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Life and Marikina River

WHENEVER I walk or bike around the Marikina River Park, I instantly reconnect to my childhood and my oneness with nature. However, looking at the once-majestic river, I feel a certain sadness gnawing on my nostalgic spirit.

The river has significantly narrowed over the years due to the erosion of its banks brought about by constant flooding. Situated in a valley, Marikina has always been the funnel of rainwater from higher grounds around it. This has resulted in the silting of the river, which has become shallow through the years, and the water itself has turned grayish. Households by the river and elsewhere in the city dispose of their garbage into the waterway directly or indirectly. Moreover, factories by the banks continuously discharge industrial waste into the river, thus elevating toxicity in the water. Once abundant and diverse fish life has diminished, and what remain to thrive are schools of janitor fish.

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For the city to be called Marikina, reminiscent of the word “marikit,” which means beautiful, is quite contradictory; it is also unfortunate that this beautiful place is associated with flooding and deaths. Marikina River itself has witnessed calamities and tragic loss of lives. In 2009 Tropical Storm “Ondoy” hit Metro Manila and neighboring provinces; the massive destruction was particularly significant in Marikina. A historical marker was erected along the river bank to remind people of the courage that was necessary to live through such unfortunate times.

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I was a “World War II boy,” as I was born at the time of the Japanese Occupation. Young as my friends and I were then, we experienced the hardships and unbearable conditions of the war, but made use of the blessings that nature had to offer.

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The aftermath of war left most Filipinos poor. There was a scarcity of jobs and people took any form of employment that came their way. With luck on his side, my uncle was hired by a land owner to cultivate his rice fields, and he asked me to help him out. As his assistant, I tended to the carabaos. I enjoyed the job greatly, as I could play with other “shepherd boys.”

After school, my peers and I would drive these powerful beasts to Marikina River to give them a refreshing bath after a hard day’s work. I can still remember how clear the water was then. You could see the fish swimming below you as well as the sky’s reflection on the surface. The water flowed silently as the tranquil breeze carried it along its direction. From a distance, what a picturesque view it created!

We were thankful for the benefits we got from the river. During the rainy season when production in the shoe industry slows down, people found other ways to augment their income and meet their daily needs. Some took to the fields to farm. Marikeños were able to catch their next meal from the river, as it was teeming with fish, shrimps and crablets then. Banca owners earned extra money by transporting passengers across, while some offered a “river cruise” for a fee. Merchants floated bamboo and other forest products from the mountains of Montalban downstream to Marikina, where farmers bought them to build fences around their houses and trellises for their crops.

When school started after the war, my friends and I took the path along the riverbank going to and from school. We enjoyed one another’s company on those hikes. We watched birds gliding and flying low over the water looking for a catch. The farmers taught us how to identify the birds based on the sounds they made. We also witnessed how tadpoles grew into frogs. Butterflies and bees were amazing to watch as they flitted from one flower to another in search of nectar and honey. These things we learned from the river even before we learned them in school.

Those treks to school and back were never tiresome for we played games along the way—tree climbing, target shooting with slingshots, chasing butterflies, spider fighting, skipping stones, and collecting salagubang (June bugs) by shaking them off tree branches.

Marikina River was our favorite play area. On weekends, our gang of scruffy boys would go there to play and swim. We jumped into the water from the tree branches that hung low over the river, which was several feet deep then. Swimming across the river was an unofficial “initiation” into the “elite” group of shepherd boys.

Whenever we went to the river with our families, there was a customary picnic on the banks. We’d swim for a few minutes then partake of our simple, home-cooked feast.

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In those moments, I felt that life was simple and easy.

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I had lots of happy moments spent in and by the river which I will never forget. I am turning 79 this year, and I have come to face the reality that it’s impossible to bring back its former beauty in the next odd years, given how much we have destroyed it.

Fortunately, efforts are being made to improve its conditions. The city government has led projects and activities for this purpose. Dredging is continually done to deepen the river and increase its water-holding capacity. Coordination with towns and neighboring cities has been initiated on measures to keep the river free of garbage. Tree planting and the cleaning of ditches and tributaries are regularly undertaken with the help of students and civic organizations.

The task of reviving Marikina River’s pristine state may be tedious, but not entirely impossible. This can be easily carried out if everybody is mindful of how one’s actions and choices affect the environment. Given the scope and responsibilities under its administration, the Marikina City government has the capacity to improve the state of the river on a large scale. It can pass laws and strictly enforce them. It can still lead even more aggressive and expansive environment education, restoration, and waste management projects, and assign all sectors at every level to run them.
On a smaller but nonetheless important scale, people can practice mindful and wise consumption—buying only what they need and avoiding overly packaged products, refusing unnecessary additions such as plastic bags, utensils, straws, and lids. All the other materials that come with the things we buy go to the dump, and eventually into the river.

God created nature to provide for us and to show us what unconditional love means. It’s high time we reciprocated that love and became good stewards of the environment so we can preserve it not only for ourselves but also for the generations to come. I’m an old man and all I can wish for younger people is for them to experience the joy and freedom I have found in nature.

Antonio A. Manuel is a retired teacher at the UP Integrated School and is an active member of Marikina City’s “Above 60 Academy,” a senior citizen program. He plays ground golf with his buddies regularly.

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