What did you think of the Marikina River when you first saw it?

Back in my childhood days, Marikina River was a different river. It's an ideal place for promenading. There's no putrid stench. You can touch the water and not worry about diseases. It's really too bad that uncontrolled urban sprawl caught up with it.

Comparing between the 1970s/1980s and now, how do Marikina residents relate to their river?

Before the cleanup, the Marikina River was the poster image of a neglected and unhealthy river and only a few brave souls dared come close to it. Today, it has evolved into Metro Manila's eco-tourism showcase - teeming with life and economic activities.

As Marikina mayor, what is your vision for the river?

You know, if Marikeños can touch and feel the river, they will feel more strongly about it, more protective. I want to improve the quality of the water dramatically so that people can and would want to touch and smell it. At the moment, we're looking at establishing septage treatment facilities and effective regulation of waste disposal as the means to do this.

How did the drive to clean up Marikina River begin?

My husband, who was Marikina's newly-elected mayor in 1992, had wanted to clean the river for a long time. He knew that malaria and diarrhea, which kills millions each year, come from dirty water. Too, flooding in the city had worsened by then, exposing over 10,000 homes to flood risks. Cleaning and reviving the Marikina River wouldn't just remove these risks; they would also provide a better environment and quality of life for Marikeños.

You weren't the mayor yet when the Save the Marikina Program was implemented. Were you involved in any way?

Yes, I was actively involved in the Zonta Club of Marikina and we supported the construction of the river park's Roman Garden. We also conducted information and education campaigns, which were crucial in keeping Marikeños informed and involved in the cleanup process.

In your opinion, which steps or strategies spelled success for the river cleanup?

One of the most crucial was really the establishment of the Marikina River's width measured from the centerline of the water. Once we established the 96 meter easement, and enacted an ordinance on it, we gained a solid argument to convince informal settlers and structures along the riverbanks to relocate. Without their resettling, we couldn't have done the cleanup work.

Passing the right ordinances also took us further in our recovery effort. We had ordinances that imposed sanctions for improper waste disposal or obstructing riverbanks, declared land by the river as danger zones and non-buildable areas, supported the resettlement of informal settlers, monitored the water quality, and more.

And with the right ordinances came the right organizational structure to implement the cleanup. We established 2 new offices for this purpose - the Marikina River Park Authority and the Marikina Settlements Office.

Which activity received the most resistance?

As you can expect, the relocation of squatter communities along the riverbanks that dump garbage straight into the river wasn't the easiest thing we had to do. Today, over 30,000 squatter families have been relocated to our in-city settlement sites, where they admit to enjoying more humane living conditions. But back then, there were unrests, outright resistance, forced demolition of houses, and such. The city government held its ground, though. These days, the river is completely squatter free.

What are your biggest challenges in terms of sustaining the gains of the clean up?

One of the bigger challenges we now face is alleviating the flooding in some low-lying areas near the river. Already, we've constructed 2 kilometers of concrete road dike. The 10,000 people who need to evacuate their homes when the river swells is now down to 3,000. We still need 4 more kilometers to complete the project. Funding is a constraint right now, but we know that a road dike is our best antidote.

What other programs are you implementing to ensure that the river continues to improve over time?

Desludging of septic tanks in residential areas is in full blast. There have been positive responses from people once we made them realize that this is the least they can do to help improve the quality of the river water.

We installed litter traps in strategic places to prevent litters of neighboring towns from running through our water ways and ending up in the river.

We strengthened our solid waste management to include waste segregation in households plus recovery of wastes through recycling and reuse. This, we complemented with our Eco-Savers' Program, which requires students to bring recyclable garbage to school once a week. This earns them points, with 1 point being equivalent to 1 peso. In fact, our waste recovery program has enabled us to divert 40% (238,000 kilograms) of our annual wastes from the river and dumpsites, the highest percentage of any city in Metro Manila.

We have campaigns to rid the river of major pollutants, among them used cooking oil. Through our "Recycle Used Cooking Oil" program, we teach Marikeños proper disposal of the substance plus send roving trucks that collect used cooking oil from households once a month. The collected oil is then sold to a company that processes it into fuel.

We have other strategies in the works, and we will continue to dream up more to ensure that we deliver results.

Do you have plans for Marikina River that have yet to be realized?

River park development is not yet optimal at this point. I want to include concrete jogging lanes, park benches, lamp posts, pocket parks, line trees, and other recreational amenities throughout the 22 kilometers of river banks.

Our work with Manila Water Company, Inc. to install 5 water treatment facilities along the river banks is also progressing but not yet completed.

Are you worried that these programs will stop once you step down as mayor in 2010?

I'm sure the efforts will continue notwithstanding the change in leadership. The pressure will come from the people themselves who now have the ownership of a resuscitated and functional river.

About the Champion

Maria Lourdes "Marides" Fernando is the thrice elected Mayor of Marikina City, considered one of the most progressive, peaceful, and environmentally-conscious cities in the Philippines.

Over the last 2 decades, Marikina has garnered some 200 awards and citations from local and international bodies, from being the "Cleanest and Greenest City" and "Most Competitive Metro City" in the Philippines to being one of the "Healthiest and Most Livable Cities" in the Asia-Pacific. Much of the credit goes to Mayor Fernando, whose 3 terms as Mayor has driven Marikina's transformation from a sleepy town to a bustling metropolis.

One of Marikina's successes was the cleanup of the Marikina River, the centerpiece of Marikina's transport and tourism industries in the 19th century that heavy pollution turned into a major headache and source of embarrassment by the 1970s. Under the leadership of Mayor Fernando's predecessor and husband, then Mayor Bayani Fernando, the city government launched in 1993 the "Save the Marikina River" Program, an ambitious river cleanup program that involved clearing the river banks of all encroachments (both factories and informal settlers), reviving the quality of the river's water by demanding water treatment facilities from industries, and establishing the river environment as sports, recreational, and cultural centers.

By the time Mayor Fernando assumed office in 2001, most of the physical work involved in the cleanup was done and the Marikina River Park had become the city's eco-tourism showcase, complete with its 11-kilometer jogging and biking lanes, skating rink, picnic and play grounds, sports amenities, amphitheater, floating stages, and more. But hers is the greater challenge of sustaining the gains from the first cleanup and raising the bar in terms of the river's support infrastructures, e.g. more access roads or wastewater treatment facilities.

Mayor Fernando is no stranger to accolades, having received more than her fair share in the past decade. Among the latest in her long string of awards is the 2008 Top Mayors of the World Award, where she placed 7th from a long list of 820 nominees, cut down to 50 nominees and then 11 honorees. Mayor Fernando is the only Asian in this group, which includes mayors from South Africa, Switzerland, Venezuela, USA, Germany, Ecuador, Iran, Sweden, Guatemala, and Brazil.