December 1989, rehabilitation efforts began with the help of Dutch authorities. Hence, the Pasig River Rehabilitation Program was established. And today, it lives on as the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission.


With the river’s rehabilitation, formal ferry services started, first with Magsaysay Lines in 1990; Starcraft Ferry in 1991; and, then the government-owned Pasig River Ferry Service in 2007. However, each eventually closed for one reason or another—depriving the commuting public  of  a possible way to alleviate traffic.

The latest version of this river ferry started in 2014, with the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) in charge. Needless to say, this service has, yet, to truly take off. Thankfully, it appears the idea of reviving the river as a transport hub has gained ground, with President Duterte identifying the Pasig River Ferry Convergence Program as a priority in 2018.

River ferry services are popular in the region, after all.  One main example is the Mekong River and its tributaries, which are crucial for transportation in Lao PDR,
Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

India’s use of its waterways is also one to study. A 2013 Asian Development Bank online article pointed out that road congestion and railway limitations, combined with  growing environmental awareness, have made inland waterways a viable solution for transport.  The Inland Waterways Authority of India supported this, stating that 55 million tons of cargo alone were being moved through its operational river network at the time.   

There is no better time than now  to see how the Pasig River can help ease the traffic woes of the metropolis. The first order of business, of course, is to make sure that the current ferry system is financially buoyant. The MMDA should submit a program that will show where the funds from the ferry service will go. And if people think that the P74 million proposed  in the 2020  budget is enough for the MMDA’s ferry service, it should be noted that the amount is only worth five days of subsidized operations for the MRT 3.

At the peak of its operations, the ferry service was comprised of 10 air-conditioned boats, plying the 15-kilometer route through the Pasig and stopping at 17 stations. Should a  master plan be completed soon, it must outline yearly targets for expansion, funding, and performance.  

It is interesting to note that the Department of Environment and National Resources sees the possibility of the Tullahan River as an alternative transport route. Earlier this year, DENR Undersecretary Jonas Leones said that once it is cleaned up, the river can help ease traffic by becoming an alternate route connecting Quezon City, Valenzuela and Malabon. 

The maximization of our inland waterway services relates to our ongoing advocacy of supporting the country’s so-called blue economy, built on green infrastructure and technologies, as applied to our maritime resources.  If we can develop our river ferry services, then we can expand and connect these to larger inter-island transport services—for instance, the famous roll-on/roll-off ferries—and ultimately start building an inter-island network with the potential to ease land-based traffic congestion.

We should be honest with ourselves: the development of effective river transport services will require time and proper execution, even with the right budget. But given how Metro Manila is expanding, we have no choice in the matter. The Pasig River is an underdeveloped transportation resource that we should use.

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Sen. Sonny Angara has been in public service for 15 years—nine years as representative of the Lone District of Aurora, and six as senator. He has authored and sponsored more than 200 laws.  He recently won another term in the Senate. 

E-mail: sensonnyangara@yahoo.com| Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @sonnyangara.

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