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Saving our river

Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:55:00 06/08/2009

Filed Under: history, Environmental pollution

In Rizal?s time, the Pasig River was both EDSA and SLEx. As every college student ought to know, the ?Fili? begins with the steamship Tabo?s unsteady progress up the river, ?arduously sailing upstream through the winding course of the Pasig, carrying numerous passengers to the province of Laguna.? Following the Tabo, the mind?s eye can vividly picture what the mighty river was in the 1880s: a busy thoroughfare, a lively scene, a fertile fishing ground. [The Tabo] ?threatens everything in her way, now seeming about to crush the salambaw, scraggy fishing contraptions which in their movements are not unlike skeletons saluting an antediluvian turtle; now running straight against the bamboo brushes or against the floating eating places or karihan, which among gumamelas and other flowers, seem like indecisive bathers, their feet already in the water but still undecided on plunging in.? (Text taken from the Locsin translation.)

Today, there are no indecisive bathers in the Pasig, human or otherwise. Only involuntary ones, or children playing truant, too young to know their life and health are at great risk with every second they spend in the river?s squalid water.

The route of the Tabo retraces the path that Elias and Crisostomo Ibarra took when they escaped to Laguna, in the last chapters of the ?Noli.? On the boat, they hold their famous second dialogue about the necessity of revolution, but Rizal characteristically ends their discussion with a burst of lyricism. ?Those who have ever made their way by night up the Pasig, on one of those magical nights that the Philippines offers, when the moon pours out from the limpid blue her melancholy light, when the shadows hide the miseries of man and the silence is unbroken by the sordid accents of his voice, when only Nature speaks?they will understand the thoughts of both these youths.? (Text taken from the Derbyshire translation.)

Today, anyone who makes his or her way by night up the Pasig would be satirized, not lyricized. To many of the millions who reside in Metro Manila, and to many more who visit the National Capital Region, the Pasig is only a brown, turbid current, something one crosses over, to get from one place to another.

This is a pity; the river that made Manila the country?s most important center of culture and commerce is now of the most polluted in the world.

Attempts have been made before to clean up the Pasig and restore it to its former place in our affections, of which perhaps the most widely known was the ?Clean and Green? campaign of Amelita Ramos, the first lady from 1992 to 1998. ?Kapit Bisig Para Sa Pasig? (literally, ?linking arms for the Pasig?) is the latest. A project of Bantay Kalikasan, it aims to clean up the great river one estero (creek) at a time. It also promises to do so with the full cooperation of estero ?communities??many of whom are informal settlers living in shanties built on the river?s banks.

A total of 66 families living in Estero de Paco will be relocated to a site called ?Bayan ni Juan? in Laguna; this is, in the scheme of things, a small step, but a true breakthrough. It removes a source of the pollution that chokes the river and, at the same time, restores a sense of possibility to people who have lived in inhuman conditions?in shanties made of plywood and tarpaulin, without running water or electricity, reliant on the river as all-purpose trash bin and toilet.

The relocated families will help in the cleanup too, primarily by helping demolish their own shanties. But the private sector will help too, under the leadership of Gina Lopez of the ABS-CBN Foundation. Difficult as the initial stages in the Estero de Paco campaign have been, the real hard work lies ahead: actually cleaning up that part of the river. Lopez has spoken of possibly working with ?Australian water experts? or with a New York firm with the ?technology [to] transform the sludge that will be dredged from the esteros into organic fertilizer.?

Well and good. More private businesses can chip in, by ensuring that the other main source of river pollution?factories and industrial plants sited on the riverbanks?stop dirtying the river. Only then can we really look forward to making our way by night up the mighty Pasig.

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