Once upon a time, the Pasig River was one of the most economically important rivers in the Philippines. Today the government is hell-bent on reviving this mighty river, which was declared “biologically dead” because of pollution.
The Pasig River was the lifeline of many Filipinos for the longest time, with Manila being the country’s capital and center of commerce and industry even during the Spanish period.
Once upon a time, it was the primary source of food and water; provider of water for irrigation, a strategic transport route for delivery of agricultural and other consumer goods, a place for washing clothes, fishing, bathing, swimming and other recreational activities.
Before the Second World War, the river was still teeming with fish and shellfish, and the banks of the 25-kilometer river and its tributaries are still surrounded with green—trees, plants and vegetables.
After the devastation that followed during the war, the mighty river started to deteriorate because of unbridled development, too many human pressures that exceeded its carrying capacity, as more and more Filipinos, driven by the sheer desire for better opportunity, migrated to Manila after the liberation.
Along with numerous factories, squatter colonies mushroomed along the stretch of the Pasig River. Eventually, the pollution of the Pasig River worsened and became unmanageable.
Both ends of the Pasig River, the Laguna de Bay and Manila Bay, are 10 times worse than Boracay, which was tagged as a “cesspool” by President Duterte in his critique of the environmental degradation that is happening on the island of Boracay, the country’s top tourist destination in the municipality of Malay, Aklan province.
In its bid to revive the Pasig River today, the government is clear on one thing: Preventing its further degradation and restoring the river to its pristine state is a must.
But the bigger question is: How?
Laws have been passed, programs and projects have been implemented, and one agency after the other took over in the bid to bring back to life the once mighty river.
Fast forward to 2018. Nothing much has changed, only that the problem became more severe and rehabilitating the river to its pristine state has seemingly become an impossible mission.
A tidal estuary
THE 25-km river connects two important water bodies: the Laguna de Bay and Manila Bay.
Laguna de Bay is the country’s largest lake. Equally besieged by environmental degradation, the Laguna de Bay is the biggest aquaculture hub in the country—providing Metro Manila with an adequate supply of bangus and tilapia.
The historic Manila Bay, likewise facing grave environmental problems, hosts the Port of Manila. The Manila Bay region remains a productive fishing ground, despite the sorry state of the marine environment.
The Pasig River stretches from and passes through the cities of Manila to Taguig, and passes through Makati, Mandaluyong and Pasig.
The Marikina River and the San Juan River are its major tributaries.
Technically a tidal estuary, the flow of the river changes depending on the water-level difference between Laguna de Bay and Manila Bay.
During the dry season, the flow of the river leads out to the Laguna de Bay. The flow of the river reverses to Manila Bay during the wet season, as water in the lake begins to rise.
THE mandate of managing the Pasig River belongs to a number of national government agencies, including the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), particularly the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB), and concerned local government units (LGUs).
The River Basin Control Office, another agency of the DENR, also has specific mandate and jurisdiction over the Pasig River.
Since the Pasig River is a connector of Manila Bay and Laguna de Bay, it is somehow part of the mandate and jurisdiction of the Laguna Lake Development Authority (LLDA) and the Manila Bay Coordinating Office.
Being at the frontline and supposedly the main implementer of various government programs on the ground, LGUs, including the barangays along the stretch of the Pasig River and its tributaries, also share the responsibility of managing the river.
IT was the late strongman Ferdinand E. Marcos who gave recognition to the economic potential of the Pasig River, at a time when the economic and environmental services it provides have started to dwindle.
In 1973, wielding the power of both the Executive and Legislative branch under martial law, Marcos signed Presidential Decree (PD) 274 to prevent the further deterioration of the Pasig River.
PD 274 gave birth to the Pasig River Development Program (PRDP), designed to encourage public-private partnership undertakings for the purpose of developing the Pasig River and its environs to achieve maximum social, economic and environmental benefits.
The government identified the reasons behind the river’s deterioration: The indiscriminate disposal of wastes into the river, lack of proper maintenance and the inadequacy of systems of control over the use of waterways of the river.
As a result, “the innate beauty and aesthetic qualities of the Pasig River and its banks remain overshadowed and consequently untapped on account of the continued existence of obstructions and eyesores right along the river and its banks.”
Furthermore, the law stated that “by bringing out its natural and potential beauty, through the cleansing of its waters of the clutters of wastes and debris likewise by ridding it of the pollutants that surround it, the Pasig River could become a major tourist attraction, providing a significant source of foreign-exchange earnings for the country.”
Even then, the law recognizes the importance of the Pasig River. It stated: “The Pasig River holds a strong influence on the socioeconomic development of the areas around it and that to date this recognized potential has not yet been tapped…”
It added that “the current thrusts of development point to the need to tap the latent resources of the river by improving the carrying characteristics of its waterways and properly controlling its use as drainage and navigational channel to make it a major thoroughfare for maritime transport.”
IN December 1989, under the first Aquino administration, the efforts to revive the river began with the help of Danish authorities.
The partnership gave birth to the Pasig River Rehabilitation Program, with the DENR as the main agency coordinating with the Danish International Development Assistance.
The rehabilitation of the Pasig River was supported by LGUs and various non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Information drives were launched about the importance of the Pasig River, with the warning against indiscriminate dumping of wastes into the waterways that contribute to its deterioration.
Apparently, although there were some gains, the program failed to hit its targets and goals.
It was in the 1990s that the Pasig River was declared biologically dead, because the level of pollution makes life, particularly fish, impossible to exist in the river.
BETWEEN the early- to the mid-1990s, during the term of former President Fidel V. Ramos, efforts to rehabilitate the Pasig River got the much-needed boost.
Then-First Lady Amelita Ramos made it her mission to revive the Pasig River. It was during the Ramos administration that the Sagip Pasig Movement initiated by the former President’s wife that an NGO journeyed to save the river.
In a previous exclusive interview with this writer, Ramos said that as president, he was on his toes in addressing the problem that beset the Pasig River because the first lady would constantly nudge him about programs and projects to order concerned agencies to clean up the river.
It was also during the Ramos administration that the government first seriously considered the relocation of informal-settler families (ISFs) along the stretch of the river and its tributaries.
Around 5,000 ISFs were relocated from the Pasig River to various government relocation sites.
Apparently, however, as relocation is going on in one area, the number of ISFs continues to grow in other areas.
This was attributed to the continuing migration to the country’s National Capital Region (NCR) from the countryside in search of better opportunities, while other informal settlers that were previously relocated have decided to return to the city because of not-so-good living condition in the resettlement areas, which adds to the main problem brought about by the lack of livelihood opportunities in the rural areas.
IN January 1999 Executive Order 54 signed by former President Joseph E. Estrada created the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission (PRRC).
It aims to strengthen the government’s program to rehabilitate the Pasig River for transportation, recreation and tourism.
According to its official web site, the PRRC’s mission is to transform Pasig River and its environs into a showcase of a new quality of urban life.
It envisions a Pasig River that is “clean and alive, reflecting the country’s noble history and progress.”
Its goal is to restore the river’s water quality to Class C level, which means the water is fit for fisheries, secondary recreation like boating, and supply of water for manufacturing processes after treatment.
‘Piso para sa Pasig’
“PISO para sa Pasig,” an initiative to raise fund for the rehabilitation of the river, was launched by the Clean and Green Foundation Inc. Regardless of how it was spent, the fund-raising program did something good.
It increased the awareness that the Pasig River can be brought back to life through monetary contributions from individuals and actual public participation in various activities that will actually help revive the river.
Kapit-Bisig Para sa Ilog Pasig, a project of ABS-CBN Foundation Inc. launched in 2009 and is still active today, continues to boost the efforts to revive the Pasig River.
Led by former Environment Secretary Regina Paz L. Lopez, the foundation’s “advocacy runs” for the Pasig River serves as information and fund-raising campaign for the ongoing rehabilitation of the waterways of Metro Manila, particularly the tributaries of the Pasig River.
The Kapit-Bisig Para sa Ilog Pasig, along with partner agencies, had successfully rehabilitated the Estero de San Miguel and continues to maintain other esteros behind Malacañang—Estero de Uli-Uli, Estero de Aviles, Estero de San Sebastian, Estero de Quiapo, Estero de Sampaloc and Estero de Valencia.
The various initiatives also focused on relocating ISFs along the river and its tributaries, providing them with livelihood programs and tapping communities to fight environmental crimes that are killing Pasig River.
The relocation of informal settlers along so-called danger zones continued under the Arroyo and second Aquino administrations. The cleaning of the river and its tributaries went on with the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) and the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) working in tandem, but in terms of accomplishment, much work needs to be done.
The campaign to rehabilitate and restore Pasig River to its pristine state remains an uphill climb.
10 times worse than Boracay
DENR Undersecretary for Manila Bay and Water-Related Concerns Maria Paz Luna said cleaning the Pasig River and its tributaries are important in restoring Manila Bay, which she describes as 10-times worse than Boracay.
She said that in the NCR, only 15 percent of the structures are actually connected to sewer lines, which means 85 percent of households, industrial and commercial establishments are all contributing to the pollution of water bodies, which include the Pasig River.
Luna said the DENR, which is focused on restoring to its pristine state the water of Manila Bay, has set in motion a 15-month study to assess the condition of Manila Bay to identify and remove the threats, including the pollution originating from the Pasig River.
A P9-million budget has been allocated by the DENR for the purpose.
“We are gathering all relevant studies for the entire region. All the environmental assessments will be gathered. So far, we have workshops to identify the most urgent issues we need to know. All mandamus agencies are taking part,” she said.
The study is being led by the DENR’s Ecosystems Research and Development Bureau. Other agencies will chip in relevant information, she added, to come up with an informed decision on how to address current environmental problems being experienced in Metro Manila.
Luna said she will tap a damage-valuation specialist or resource specialist to know what will be the cost of putting up sewer lines through the private water contractors of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS).
The official added the study was part of DENR’s activities in celebration of World Water Day on March 22.
“We have to focus on water being cyclical. If we are not recycling it, then we are wasting it. Manila is only 14[-percent] to 15-percent sewerage complete. Boracay is in a much better condition. In Boracay the sewerage is almost complete. In Metro Manila we are only about 15-percent connected. We are worse than Bangladesh,” Luna said.
She added that connecting to the sewer will mean added cost on the part of water consumers, explaining that capital expenditure is needed to implement such a huge project to ensure clean water supply.
According to Luna, it is only imperative that the “Build, Build, Build” program should integrate investment in water by ensuring connection to sewer lines to prevent water pollution.
LLDA General Manager Jaime C. Medina agrees with Luna that cleaning Pasig River is important to succeed in rehabilitating both the Manila Bay and Laguna de Bay.
Medina said the waters of Laguna de Bay is polluted, not by the operation of fish cages for raising bangus and tilapia alone, but because of the direct discharge of untreated wastewater into Pasig River and its tributaries.
“Many households remain without proper toilets. Naturally, those living along esteros dispose all their wastes directly into the waterways,” he said.
Many commercial establishments, he noted, also violate the Clean Water Act by not having the proper connection to sewer lines or not having wastewater-treatment facility of their own.
This, Medina said, contributes to water pollution of the Pasig River that eventually pollutes the water of Laguna de Bay.
He added the LLDA recently signed a memorandum of cooperation with the PRRC, wherein the LLDA, which has the police power or law-enforcement authority, deputized PRRC’s personnel, allowing them to conduct inspections in business establishments to check whether they comply with the provisions of the Clean Water Act when it comes to discharging wastewater.
Speaking mostly in Filipino, he said: “Rehabilitating the Pasig River is important in rehabilitating the Laguna de Bay. All our initiatives will be for naught if the water that comes from the Pasig River is contaminated.”
Medina added the LLDA is pilot-testing a project in Laguna, where the LLDA will distribute portable toilets in areas with colonies of informal settlers to prevent direct discharge of human wastes into the waterways that eventually drain either to Manila Bay or Laguna de Bay.
He said once it becomes successful and the legalities are sorted out, the program will be adopted for communities along the stretch of the Pasig River.
Same old problems
THE PRRC, an interagency body tasked to coordinate efforts of various concerned government agencies, reported that the same problems besetting the Pasig River rehabilitation persist: the indiscriminate dumping of garbage, the direct discharge of untreated wastewater from households and industries, insufficient funding, and the lack of public support and cooperation.
While there is marked improvement in terms of the physical appearance of the river and its tributaries, water quality has not improved much.
The improvement is attributed to the relocation of ISFs.
According to the PRRC, from 1999 to 2017, the commission resettled a total of 18,719 ISFs along the Pasig River and its tributaries to decent and socialized housing units established by the PRRC and the National Housing Authority (NHA).
From the period the PRRC started recovering the easement from privately owned structures, it also dismantled 376 structures obstructing the easement and the waterway.
TO “clean and green” the cleared areas, the PRRC established linear meters of Environmental Preservation Areas (EPAs), which are basically eco-parks along the rivers.
So far, a total of 37,471.68 linear meters of EPAs have been established along the Pasig River and its tributaries.
The rehabilitation and development of Pasig River and its tributaries are also anchored on the precept that it would be useless without abating pollution.
The PRRC is conducting various activities to upgrade the water quality of the tributaries before it drains into the Pasig River.
These include desilting of creeks and esteros, removal of floating garbage, installation of garbage traps, installation of aeration and filtration devices; constructed wetlands, phytoremediation systems and other water quality-improvement technologies
According to the PRRC, the agency has also so far successfully removed 21.18 million kilograms of solid waste from 2012 to December 2017, through resettlement and cleanup activities of activated River Patrol and River Warrior groups.
Limited resources, mandate
ANSHARI C. LOMODAG JR., the chief of staff of PRRC Executive Director Jose Antonio E. Goitia, told the BusinessMirror the Project Management Office (PMO) of the PRRC has limited resources and a very limited mandate over the Pasig River.
“Our mandate is the rehabilitation of the Pasig River. But the PMO has very limited power. It has no strong mandate. We don’t even have a budget or even the mandate to remove garbage out of the river. Our job, according to law, is for us to tell concerned government agencies to do their job,” said Lomodag, who spoke on behalf of Goitia.
The task of clearing waterways, basically a flood-prevention activity, is the job of the MMDA, while removing illegal structures along waterways and clearing easement of rivers and creeks falls within the mandate and jurisdiction of the DPWH.
Dismantling shanties and relocating ISFs to relocation sites are the mandates of the Department of Social Welfare and Development, the NHA and LGUs.
“Being a mere coordinating body, all we can do is coordinate,” he said.
He lamented that sometimes, the PRRC is forced to go beyond its mandate—removing waste from rivers and clearing rivers and creeks of illegal structures.
The PRRC, he added, has River Patrol and River Warriors, but was quick to note that they have less than 100 men performing both functions. The first is for clearing the easements of the Pasig River and its tributaries for the establishment of eco-parks and removing garbage out of the river.
“We are shorthanded; we only have 98 river warriors. We are removing 400,000 kilos of garbage every year by the average. Here at the PMO, we are undermanned. We are only 126. And we are expecting the number to go down,” he said.
According to Lomodag, the PMO’s budget this year is P232 million. But most of the budget goes to activities for the establishment of EPAs or eco-parks, and some for ISF removal. Some of the budgets are also spent on water-quality monitoring and information campaign and advocacy.
He said given its limited resources, the PRRC needs a boost. The 25-km Pasig River and its 47 tributaries, including the Marikina and San Juan rivers, are constantly being dredged of silt after removing the garbage. This, he noted, requires a huge amount of money, not to mention, human resources, adding that the PRRC has no heavy equipment of its own.
‘Puso para sa Pasig’
“BEFORE, there’s Piso para sa Pasig. That time has passed. What we want to emphasize now is ‘Puso para sa Pasig.’ We appeal for love for the Pasig River. We are no longer asking for money, we are asking the people to care for the river. We are not asking the people to help us clean the river. We are only asking them to stop polluting the river. That alone will be a big help for us,” he said.
According to Lomodag, the PRRC welcomes private-sector support, particularly NGOs, in the effort to rehabilitate the Pasig River.
In fact, he added the PRRC has an ongoing program called “Adopt an Estero” similar to the program of the DENR-EMB to encourage LGU and private-sector involvement in river cleanups.
On the part of the PRRC, he said they encourage the adoption of segments of the river tributaries, so as to keep them clean and prevent people from throwing their garbage into the waterway. “We are open to all NGOs that are willing to help in reviving the river. What we are doing is ask them to adopt an area and convert them into an environmental preservation area or eco-park.”
According to Lomodag, the chief of the PRRC has submitted a proposal to Malacañang, asking President Duterte to strengthen the mandate of the PRRC.
In the form of an executive order, a new guideline that will clearly define the role of the PRRC, outlining its power and authority over the Pasig River, will boost the capacity and capability of the agency in enforcing environmental laws, as well as clearing the river of illegal structures, including garbage, to allow the smooth flow of water that will help naturally revive and bring back the glory days of the Pasig River.
Until then, the rehabilitation of Pasig River faces a “very bleak and polluted” future.