Beyond river clean-ups
In October 2018, the Philippines proudly celebrated the Asia Riverprize Award given to the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission (PRRC) for its work that “effectively brought the Pasig River back to life.” It felt like one less thorn on our side. For decades, the Pasig had been our shameful symbol of pollution and environmental neglect, and now here it was, revived, revamped, and receiving accolades.
Then, this April, not two years later, a global study gets published in Science Advances revealing Pasig River as the top plastic-polluting waterway to the world’s oceans.
A few things happened in between. One, the PRRC was abolished via executive order in November 2019. Its functions were transferred primarily to the Manila Bay Task Force, now famous for the dolomite “beach nourishment” project.
The Pasig River Coordinating and Management Office was also created in January 2020. Among its most visible efforts are the localized estero clean-ups done by “River Warriors.” The office reports that in the first quarter of 2021 alone, they collected over 2.3 million kilograms of solid waste from the river.
It may seem strange that despite years of river rehab projects and numerous clean-up stints, the Pasig continues to teem with garbage. But this isn’t really a wonder when we look at the piecemeal, short-lived quality of these clean-up efforts.
The attempt is laudable, but it might be Sisyphean. River restoration—of Pasig and other waterways—cannot be completed one clean-up at a time. It has to be an integrated and comprehensive approach, involving the sustained management not just of water but also of land and coastal areas.
In their article “Restoration Ecology of Rivers,” Professors B.G. Laub and M.A. Palmer noted that “the potentially positive benefits of a river restoration project may be overridden by development on the landscape and other upstream or downstream impacts… [S]mall, localized projects may have a relatively small cost, but may also provide little benefit.”
While trash-picking patrols take out some of the existing pollutants in the water, they don’t really stand a chance when there’s a continuous stream of garbage from many surrounding communities. Here, we realize that the waste management programs that are supposed to be implemented in our municipalities are not just to ease up landfills and reduce street litter—they are crucial to stop waste from entering our waterways.
In fact, one of the highlights in the April 2021 study was that “majority of plastic emissions [are from countries that] consume a lot of plastic but that don’t yet have adequate waste management systems to collect the trash.”
That’s us, the Philippines. We have a 20-year-old Ecological Solid Waste Management Act, but implementation of this law remains scant today. For instance, the law mandates that every barangay must have a materials recovery facility (MRF) to receive and sort garbage. But the World Wide Fund for Nature-Philippines found that as of 2018, there were only 10,730 MRFs across the country, serving just 33 percent of all barangays.
Solid waste management is just one aspect of a comprehensive river restoration approach. This goes beyond visible trash. In Pasig River, for example, solid waste accounted for only 10 percent of pollution. Some 45 percent was industrial waste, and another 45 percent was domestic liquid waste, according to a case study published by the World Health Organization.
To curb domestic waste at the source, the Pasig rehab commission had to tackle the issue of human settlers along the river. From 1999 to 2017, the commission dismantled 376 encroaching structures and resettled 18,719 families from the riverbanks.
And Pasig River is just one of the many waterways where exhaustive restoration strategies are needed. Across the Philippines, 18 other rivers were named among the 50 most plastic-polluting waterways in the world. (The Philippines was also found to be the most plastic-emitting country overall.) At least some of these Philippine rivers have also been noted to have high levels of fecal coliform, further confirming the dire quality of their waters.
It’s a horrifying picture, but we can still hold out hope for our rivers. It takes more cross-sectoral coordination, more sincerity, more will—but we can clean up our act.
“A river or lake is almost never dead,” said Pulitzer-winning environmentalist René Dubos. “If you give it the slightest chance by stopping pollutants from going into it, then nature usually comes back.”
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