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Pasig River Clean-up
Stakeholders gather at ADB headquarters in Manila today to reconfirm their commitment to rehabilitating the capital's main waterway and to hopefully ignite a fresh round or awareness-raising.
Water quality surveys consistently reveal the Pasig River is basically a toxic soup of heavy metals, nitrates, phosphates, oil and faeces.
It started in the 1950s when there was a noticeable drop in people bathing. By the 80s, all fishing activities had stopped and the water smelt bad. By 1990, the Pasig River - a 27-km waterway stretching from Laguna de Bay, winding through the heart of the busy capital, and then into Manila Bay - was biologically dead.
While the leafy water hyacinths that now float along the river may bring color to the putrid brown, to experts they mean river water pollution. Despite various initiatives and projects with international donors such as ADB and the World Bank, the Danish International Development Agency, government, private donors and civil society, the river remains in very bad shape.
“It has long been a challenge trying to rehabilitate the Pasig River. Environmentally it is pretty devastated,” says Rudolf Frauendorfer, Lead Urban Development Specialist at ADB.
“The problem is the river is comparably short and the drainage area is very densely populated. Untreated sewage and industrial effluent flows into it, and with poor waste collection and lack of proper landfills in nearby communities, it has basically become a garbage depot. Along the way you have 48 tributaries pumping in more dirty water, including in the informal settlement areas where suitable sanitation facilities are often missing.”
To keep momentum in rehabilitating this nationally important waterway, a Pasig River Forum kicked-off at ADB headquarters in Manila today. Bringing together over 360 stakeholders, including government agencies, academics and NGOs, it will be chaired by the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission (PRRC), a government body established in 1999 to restore the river. The forum is a first for the Pasig River and the PRRC hopes a declaration that will be signed will reconfirm commitment from stakeholders and contribute to a fresh round of awareness-raising.
“One of the many challenges is the institutional fragmentation and the number of agencies involved - there are about 30 different bodies involved with water and sanitation alone in one way or another in the country. Secondly, in the case of Metro Manila, 17 local governments, the two private water companies, and other agencies are involved.”
Some headway has been made. The Manila Water Company and Maynilad Water Services, the two private companies providing water and sanitation to Manila, are implementing a massive, long-term project to treat wastewater in new plants. The PRRC together with the ABS-CBN Bantay Kalikasan Foundation have also been successfully dredging garbage from the tributaries or “esteros”.
The Philippines is not alone in having a major river suffering from appalling pollution. The Ganges in India and the Citarum in Indonesia are amongst dozens in need of rehabilitation and much of the problem can be attributed to poor sanitation services and solid waste management. “About ninety percent of wastewater across Asia is still being untreated and it leads to heavy pollution,” says Frauendorfer.
Some Asian cities have progressed in revitalizing rivers and managed to successfully clean-up their act - the Singapore River and the Suzhou Creek in Shanghai are good examples. “These places have been transformed with restaurants and shops opening up, bringing life to the riverbanks. A competitive city needs to look good and when people see clean water, it makes them feel good too.”
He says the Run for Pasig River held in 2011, which attracted 120,000 runners, was proof that the people of Manila are also eager to see their river transformed. “The marathon shows how many people are concerned about the environment and want to see their city cleaned up – the momentum is there and we all need to capitalize on it.”