Wastewater Management and the Pasig River in Manila, Philippines

Article | 1 August 2011

Environmental engineer Robert Baffrey is living his childhood dream of cleaning up the Pasig river. As head of Manila Water's wastewater operations, Robert is responsible for implementing the utility's sewerage and septage management program that contributes to reducing pollution in the Pasig, Marikina, and San Juan rivers, and bringing total wastewater management in Metro Manila.

What made you interested in wastewater treatment?

Believe it or not, when I was young, I would always tell my grandmother and grandfather as we passed the severely polluted Pasig River: "You see that river? I'm going to clean that up one day."

Of course these were the musings of a child, and I can't say that I didn't find myself wanting to do other things as I made my way through school. Even professional basketball seemed like a viable option back then. But some way, somehow, I found my way back to this idealistic goal. It's quite amusing to me that I find myself in this position, managing wastewater treatment facilities. Everyday, we treat more than 135 million liters of wastewater that would have otherwise polluted our rivers. Slowly but surely, we are contributing to cleaning up that dirty river.

I often tell our team that there are not a lot of jobs where you can go to sleep at night and say, "This is what I did today: I treated wastewater and protected our rivers. I did something good. I made an impact." It's very inspiring to be working with the people at Manila Water who genuinely care about this type of service, and who more often than not go beyond what is required within their jobs to do something concrete for the betterment of Metro Manila and the Philippines in general. I love my work. I'm having a good time and I hope to keep on doing it.

What has made Manila Water focus on wastewater management?

When Manila Water took over Metro Manila's East Zone in 1997, we had such a high demand for clean water. Obviously, this was our initial focus, bringing us to where we are now: 99.99% reliability, 24 hours a day, and at 99% total coverage of the East Zone. Of course, there are still areas that we still want to serve with water, but generally we've done a tremendous amount to provide clean, clear, and refreshing water to our customers. However, under the concession agreement, it's also our mandate to do address sewerage and sanitation. This is the missing part of the equation, and the real focus over the next few years is really to deliver the same level of service for wastewater as we've been able to accomplish for water.

The reason why we're doing this is to address our contribution to pollution reduction of the Pasig, Marikina, and San Juan Rivers. We need to make sure that clean water entering our customer's homes, once used, is cleaned and treated prior to discharge into receiving water bodies. This of course entails working together with Maynilad, the West Zone concessionaire, as well as other government agencies and local government units, in order to have an integrated and holistic approach to rehabilitating our rivers. We can do our share, but the ultimate success of this effort will only be realized if all the other agencies do the same.

How does Manila Water plan to move from minimal wastewater treatment to total wastewater management?

We have three strategies. The first and most ideal strategy is the establishment of separate systems, with dedicated pipes connecting households and our Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs). This is a very difficult undertaking, as it requires very large lengths and depths for pipes-making construction, and subsequently customer resistance, a hindrance to implementation. That said, we now have about 38 STPs and a number of those are separate systems.

Our second strategy, specifically for those customers in non-sewered areas, is septage management. We have a fleet of around 90 vacuum trucks that go around and empty or "desludge" septic tanks. These tanks have to be desludged every 5 to 7 years or else they don't operate properly and result in further pollution of the environment. We cooperate with local governments on schedules to visit households to be desludged. Once collected, the material from the septic tanks is transported to either one of our two septage treatment facilities, where it undergoes treatment prior to proper disposal.

Our third strategy is the combined sewer-drainage system. Since pipe-laying for separate sewer systems is prohibitive, the most viable method to stop wastewater from entering the river systems is to intercept existing drainage canals. Drainage canals become the pathway for wastewater overflowing from septic tanks to eventually make its way to the rivers. To address this issue, we are constructing interceptor systems to basically reroute wastewater in these drainage systems to our STPs. This combined approach, while not the most ideal, will still provide the biggest, and most immediate impact on protecting our rivers. This system will in effect assist in accelerating the provision of sewerage service in the East Zone.

How important is a separate wastewater treatment system?

The separate system is the most ideal and highest form of wastewater treatment. But as I said, in a mega-city where development and urbanization has severely outpaced the provision of sewer infrastructure, innovative yet effective methods need to be employed to have an immediate impact in providing service. As such, we are confident that the approach of septage management and combined sewer-drainage systems can provide an interim benefit to protecting our rivers.

In places were possible, we would definitely provide separate sewer systems for our customers. However, this effort has to be balanced against the excessive construction impact and costs the implementation of these systems would entail.

What has Manila Water accomplished so far in terms of coverage?

In 1997, when we took over the East Zone, the capacity of available sewerage systems was at 30 million liters per day, essentially provided through one operational facility. Since then, we've increased our number of facilities to 38, corresponding to a total capacity of 135 million liters per day.

For all remaining customers in the East Zone, we provide septage management. To date, we've been able to serve 850,000 households through this method. In effect, almost the entire east zone is covered by sewerage systems or septage management.

What are the main challenges implementing Manila Water's wastewater treatment program?

As we are moving into full-scale implementation of sewerage and sanitation services, we are learning a lot about how to effectively deliver these types of services in a highly urbanized yet developing city. One of the main issues is basically land acquisition for STPs. It is very difficult to find an open area of land, especially for sewage treatment, in Metro Manila. Pipe-laying is also very difficult. Sewer pipes rely on gravity, which means they have to be laid at much deeper depths. Trenches should be much wider. Unlike water supply pipes that are pressurized, sewer pipes need to maximize gravity flow to reduce operational costs.

Apart from this, acquiring customer acceptance and local government support is also a key challenge in implementing sewerage projects. As such, we've endeavoured to have an effective interaction and discourse with the local governments and agencies. We've found this to be the key to almost every successful project, which we of course combine with a good information-education campaign with the surrounding residents.

From an operational perspective, another challenge is solid waste, which enters our combined systems through drainage canals. We're not actually mandated to haul and treat solid waste as part of our concession, so we have to rely on cooperation with local governments to address this issue as well. Another aspect we find difficult, which is common for all sewer systems but is even more difficult in combined sewer systems, is the variability of influent to our STPs. We have to closely monitor our processes and make sure our personnel have the best training available in order to make sure our treatment plants continue to comply with effluent standards.

Does Manila Water have any chance of expanding outside of the East Zone? What's next for Manila Water?

Well, we have a mini-concession in Boracay, where we manage both water supply and wastewater. We also have planned and ongoing projects in Laguna and Vietnam. In general, we feel that the development Manila Water has resulted in a unique expertise and operational skillset that we feel we can duplicate in other similar environments. The technical skills and innovations we've put forth, especially in customer service and operational efficiency can be transposed and applied to similarly developing environments. We are also looking at other environmental services to provide as well, for instance, commercial and industrial establishments that want their own STPs. We feel that we have the largest treatment capacity for wastewater in the country so we are probably the most qualified to at least give solutions to these potential locators in terms of onsite STPs.

About the Champion

Engineer Robert Michael N. Baffrey is the head of Manila Water's Wastewater Operations Department, which is responsible for the implementation of Manila Water's sewerage and septage management program.

A graduate of the University of the Philippines, Robert earned his Master's degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2005. He worked for some time in the United States before deciding to come back to the Philippines. In 2008, he joined Manila Water Company Inc.

Manila Water is one of two water concessionaires serving the Metropolitan Manila Area and is responsible for providing water supply and wastewater services to Metro Manila's East Zone. When the company took over in 1997, sanitation was almost non-existent. Only 3% of people had access to basic sewerage services, and while 80% of households did have septic tanks, these were not well-maintained and were discharging directly into the Pasig, San Juan, and Marikina Rivers. There was only one major treatment facility, the Makati South Treatment Plant, which served about 30 million liters per day, and "pockets of pipe networks with communal septic tanks."

Robert and his team are currently working towards 100% sewerage coverage and managing wastewater in Metro Manila's East Zone in an effort to rehabilitate the megacity's major river systems.