Transforming Pasig River
There’s an Olympic race going on in France to make the iconic Seine River safe for swimming again. It’s a challenge that will be familiar to the Philippines and its decades-long effort to rehabilitate Pasig River and make it suitable again for aquatic life, transportation, and tourism.
The Seine and Pasig rivers are important features of Paris and Metro Manila, respectively, and both have been besieged by flooding and pollution problems as urbanization rapidly grew over the centuries. At different times, both rivers were dubbed as an “open sewer.” In 1923, swimming was banned in the Seine because of high pollution, while in 1990, Pasig River was declared biologically dead.
Both have struggled with rehabilitation for years and through different leaderships. The late French president Jacques Chirac, who was then Paris mayor, declared in 1990 that he would launch a major cleanup of the Seine and swim in it in three years, but the plan fizzled out. In the case of Pasig River, the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission (PRRC) was established in 1999 to oversee rehabilitation efforts. While it managed to bring the river back to life, plastic pollution remained a problem. Recent developments in the cleanup of the two rivers have seen the government and private sector partnering up, with Paris working on a deadline, the 2024 Summer Olympics, while the cleanup for Pasig River is ahead of the planned construction of a major skyway that the public fears would ruin the Manila skyline.
In 2019, then President Rodrigo Duterte declared that Pasig River was “uncleanable” when he abolished the PRRC and transferred its functions to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Ironically, in 2018, the PRRC’s renaturation program was awarded the Asian River Prize. The program was able to relocate 18,000 people from the floating landfills to housing blocks downstream and divert nearly 22 million kilograms of waste.In 2021, the river earned the ignominy of being the most polluting body of water and leading source of plastic waste in the ocean. A study of rivers worldwide published in the journal Science Advances said the river dumps an estimated 38,000 tons of plastics into the ocean yearly, making it more pollutive than other notorious rivers such as the Ganges in India. The main culprit, according to another study released in 2010, is domestic waste which accounts for 60 percent of the total pollution, and industrial waste from manufacturing facilities such as tanneries, textile mills, food processing plants, distilleries, and chemical and metal plants that contribute 33 percent. The continuous dumping of wastes has made the river bed more silted with organic matter and non-biodegradable garbage.Earlier this month, a river cleanup ahead of a multi-billion expressway project extracted over 90,000 metric tons of silt and solid waste from the San Juan River, one of three main tributaries of the Pasig River from where wastes flow choking drainage systems and causing floods during the rainy season. Billions have already been spent on cleaning the river for decades but this is not and should not be a one-off undertaking.
At the bottom of the river’s pollution problem, as rehabilitation efforts through different administrations have shown, is the country’s solid waste management and this needs to be addressed holistically. The government must strictly implement Republic Act No. 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000, which provides a comprehensive management policy for the garbage problem down to the barangay and household levels. It must build more sanitary landfills because what is the point of sorting and recycling garbage if there is no proper way to dispose of them? Lawmakers must also pass a national law banning single-use plastics, which are among the most common garbage found in the river. It is not enough to relocate informal settlers, the government has to ensure that no illegal settlements will be built along the riverbanks in the future. All sewage systems connected to the river must be closed off because any law and cleanup will be futile if wastes continue flowing into it. All these must be done consistently.
Pasig River is not only cleanable, but it can be so much more: AI-generated photos published recently reimagined it with more open spaces, trees, and waterside views ideal for outdoor activities. At this point, the government must reassess whether it should build more highways or instead create more green spaces. While the river’s environment may not return to that depicted in old, nostalgic paintings from the 1800s with lots of trees, vegetation, and a clean body of water, the world has become so advanced that there are many available ways to help make it more clean and pleasant once more — not virtually but in reality. Many cities, not only Paris, have successfully transformed their riversides into thriving waterfront environments. There is no reason why the Philippines can’t do the same for Pasig River.
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