The Pasig is “a river with much history,” according to historian Ambeth Ocampo. “It is what the Thames is to London, what the Seine is to Paris, what the Tiber is to Rome… The Pasig is older than Manila or May-nila… [It] is older than all the other cities that have grown along its banks.”
Stretching 25 kilometers, the Pasig used to spur commerce and culture. But decades of neglect and the wanton disposal of human and industrial wastes in its waters have all but killed the once proud river, making of it a murky, stinking waterway. Both the government and the private sector have taken notice of the problem, with mixed results. Indeed, the cleanup of the Pasig has been an on-and-off operation spanning administrations—which is a real shame given the river’s commanding place in history and its continuing role, as in other countries, as indicator of progress (or lack of it).
Yet there are examples to prove that a huge undertaking such as the rehabilitation of the Pasig is not just a pipe dream. The Iloilo River in the Visayas shows that it can be done. The 15-kilometer river had also deteriorated because of pollution and uncontrolled urban expansion. In 2011, the Iloilo City government embarked on a serious rehabilitation program. Today, the Iloilo River has been cleaned up, and a spacious esplanade on which people gather and stroll in the evenings runs along it. More significantly, the river is a finalist for the 2013 Thiess International Riverprize award, a prestigious environmental award solely for river management.
That “a once-dead river” has been named a finalist for an international environmental award “sends a clear message,” pointed out Sen. Franklin Drilon, a native of Iloilo and an ardent supporter of the rehabilitation program. “The redevelopment of rivers in the country is bound to be a success with strong political will and cooperation among the people,” he said.
Other inspiring examples may be seen in the esteros in Manila that have been cleared of garbage and illegal structures and rehabilitated. In this, the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission has been most effective, having cleaned up four such waterways including the once-notorious Estero de Paco (now a veritable tourist destination). The PRRC is working on more esteros this year; its work is envisioned to culminate in a grand plan to clean up the Pasig by the time President Aquino leaves office in 2016.
By its very name, the PRRC chaired by Gina Lopez has undertaken a daunting, swimming-upstream project. Established in 1999 through Executive Order No. 54, it has had a hit-and-miss relationship with the river that it has been trying to revive as well as with the squatter colonies on the riverbanks that it has been trying to relocate. It has produced noteworthy results but it has also had setbacks, including, per a recent report by the Commission on Audit, managing to put up only one of 10 materials recovery facilities over the last four years and in the process rendering millions of pesos worth of recycling equipment useless.
There have been other plans floated by various agencies, such as the planting by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources of mangroves on the riverbanks as a means to fast-track the Pasig’s revival. There have been fun runs and sponsorship programs for big companies to gather funds for the rehab program. The relocation of families living on and by the esteros is a continuing effort. (During his term, Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim said cleaning up the esteros was the job, not of the city government, but of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority.)
And no one is giving up on this massive Pasig cleanup. The Aquino administration has pledged P10 billion a year for it. “The river is a very important component of a city’s growth. There is no way of accurately measuring the total value of bringing it back to life,” Lopez has said. The bottom line is that even a near-dead waterway can be revived if political will and sufficient funds are brought to bear on it. Here’s an ideal project for the administration’s public-private partnership program: averting the Pasig River’s end and making possible its reinvigoration.