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Country Water Action: Resuscitating the Pasig River
A glimmer of hope
Twenty years after it was proclaimed biologically dead, the Pasig River is finally seeing a faint glimmer of hope.
Like London’s River Thames or Shanghai’s Suzhou Creek, Manila’s Pasig River was the center of commerce, until its waters turned black and stank. It became a victim of urban pollution; its canals served as sewerage for the domestic and industrial wastes from factories and slum communities that sprouted on its riverbanks.
Today, the Pasig’s riverbank easements, 3- to 10-meters wide, have been declared environmental protection areas (EPAs) and have been transformed into public parks and esplanades, thanks to the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission (PRRC), which coordinates all rehabilitation efforts. Some 24.63 kilometers of linear parks have been completed.
“The establishment of EPAs reduces the pollution load on the river and is a crucial first step in reviving it”, Paul van Klaveren, an ADB Water Supply and Sanitation Specialist, said. ADB is providing a $176 million financial assistance package to resuscitate the river, and Paul ensures that ADB’s money is well spent. “Fact is that an estimated 5 million people discharge their wastewater to the Pasig River”, Paul added.
The Pasig River Ferry Service was also revived as an alternative mode of transportation to decongest city traffic. Inaugurated in February 2007, the ferry service now has a total of 14 fully operational stations, where ferries pick up passengers at regular intervals.
Danilo Castillo, a student, observed, “Some parts of the riverbanks are no longer an eyesore and the water isn’t as black as it used to be, although pieces of small trash still float among the water lilies. At least, there still are lilies.That’s a sign that the river isn’t totally dead, right”?
Dan studies in one of the universities in Manila and takes the ferry from the Kalawaan Sur station in Pasig City to Sta. Mesa and back almost daily. “I’m glad we have the ferry service now. My commuting time to school was cut in half. And the ferries have air conditioning, so you don’t smell the stinking water”, Dan explained.
Pasig's pristine past
The Pasig River was a clear, flowing body of water that served as the center of commerce in Spanish colonial Manila. Stretching 27 kilometers, it connects Laguna Lake to Manila Bay and was the major source of water and livelihood of the many communities along its banks. People washed clothes in the shallower waters and fisher folks’ daily catch were always bountiful. The passenger boats that plied the river from the nearby province of Laguna to Manila and back served as the primary means of transportation.
Today’s generation, however, has no recollection of the Pasig River in its heyday.
Dan can only recall his grandfather’s tales about the Pasig River. The Castillos settled in the 1890s not far from the present Pasig City town plaza. “My grandfather used to tell me stories about how he and his friends bathed in the river when they were young”, Dan said. “They also went on fishing trips and boating expeditions. They thought of themselves as Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer conquering the Mississippi”.
But the river was already murky when Dan was born. “Today, I cringe at the thought of bathing in the river, and it’s difficult for me to imagine that the Pasig river was once crystal clear”, Dan added.
A score of river cleanup
The Pasig river’s demise was a slow process that began in the 1930s, when fish migration from Laguna Lake decreased, and people stopped bathing and washing activities. By the 1970s, the river stank and turned black. Water quality dropped.
The Danish International Development Assistance (DANIDA) played a catalytic role by helping the government, through its Department of Environment and Natural Resources, to establish the Pasig River Rehabilitation Program in 1989, which sought to improve the river’s health by consolidating all river rehabilitation efforts.
Soon, other national government agencies, local governments, civil society groups, and even the private sector became involved. A most notable initiative was Clean and Green Foundation’s Piso para sa Pasig (A Peso for the Pasig) program. Launched in 1995, the program’s advocacy brought national attention to the Pasig’s sordid state for the first time.
In 1999, a presidential mandate established the PRRC with the clear goal of restoring the Pasig River to Class “C” level—that which can sustain life—by 2014. With more extensive powers and functions, the PRRC began its mission of “transforming the Pasig River and its environs into a showcase of a new quality of urban life.”
Ten years later, the PRRC has initiated projects for improving the river’s water quality and promoting urban renewal and redevelopment along the riverbanks.
Renewal and resettlement
The biggest challenge facing the Pasig River’s rehabilitation is the conflict-riddled process of relocating slum communities thriving along the riverbanks, which have been a constant source of pollution. In fact, 65% of waste dumped into the river comes from these households. The establishment of EPAs meant relocating thousands of squatter households to adequate resettlement areas and providing them with affordable housing, livelihood opportunities, and other development support.
Thus far, some 10,000 families (about 55,000 people) living in deprived conditions within EPAs have been relocated in resettlement sites at in-city and near-to-town locations that meet ADB standards for involuntary resettlement. The PRRC ensures that affected households are better off in the resettlement areas than in their precariously built houses by the river banks that are prone to flooding during the rainy season. The PRRC also provides trainings and microcredit for small business enterprises, and other livelihood assistance. ADB also financed schools and community centers at the resettlement locations.
Land and communities beyond the 3- to 10-meter EPAs were also declared Urban Renewal Areas (URAs) and were provided basic municipal services, such as improved water supply and sanitation, essential infrastructure, and security of tenure. With ADB assistance, some 20 vacuum trucks for septic tank–emptying services were procured. A total of 4.91 hectares have been completed, benefitting a further 80,000 families (about 440,000 people).
These renewal and resettlement projects are expected to reduce waste input and improve environmental conditions in the Pasig River basin and the entire metropolitan area.
Clean waterways, healthy city
At present, PRRC is preparing for the second phase of the project. It is now proposing various projects that would directly improve the water quality of the Pasig River and its tributaries.
In February 2009, the “Kapit Bisig sa Ilog Pasig” (Arm-in-Arm for the Pasig River) program was launched by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, through PRRC, and ABS-CBN Foundation. The partnership’s goal is to turn the Pasig into a Clean River Zone in 7 years by ensuring zero toxic input into the river through solid waste management, household or community septic tanks desludging, and septage treatment. It will also continue the rehabilitation and resettlement work initiated by the PRRC.
Meanwhile, “ADB is reviewing the possibility of supporting the wastewater infrastructure development plans of Maynilad and Manila Water, and so contribute to a further reduction of communal wastewater discharges on the Pasig River”, Paul explained. Maynilad Water Services, Inc. and Manila Water Company, Inc. are the two private water supply and sanitation concessionaires servicing the metropolis.
It has been 20 years since the Pasig’s rehabilitation began and previous efforts have made small steps in reviving the river. Hopefully, these more recent initiatives will be the tipping point of the Pasig River’s rehabilitation. Then, maybe Dan’s children can relive the memories of a clean Pasig River and a healthy city the way their great grandfather had.