Reviving our rivers

/ 05:17 AM December 02, 2018

Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu’s recent directive for a national river cleanup hardly merited mention in the roiling national conversation, but, done properly, the program could have far-reaching impact across generations in innumerable communities all over the country.

Cimatu told regional directors and personnel of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources on Nov. 22 that they could lose their jobs should they fail to clean up polluted river systems under their jurisdiction.


At the 4th International River Summit in Cebu City, he said: “Iyong mga personnel na napabayaan ang river, maghahanap ako ng mas magaling sa kanila na ipapalit (Those personnel who neglected the river, I will find better replacement for them). Take note, this is really my commitment.”

He likened the degradation of the country’s river systems to Boracay, noting that a number (some estimates put it at 50 of the 400-plus river basins) are biologically dead, destroyed by fecal coliform.


He recalled how Butuanon in Cebu was beautiful when he saw it on his first military assignment two decades ago: “Mas malinis noon. Eh ngayon, what happened? Parang Boracay din na malinis pero nadumihan (It used to be clean. But now, what happened? It’s like Boracay that was once clean but became dirty).”

Cimatu has also dirty-tagged Malandog in Antique and the protected Subterranean River in Palawan.

The country has 412 principal river basins, with 19 considered major. Among the important ones are Cagayan—the longest at 505 kilometers—that flows through primary forests; Agno and Pampanga that cross the plains of Central Luzon; and Pasig, which flows through the center of Metro Manila and provides the main drainage outlet for most of the metropolis’ waterways.

These rivers also serve as transport routes and sources of livelihood for the surrounding communities. But urbanization and rapid population growth have polluted many of them, resulting in unhealthy living conditions and the death of their ecosystems.

According to the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission (PRRC), created in 1999 to revitalize the dead waterway with then First Lady Ming Ramos leading it, 70 percent of the waste thrown into the Pasig River are domestic—human feces, garbage, food and compost—while the remaining 30 percent are industrial and chemical waste from factories.

The reckless dumping of waste has been seen in other rivers and waterways across the country, and lax implementation of the law has worsened the practice.

The Department of the Interior and Local Government has stepped in, threatening to sue mayors and barangay captains for violation of Republic Act No. 9003, or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000.


The law mandates local executives to implement solid waste and segregation systems in every barangay or locality, with violators facing suspension or removal from office. It also punishes private citizens with fines or jail terms.

These government initiatives can produce results, if implemented with sustained and well-supported effort.

The country has enough laws to undergird such projects, and there are many examples from which to draw inspiration, like the River Thames in the United Kingdom, which was declared biologically dead in the late 1950s but has since been revived; and the Singapore River, which underwent a 40-year transformation from being an open sewer in the 1970s to a clean, well-maintained waterway that is now a tourist draw.

Even the Pasig River, declared biologically inert in the ’90s, has been a success story of sorts lately. Last month, the International River Foundation recognized the PRRC for its rehabilitation efforts in the first Asia River Prize Awards.

It lauded the commission’s almost two decades of work that saw the relocation of more than 18,000 families and the dismantling of private structures along the riverbanks, thus improving the river’s water quality.

A revitalized Pasig River can provide, at the very least, a viable alternative transport route for metro residents, the way it did for old Manila and its surrounding environs in centuries past.

The PRRC’s 19-year work in this regard has not been without hiccups, but it shows that the revival of habitats killed by human abuse is possible. Cimatu’s order, and the DILG’s warning to punish LGUs’ environmental neglect, should help spur the rejuvenation of the country’s many other rivers, and improve the conditions of the communities around them.

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